Why Spy

by Paulo Almeida on September 7, 2010

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Spies were on my mind this summer with the news about Russian agents lurking in suburban New Jersey and the WaPo expose about the top secret infrastructure in America, so I considered it a meaningful coincidence when I wandered into a local library and found unintentionally a DVD of  Notorious, the 1946 suspense movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Notorious is one of those classics that I hadn’t seen in years, and I remembered it as the archetype for the spy movie:  A handsome secret agent (Cary Grant), a beautiful mysterious woman (Ingrid Bergman), evil plotters (Nazis led by Claude Rains), and an exotic location (Rio de Janeiro). I borrowed the DVD, watched the film, and realized that it is also one of the great screen love stories, and what makes this story great is the way director Hitchcock played his two lovers against type.  Usually, Cary Grant is the charming, witty even funny leading man, but this time he is a “heel” – to use the slang of the 1940s and, instead of being the selfless ideal woman (familiar to all from her performance in Casablanca), Ingrid Bergman is “notorious” – a promiscuous woman with a drinking problem and a traitor for a father (which could explain those notorious character flaws). Those wonderful performances deserved another viewing, at the end of which I realized that Notorious is an amazing psychological drama that is far deeper than the overt psychological symbols of Hitchcock’s previous, more Freudian movie Spellbound which featured sets designed by surrealist artist Salvador Dali in a central dream sequence. Notorious has no dream sequences.  It can, however, be easily interpreted as a dream that Alicia, the character played by Bergman, is living… actually, more of a nightmare.  Alicia is unhappy, and she uses alcohol and the admiration of men to anesthetize her pain.  Devlin (played by Grant) appears uninvited at one of Alicia’s parties.  She is attracted to him.  He strings her along.  She wakes up the next day with a disorienting hangover, and Devlin persuades her to go with him on a spy mission to Brazil to uncover Nazis who were known to her father.  Alicia accepts and en route she is told that her father committed suicide in jail.  “That’s good,” she concludes, “now I can stop hating him.” Waiting in Rio for her mission, Alicia is happy.  She meets Devlin at a cafe and announces proudly that she’s been sober for eight days.  He disparages this achievement.  “Anyone can change for a week,” he responds, and she orders a double.  In another scene, she declares her love for Devlin, but he remains aloof.  She then tries to break the tension by making a joke:  “Perhaps now is the time when you tell me about your lovely wife and two charming children.” Devlin isn’t laughing.  “I suppose you’ve heard that before,” is his cruel reply.  Each time she lowers her defenses, he hits her “below the belt” in her words.  What is wrong with this guy!  It seems unnatural that any straight man would spurn the advances of a woman played by a 31-year old Ingrid Bergman.  Sure, she may have a few problems, but I was reminded Woody Allen’s pragmatic reply to Merle Streep’s bisexual character in the movie Manhattan:  “My analyst warned me about you but, you were so beautiful, I got another analyst.” The problem with Devlin is that he is not that he’s a bad man but that he’s an archetype from Alicia’s unconscious mind, specifically the animus. Everyone has opposing psychological functions, according to the analytical psychology of Carl Jung; these are not either/or options but rather relationships between opposites: introvert and extrovert, thinker and feeler,  male and female.  Most people exercise one function (like thinking) and allow the opposing function to wither.  This imbalance leads to psychological problems, so the purpose of the archetype is to make an individual aware of those other functions that a person needs to develop to have a balanced personality.  The way we meet our archetypes is in dreams. Alicia is out of control, and she unconsciously wants to correct that, so Devlin literally appears out of nowhere to coach her along the path to transformation.  For a woman, the animus is always a man because this archetype is supposed to put a woman in touch with her masculine side: cool, detached, analytical, judgmental.  This is why eight days of sobriety is dismissed as unimpressive.  Hugs, kisses and declarations of love are unpersuasive.  Do more… and soon enough Devlin returns from a meeting with the bosses to brief Alicia on her mission:  To infiltrate the clique of Nazis by prostituting herself. Alicia’s impulsive response is to ask Devlin what she should do.  She wants to know what he wants her to do?  She hopes that he at least expressed some objection to defend her honor when the bosses proposed this ugly idea.  Devlin reveals nothing.  He tells Alicia to speak for herself and make her own decisions. Alicia has a drink and embarks on her mission, not just to overcome the Nazi monsters who lurk in a house on the outskirts of town but also overcome the personal monsters that lurk within herself.  She is undergoing the ordeals of a hero on an epic journey. I don’t know enough about Hitchcock to guess at whether he was consciously making a Jungian movie, but that doesn’t really matter because the unconscious mind influences our patterns of thinking without us being aware of it and, more significantly, these patterns are shared by all humanity, which is why the ancient myths of a long-vanished civilization still have appeal for people living in the present age of scientific thought. Freud disagreed with Jung about the collective unconscious, yet Freud named psychological conditions after characters (like Oedipus) from mythology.  Freud also declared in his monumental work The Interpretation of Dreams that, when we dream we think in pictures, rather than words, which is how we think consciously:  A nice idea, but not entirely true – I think – because watching moving pictures is a great way to think while awake without depending on words. I also think it’s significant that Devlin is a spy, and it’s Alicia he is spying on.  He knows the dreams that she’s dreaming up, the words she longs to hear, and her deepest secret fears (a paraphrase Jim Morrison’s lyrics to the song “The Spy” by the Doors).  Incidentally, Alicia has her own thoughts about the problem with a conformist like Devlin.  He’s proud.  He thinks he’s too good for a notorious woman. Does Devlin overcome his prideful prejudice against Alicia?  That’s the other side of the story because, in the unconscious mind of each man, there resides the anima archetype that seeks to put him in touch with his wild, intuitive, feminine nature.  Devlin is on his own journey, and Alicia is his coach.  Time to watch the movie again, this time from his point of view, and this is why I love reruns.
  • Anonymous

    Thanks for these insights into a classic film, Paulo! If memory serves, Hitchcock was an autodidact, but he was probably at least generally familiar with Jung’s writings. Still, the great director was a storyteller above all, so I doubt that he was setting out to illustrate any larger philosophical issues in most of his films. (That said, one can’t watch “Rope” without thinking of Nietzsche, for instance.)

    That said, I have a hunch that he would have found your interpretation intriguing–as do I. And you’ve inspired me to put this and several other Hitchcock films in my Netflix queue!

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