When her German father is arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison for treason, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is recruited by the American government as the perfect candidate to spy on some suspected Nazi agents in Brazil. For her mission, Alicia must become close with one of the agents, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) which doesn’t sit well with her American correspondent Devlin (Cary Grant), as he and Alicia have recently fallen in love.
OK, let’s tick some boxes. Cary Grant? Check. International espionage? Check. Frowned-upon romantic relationship that occurs in a ridiculously short period of time? Double-check, there’s two this time around. Over-bearing mother? Check. Drunken, out-of-control driving? Check. Initially strong female character who will inevitably need saving by her oh-so-manly counterpart come the finale? Checketty-check-check-check. Is anyone else getting tired of Hitchcock’s many, many tropes, or is it just me? (I’m assuming it’s just me, who else would be foolish enough to review a Hitchcock movie every day for a month?) Yet, in spite of so many clichés that I’m really getting sick of (every day I look forward to HitchcOctober being over), this is a pretty great film.I’ll admit, it doesn’t start well. The first act is very slow and often boring, setting up the relationship between Alicia and Devlin that will become the main arc through the film, but it lacks the sense of fun I’ve come to expect from most of Grant’s performances. However, it all really gets going for the second and third acts, once Alicia begins her mission and the tension between her and Devlin becomes more palpable. This is also at least partially down to Rains as Alex Sebastian, whom I found to be the most valuable player of the film. His Sebastian is that trickiest of characters to play, a sympathetic villain, and a Nazi at that. Eventually he realises the woman he married may not be all she seemed, which leaves him in something of a dilemma. We’ve already been shown one of his co-conspirators making a tiny mistake – over-reacting to seeing a misplaced bottle of champagne, which is actually more important than it sounds – and being murdered because of it, so what fate can Alex hope for seeing as he’s married an American spy? Add to that his domineering, horrific mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), who in true Hitchcockian style is even worse than her son, and you’ve got a man who you can really feel sorry for, despite being a National Socialist.A large portion of the film’s second half takes place during a party hosted by Alicia and Sebastian, during which Devlin attempts to break into Sebastian’s wine cellar using a key Alicia stole from him. However, the party is rapidly running out of champagne – which provides an excellent visual countdown and tension-mounting mechanism – at which point a waiter will need the key to get more wine, and Sebastian will discover something is amiss. It’s a delightfully simple set-up that works really well.The film’s very end was unexpected in terms of how little is tied up in a definitive bow, and yet any remaining loose ends had conclusions implied, which could be drawn to and assumed without them actually being shown, which was appreciated greatly. I’d have liked a stronger first act – even for a Hitchcock film, Devlin and Alicia fall for one another alarmingly quickly, without the romance period even being shown, they just suddenly kiss one day – but the last two acts more than made up for it.
Choose Film 8/10