Notorious is one of Hitchcocks best films. Why? Not because of the well-known movie stars that grace the film. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are at the top of their game, but ironically, it’s not their performances that stand out in this movie.
In Notorious, Cary Grant’s character is that of a cynical and slightly skewed personality. He comes off as a tad less than his characteristically perfect self. The Ingrid Bergman character is one of a fallen woman. She’s the girl who’s “been around the block”. She’s seen it all, done it all and is not a candidate for the illusion of true love.
Yet, one of the most memorable lines in Notorious is delivered by an obscure Austrian actress named Leopoldine Konstantin. She plays the well-developed Hitchock-ian role of the obsessively dominant mother figure. Not only does she delivers one of the greatest lines in all of Hitchcock, it could be considered as one of the definitive cuts of all time
While the portrayal of Mothers in film usually conspire to be in a nurturing and protective role, as was so often the case with Hitchcock, the image of Mom is turned on its head. In this instance, “Mother” is someone who might give Lady MacBeth reason to pause, as the mom in Notorious is by far the more ruthless and calculating of villains in the piece. . That’s saying a lot, as the characters in the film are part of a group of Nazi sympathizers.
Hitchcock was well known for the type of woman/mother figure portrayed by Madame Sebastian. In Marnie., the character of Tippi Hedrin’s mother was responsible for her young daughter’s psychotic behavior. In The Birds, Tippi Hedrin was again plagued by the domineering and darkly possessive mother figure. Then comes Psycho, with the most famously disturbed mother/son duo since Oedipus. In so many Hitchcock classics, we see a different image of a Mom; one who is less than sweet as apple pie in most cases. Such was the world of Hitchcock.
The line Madame Sebastian delivers is to her own son, Sebastian/Claude Rains, who comes to her in anguish over the discovery that his new wife, Alicia/Ingrid Bergman, is in fact a spy. Frightened of the ruthless gang of Nazi cohorts he is entwined with, he comes to ask his Mother, Madame Sebastian, for advice.
Madame Sebastian pauses a moment to light a cigarette, the perfect bit of “business” that lends credence to her next statement. She then tells her son that all is not lost. Why? Because, she says, “You are protected by the enormity of your stupidity-for a time .” It’s then up to dear old Mom to come up with the idea of slowly poisoning Alicia.
The line works so well because it is played in such a matter of fact manner and given just the right amount of understatement to make the subsequent actions so completely evil.
And now, so many years later, I am reminded from time to time of the cool and utterly ruthless cut given to Claude Rains. Most of the time, it’s a self-deprecating phrase I use to put myself in my place. And it’s a saying that works every time.
“No worries, my dear, you are saved by the enormity of your stupidity” It translates to mean that no-one could possibly fathom the thought that such a colossal mistake could be made. The Peter Principle in effect applies here. The notion that one almost always rises to the level of their complete incompetence. Of course no-one believes you are THAT incompetent! That is your saving grace…
It is the type of clever cut that never fails to make its mark. Perhaps, as put-downs go, it is one of the truly great ones.. In the end, we are all protected by the enormity of our stupidity!
Notorious is playing at Tampa Theatre this Sunday, July 10th at 3:00 pm.