Of Spies and Suspense

In the opening scene of Notorious 1 a Nazi spy is convicted of treason. The scene indicates, obviously, that Hitchcock is applying his talents for suspense to a spy thriller. Equally bluntly this scene establishes that lies and deception will lie at the heart of the film.

Ostensibly, the film is a spy thriller and the action commences when Grant (Devlin) approaches Bergman (Lisa Huebberman) and proposes that she spy on her father’s former comrades. He appeals to her patriotism and when she denies such noble sentiments he plays a secretly recorded phonograph of her condemning her father and loudly pronouncing her loyalty to the United States, her home and her mother’s birthplace.

Despite the motivation of patriotism, the essence of espionage is distrust and the constant testing of loyalties by all involved. It is inherent in the nature of the profession: How much trust can one place in a traitor? Further, the relationship between spies and their masters is strictly utilitarian or instrumentive: An exchange of information for money. It is based on advantage not attachment and there is always the potential threat of a higher bidder. The relationship between a spy and her master runs thick with distrust.

It is in this vein that Grant lies to Bergman when she asks if he knew specifically what her mission was—to gain access to Rains’ (Sebastian) villa by seducing him—before they left for Rio. Similarly, without warning he spurs her horse, and potentially endangers her, in order to create an incident to spark Bergman’s re-acquaintance with Rains. In a narrative sense it is this persistent interplay of trust and distrust amongst spies that creates the tension and suspense that the film features. Rains’ realization that the wine bottles containing ore have been discovered, and the inexorable pace as he identifies Bergman as complicit in it, is a brilliant example of Hitchcock’s prowess. In historical context, this subject matter would have had ‘box office appeal’ in the wake of World War II as Soviet/American relations declined and the Cold War emerged.

Of Tests and Torments Untold

Simply put, however, this is a red herring. Not surprisingly, in a Hitchcock film, this ostensibly utilitarian and political relationship between Grant and Bergman rapidly becomes more convoluted as their personal relationship intensifies. It quickly becomes apparent that Bergman seeks redemption through her relationship with Grant. However, it is not the political redemption that satisfying her expressed patriotism offers that she needs.

She seeks a personal relationship with Grant, despite her assertions that “Mr. Devlin doesn’t interest me.” She seeks the transformative power of love. When Bergman realized her father was a spy she cut herself off from him. She submerged herself in the milieu in which the film opened— drunken debauchery. She has been lost in a loveless world since she terminated her relationship with her father. When the film opens she is drunk, driving impaired and only able to remember the events of that evening hazily. In Grant there is the opportunity for love, for her transformation into a lovable person again a lover and an object of love.

Grant’s love for Bergman is revealed more gradually. Initially, it is not unreasonable to attribute his cool diffidence to the mask of the professional spy. However, by the time he finds himself on his way to her hotel suite with a bottle of champagne—that he significantly leaves in his spymaster’s office–it is apparent that he is falling in love with her.

At this point even his constant tests and stratagems become those of the lover not the professional spymaster. In a popular and narrative sense Notorious is a spy thriller to which Hitchcock applied his not inconsiderable talents for suspense. However, this atmosphere of constant threats and pervasive distrust is also brutally applied to the relationship between Grant and Bergman.

Consider the frustration and restrained violence of their love scenes. When he appears for dinner he is worried for her and we know he is falling in love with her as he has just left the champagne behind. However, when she quizzes him about his evident preoccupation, and jokes that he is about to tell her he has a wife and two children he perversely responds, “It wouldn’t be the first time you’ve heard that line.”

At the racetrack Bergman comes right out and says, “I see, some kind of love test.” Again, however, Grant is unable to respond without venom:

Bergman: “You never said that you loved me”

Grant: “Aw look you just chocked up another boyfriend…. Dry your eyes baby its out of character.”

On the one hand he is falling in love with her, on the other he responds to her emotional overtures with verbal abuse. He is forcing her to express her love by opening herself to his wounding. It is very much a sado-masochistic relationship in this sense. As a selection from Monogamy in the Course Reader states, “As every sado-masochist knows, nothing is more seductive than resilience.” 2 Essentially, she begs for salvation and he calls her a ‘slut.’ His testing, amounts to saying keep professing your love even when it only earns you scorn if you expect me to believe you.

This is similar to the boundary issues that Thomas Nagel discusses in “Sexual Perversion.” How could one doubt the love of another who is so devoted that they will suffer any pain or humiliation at your hands? The next questions are, however, more problematic. Who would offer that kind of slavish obedience and what kind of person requires it?

In this sense, also, Grant is not the only one who tests to torment. Bergman also plays this role frequently. She appears at the office to inquire as to whether or not she should respond positively to Sebastian’s marriage proposal delighted to put Grant on the spot. She hopes to hear him protest against it. Instead he only manages a feeble expression of concern that it will interfere with the espionage operation.

In essence, the two are waltz partners alternately teasing and testing, tempting and tormenting one another. Their relationship is essentially an exquisite itch, scratching it only makes one feel it even more. Even as their desperate desire for one another grows they continue to hit one another ‘below the belt’ as Bergman puts it. They are both psychologically dysfunctional.

According to Peter Lawtner this obsession with testing has negative practical consequences and expresses a deep-seated lack of trust. In practical terms, Lawtner states that testing “is rarely heard or acknowledged as other than antagonizing and disjunctive by the recipient.” On a theoretical level he notes “that testing comes from both a lack of trust and from a typically masked wish to reopen the issue of trust. Testing is an expression of mistrust, particularly in the context of a love relationship.

Consider the following simple but illustrative situation. Students at school are presented with tests. The purpose of this test is to ascertain the extent of their knowledge. It is a situation in which students are compelled to demonstrate the extent of their knowledge. In pedagogical terms testing can be a productive exercise—both in determining student standing and in facilitating learning.

Consider, however, this expression of testing in terms of love. Testing is a situation in which one partner compels the other to demonstrate the extent of their commitment/trust/love. In this context it is an expression of distrust to test. Moreover, strained efforts to have a lover demonstrate their position in particular ways at particular times often has precisely the opposite e effect as Notorious repeatedly demonstrated.

On Bergman’s part the psychological processes are relatively straightforward. Her trust in others was shattered by the realization that her father was a spy and she descended into a personal hell of alcohol and sex. To love and to be loved—to trust and to be trusted—is her ideal: The transformation that she seeks in a relationship with Grant.

His motivations are rather more complex. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol identify a sadistic streak throughout Hitchcock’s oeuvre, culminating in his relationships with Tippi Hedren and Grace Kelly, on and off the screen.  The instances of men terrorizing and abusing women in Hitchcock’s films are innumerable. Further, if, as Nagle suggests, sadomasochism is ultimately about boundaries than a film about spies— operating at the amoral boundaries of loyalty and trust—seems a perfect venue for expressing boundary issues.

Alternately, his experience as a spy may have left him with nothing but cynicism, and incapable of accepting that Bergman can, and has, changed. In psychological terms, that their relationship commenced in the midst of an ongoing clandestine operation, would seem fertile ground for insecurity and fear. Regardless, rather more important than their motivation is the course of their relationship, and the clear evidence that it offers of the disastrous impact of testing on a relationship.


Notorious begins with a courtroom scene and it is not inappropriate to conclude this discussion with another courtroom image. It is frequently suggested that during a cross-examination a lawyer is unwise to ask a question that he does not already know the answer to. In this sense, questions posed in cross-examination are not queries for information but rather cues in a script. The cross-examining lawyer is not searching for new information but rather, reordering known information.

 In a similar sense, lovers cannot ask questions they do not know the answer to if they are truly and deeply in love. A question a lover asks their beloved that they do not know the answer to is a test: Particularly when that query is aimed at the heart of the relationship and the commitment of the other. True lovers already know the answers to those questions and, therefore, they need not be asked and when they arise in the course of the relationship the answer is already known.

This is the key point; lovers do not test one another because their relationship has, by definition, already passed through that stage. Shared life experience has taught lovers that they can trust one another and there is, therefore, no need for ‘tests.’ Finally, to love one must possess a sense of self-awareness and a self-image that includes completeness and satisfaction with one’s self. Without this sense one is incapable of loving another. Yet, with this sense of self the need for testing others evaporates. Therefore, lovers as individuals, and love as a relationship, cannot coexist with the distrust implicit in testing.

Testing, is something that occurs upon the commencement of any relationship—this is as true of one’s relationship with one’s employer and one’s mechanic as one’s friends and lovers. And, to be fair to Grant and Bergman, their relationship was newly minted. However, it is an oxymoron to speak of being in love, or being lovers, and continuing to test. Love is the product of trust and honesty: It is a consequence of the realization/decision that a given individual no longer needs to be tested, that they can be trusted. This is, by definition, a fundamental aspect of love. The testing that Bergman and Grant engage in throughout Notorious is not love, and is deleterious to the course of love.


  • Notorious (1946) RKO dir. Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay, Ben Hecht; Ingrid Bergman Cary Grant, Claude Rains 101 mins.
  • Agee, James “Notorious” in Focus on Hitchcock Albert J LaValley ed. Prentice-Hall Inc. NY: 1972, pp. 98-99.
  • Lawtner, Peter “Trusting and Testing in Love Relationships” in Course Reader, pp. 166-173.
  • Nagel, Thomas “Sexual Perversion” in Course Reader pp. 258-270.
  • Phillips, Adam Monogamy in Course Reader, p. 165.
  • Rohmer, Eric and Claude Chabrol Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films Frederick Ungar Publishing Co NY: 1979.
  • Taylor, John Russell The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock Pantheon Books NY: 1978. 

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