Early on in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, Ingrid Bergman is trashed. Her dad--a German national in 1946 living in Florida--was convicted for treason earlier that day. She is throwing a defiant party; there is something a little F. Scott Fitzgerald about the whole event, as her debutante friends rowdily toast to irreverence.
After the guests clear out, only a mystery guest--the coolly debonair Cary Grant--and a slurrily speaking Bergman remain. She is insistent about taking a late-night drive, and that she is the one behind the wheel. Weaving down a palm-lined boulevard, Bergman flirts, yaps, and otherwise abuses a bemused and unfettered Grant. She floors the car and declares, "I want to wipe that stupid grin from your face." The scene sets the tone for the film: Angry, bratty, inescapably charming, and consistently skimming near a pit of gnashing danger.
Released just months after the end of World War II, Notorious was groundbreaking: a moonlit, nuzzling-and-necking scene shatters the three-second rule by censors, and the patriotic tone of the plot carried sincerely insurrectionist sentiments (Berman jokes that she may blow up the Panama Canal). Although such diversions may pale to contemporary shenanigans, Notorious still set the gold standard for pure, nail-biting tension.
In a quick turn of events, Bergman and Grant, who we learn is an American intelligence officer, fall for each other (although neither will admit it). In the midst of a burgeoning love affair, the saucy Bergman is recruited to use her womanly ways to infiltrate a cluster of deposed Nazis who are in Brazil trying to rebuild the Third Reich war machine. This leaves Grant in a quandary: Should he pledge his allegiance to his country and his duty to stop the Nazis, or follow his heart?
It's a common storyteller's trick, but it is classic, because Hitchcock perfected the give and take of tension here. With acidic cruelty, Grant shuns Bergman and abandons her in the pit of Nazis. Unlike other pioneering artistic attempts that are often improved by their prodigy, Notorious holds its own. With its sly camera angles, the movie is not overburdened with hairpin plot twists. The tension is simple, elegant, and exquisite.