ACTRESS 2 for 1: Ingrid Bergman in ‘Notorious’ (1946) and ‘Indiscreet’ (1958)

Not many actresses in history would be capable of stealing the screen from one of the most iconic film actors of all-time: the debonair Cary Grant. However, Ingrid Bergman manages to do just that in two films that were released over a decade apart -  Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 thriller Notorious and Stanley Donen’s 1958 comedy Indiscreet. The two films may be vastly different in terms of tone, style, and conditions of release, but the one major similarity is that they share a duo of legendary co-stars and they exhibit the bravura of the great Ingrid Bergman.

Of the 7 Oscar nominations that Ingrid Bergman received neither came for her roles in Notorious or Indiscreet. The former is widely regarded as one of her greatest performances of all-time and one of the greatest of Hitchcock’s female performances. The latter is an example of a great dramatic actress demonstrating her impeccable range by mastering comedic timing with an ease that would make any student of Stanislavski envious. Ingrid Bergman embodies the class and grace associated with Hollywood actresses of the 1940s and 50s and her natural beauty was never exaggerated or played up. She had the power to enchant on screen and the viewer’s eye is often drawn to her rather than her screen giant co-stars including Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, and Cary Grant.

In all of the films I have seen starring Ingrid Bergman, Notorious is my undeniable favorite performance of hers. It was released only seven years after Bergman first came to America from Sweden to star in the film Intermezzo: A Love Story. She had already been established as an actress and was coming off of her first Oscar win for her performance in George Cukor’s Gaslight.

Never before have I seen an actress so committed to a performance in every single frame and with such ability to draw me as the viewer in desperately hoping for her to succeed in her dangerous endeavor. She had such power over her emotions and she exhibits all of them with brilliant control and subtlety throughout the film. A great performance is one that stirs a response from the viewer that recalls personal experience and emotional recall. Bergman does exactly that as she is washed over with intense feelings of fear, jealousy, hatred, intoxication, and passionate love.

Take for instance the above scene that occurs early in the film’s running time shortly after Bergman’s Alicia and Grant’s Devlin have fallen in love with each other. The scene is among the most famous in the film because of its lengthy kiss that was considered controversial in the mid 1940s when it was released. Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant close-up tracking shot allows for complete focus on the embracing couple in what appears to be a sort of one-sided show of affection. Cary Grant frequently pulls back slowly and subtly and with every inch he moves away, Bergman grabs on tighter. Notice how she grabs his ear during their embrace, one of the most cliche demonstrations of puppy love that Bergman manages to make seem completely natural. Even when Grant moves to walk towards the telephone Bergman positions herself in a way that Grant has no choice but to hold her while he walks. Alicia is about to embark on a mission as a spy and she is completely out of her element and internally terrified. In the above scene you get the sense that for her there is no safer place than the arms of her love, a feeling many can relate to. In the previous scenes Bergman was a strong, outspoken, proudly independent woman who now passionately holds on to her only assured form of safety. Hithcock and Bergman present one of the aspects of love – the idea that nothing wrong or bad can happen while in that moment of pure escapist bliss.

The scene is just a microcosm of the wildly varying levels of emotion that Bergman portrays in the film. One of my other favorite scenes occurs towards the end of the film when Bergman first realizes that she is being poisoned by the man she is supposed to be spying on. When the realization washes over her the look of muted terror on her face is absolutely brilliant as she’s caught in a situation where she is dying slowly, but has to pretend she is unaware. Bergman’s ability to instantly change emotions was one of her greatest talents that is demonstrated in Notorious as well as in Stanley Donen’s Indiscreet.

In Indiscreet, Ingrid Bergman plays an actress who falls for a charming man from the United States played by Cary Grant. The running joke of the film is that Grant’s character claims to be married so that he can avoid having to get married when he falls in love. The overall plot is rather simplistic and the premise is slightly demeaning, but the comedy and excellent performances are in top form.

Any great dramatic actor will tell you that comedy is not easy as is proven by the fact that few actors have made the successful transition from serious to comedic performing. Too many make the mistake of playing the joke rather than playing the honesty of the moment. Bergman never makes such a transgression as she plays the ridiculousness of each situation with such brutal honesty that the hilarity increases dramatically.

In the above scene, Bergman is unfairly framed by Donen in a way that doesn’t allow the viewer to focus on her brilliant subtleties. Her character, Anna, has just broken down into tears over how wonderful Cary Grant’s Philip is when she finds out he has been lying to her and is not married at all. Keep your focus on Bergman while the other couple in the screen bickers. Watch as her expression slowly changes and especially watch her breathing as her tears of happiness become bursts of anger. The end of the scene features on of the funniest lines of the movie delivered with brutal honesty – “how dare he make love to me without being a married man?”

Ingrid Bergman’s amazing range is apparent in the several emotional extremes she goes through in the scene. Her tears of joy change to confusion, then panic, then culminates into all-out rage with her final scream of “daaaamn” as she storms out of the room. Few actresses have such diverse emotions so readily at their disposal that they can portray them as effortlessly and hilariously s Bergman. You don’t even have to see her face for her final cry to resonate and fill the viewer with ironic pity.

The better of the above two performances is definitely Notorious, but together they brilliantly show why Ingrid Bergman really is in a league all her own.

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