Until you’ve seen Claude Rains in “Notorious,” you might think it impossible for an actor to make a Nazi into a dangerous villain, a creepy lecher, an insecure, lovesick boy, and a vulnerable, tortured man. Best known for his memorable turn in “Casablanca,” Rains began as a stage actor and teacher (his pupils included John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier) before he became one of the most prolific character actors to flourish under the studio system, finding his greatest role as Alexander Sebastian in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 film.
In it, Ingrid Bergman stars as Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a Nazi, who has been coerced by government agent (and lover) Cary Grant into seducing her father’s old pal, Alex Sebastian, who’s had a crush on her for years. Even among the likes of Grant, Bergman, and scene-stealer Leopoldine Konstantin (as Sebastian’s formidable mother), Rains’ performance stands out.
Over dinner, Sebastian tries to woo Alicia with several approaches. He starts by self-deprecatingly fishing for a compliment (“The worst thing about business is that it makes you feel old and look old”) with a sad half smile. Then he tries casual flattery, happily assuring her—with a genuine smile—that she “always affected [him] like a tonic.” Then he turns a little bit sleazy, lowering his voice to seductively say, “Perhaps I can help you to forget,” but, catching his own earnestness, he raises his eyebrows and modifies his boldness with a hesitant disclaimer: “I’d like to.” But ultimately, he’s real, exposed and nakedly human as his eyes brighten when he admits to feeling a “hunger” for her. He tries so hard that it’s uncomfortable.
Throughout the film, we see Sebastian’s internal struggle between powerful sexual desire for Alicia, loyalty to his political allies, and a long-standing partnership with his mother. When Alicia visits the Sebastians, he is all unruffled politeness to his mother until she is rude to Alicia. A split second of rage furrows his brow and tightens his mouth before he resumes his role as the perfect host. In that small moment Rains conveys a powerful truth: Behind his outward joviality, Sebastian is capable of turning on a woman he loves. Once married to Alicia, he is unfailingly solicitous and affectionate, even charmed when she interrupts his “business meeting.”
But after Sebastian realizes his wife is spying on him, he transfers his devotion back to Mother, all recent attempts to assert his manliness dissolved. His simple delivery of “I need your help” conveys the torment of crushing defeat. Cowering in his desperate need and fear, he almost robotically lifts up his head and drops the bomb: “I’ve married an American agent.” Cowed by his mother, he paces the room in full panic mode. Exhilarated by the chance to gain ascendancy over Alicia, his mother concocts an elaborate plan to slowly poison her—assuaging his fears that he’ll be found out by the other Nazis by telling him, “We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity.” As she outlines her plan Rains silently conveys disbelief that he can get out of this, relief at having the burden of dealing with the problem lifted, and possibly a small particle of regret at losing Alicia.
To keep Alicia from realizing she’s been burned, Sebastian is forced to play the doting husband he was before. Another actor might imitate his former over-solicitousness, but Rains varies his manner with increased confidence and an almost imperceptible archness. Grant arrives in the nick of time, ending his and Alicia’s story by slamming a car door in Sebastian’s face and driving Alicia off to safety. Now exposed to his co-conspirators, his face darkens with raw pain and fear. He’s trapped, and he knows it. Silently and slowly, Rains turns his back to the camera and walks purposefully back to the house and to certain death—a great actor, giving his greatest performance.