By Alan Hurst
Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman only made two films together, but that indefinable thing called “chemistry” was front and centre in both. They first partnered in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious when they were both at their glamourous 1940’s peak. They were teamed again 12 years later in Stanley Donen’s Indiscreet where they’re both a little older, but still striking sparks in this sophisticated adaptation of the Broadway play Kind Sir.
Notorious is probably the better movie – one of Hitchcock’s more entertaining and complex films, coming at the end of a fertile period that saw hits like Rebecca (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicion (1942), Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Lifeboat (1944), and Spellbound (1945). It was one of the first films to leverage the idea of using underground, post-war Nazis as a plot point. The story centres on Alicia Huberman (Bergman), who is the daughter of a convicted German war criminal. She is recruited by government agent Cary Grant to help capture a group of Nazis hiding out in Brazil. Grant’s specific focus is on Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) and Bergman becomes the object of both men’s affections.
There are a great many things I like about this movie, but first and foremost is Ingrid Bergman’s performance. This is one of the best performances of her career, oddly overlooked at that year’s Oscars (she had been a nominee the previous three years and won for 1944’s Gaslight). In Notorious we get to see Bergman explore dual sides of a character in ways she hadn’t been able to before. Bergman’s Alicia is not always likeable, particularly in the beginning, and she’s a particularly nasty drunk. But once you’re able to see the pain behind the behaviour you begin to root for her. This is also the most overtly sexual performance that Bergman gave during the first phase of her Hollywood career. This is a character who uses sex to do what she needs to do, but you sense how conflicted she is.
Cary Grant is also excellent, allowing and trusting Hitchcock to reveal the imperfections that existed under the Grant façade. Hitchcock and Grant initially explored this in Suspicion (1941) where we were never really sure if Grant was out to murder Joan Fontaine. Here Grant plays a man dedicated to his job as a government agent but challenged to control his jealousy and vindictiveness once the woman he’s falling in love with marries the suspected Nazi in order to entrap him. Grant was always more interesting when you were able to see the cracks under the perfection.
Claude Rains – one of the finest character actors of that time – also delivers his best performance as the apparent ring leader of a group of escaped Nazis, with a domineering mother behind him calling the shots. He creates a character that is both frightenting and pathetic.
Hitchcock’s direction allows for a continual build of suspense (there’s a scene in a wine cellar that will have you on the edge of your seat) but he’s also created one of his most elegant looking films, particularly when the action takes us to Brazil. The crisp black and white cinematography, along with the beautiful sets and costumes, give the film an almost shimmering look. It helps that a lot of the action takes place at night, dusk or early morning. There’s something eerily suspenseful and romantic in the way he plays with the light.
Stanley Donen – a director also known for the elegant touch he gave films like Funny Face (1957), Charade (1963), and Two for the Road (1967) – brought Grant and Bergman back together in 1958 for Indiscreet, a romantic comedy set in London. The play on which it is based had a brief Broadway run in 1953 with Mary Martin and Charles Boyer.
Indiscreet concerns Anna Kalman, a famous actress played by Bergman, who has talked herself into accepting the idea that she is destined to remain single. Tired of socializing and the cocktail hour lifestyle in Europe, she returns home to her London apartment where she finds her sister and brother-in-law. They invite her to a diplomatic event that she isn’t keen on attending – but once their friend and the event’s keynote speaker shows up in the form of Cary Grant, she becomes very interested. The two are immediately attracted to each other and we see a romance develop – but then we discover he’s married. Or is he?
This is all very light and silly, but the two leads have such chemistry and are clearly having such a great time with the witty dialogue, that you can’t help but enjoy yourself.
Bergman didn’t often get the chance to play in a pure comedy – we’re used to seeing her in much heavier, dramatic films – but she’s wonderfully animated and funny as the actress who finds herself falling in love in spite of herself. Grant, of course, is the master at this type of film. He’s attractive, a bit of a scoundrel, and just cynical enough that you still like the guy, despite his ruse about being married.
Director Donen keeps everything bubbling along at a nice pace and, although its stage bound roots show at times, he remedies that with a stunning use of color in the sets, costumes and cinematography. This is a beautifully shot and designed film. Films like this are often compared to champagne and souffles – a sometimes trite comparison, but here it seems apt. The film feels lighter than air.
What’s refreshing about Indiscreet is the focus on two characters who are approaching middle age, clearly attracted to one another, and behaving like adults. It’s also a treat to have two performers so well matched. At this point Grant was often pared with much younger actresses. The romance and the sparring between Grant and Bergman feels much more evenly matched.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.