Alex Sebastian in “Notorious” (RKO, 1946) is one of Claude Rains’ best parts. As Sebastian, Rains’ performance is so indelible that once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to imagine another actor in the role.
You might think it impossible for an actor to make a Nazi into a dangerous villain, an insecure, lovesick momma’s boy, a creepy lecher, and a vulnerable, tortured man but he does just that. When critics refer to Sebastian as a Nazi mama’s boy, there’s always the sense that they find his being a mama’s boy somehow more objectionable than his being a Nazi.
In it, Ingrid Bergman stars as Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a Nazi, who has been coerced by government agent Cary Grant into seducing her father’s old pal, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), who’s had a crush on her for years. Even among the likes of Bergman, Grant, and scene-stealer Leopoldine Konstantin (as Alex Sebastian’s formidable mother), Rains’ performance stands out.
Over dinner, Sebastian tries to woo Alicia. He starts by 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, 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 human as his eyes light up when he admits to feeling a “hunger” for her. He tries so hard that it’s uncomfortable for everyone.
Throughout the film, we see Sebastian’s internal struggle between loyalty to his political allies, powerful sexual desire for Alicia, and a long-standing relationship with his mother. When Alicia visits the Sebastian’s, he is all politeness to his mother until she is rude to Alicia. A split second of rage furrows his brow and purses his mouth before he resumes his role as the perfect host. In that small moment, Rains conveys a powerful truth: Behind his outward friendly appearance, Alex Sebastian can turn 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. When Sebastian, in robe and slippers, goes into his mother’s bedroom and tells her that he is in big trouble his simple delivery of “I need your help” conveys the torment of crushing defeat. Cowering in his desperate need and fear, he lifts 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.
To keep Alicia from realizing she’s been found out, 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. Grant arrives just in 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 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.
Rains’ performance in Notorious makes the deepest impression. As usual, he dominates every scene he’s in. He makes the Nazi mama’s boy a more sympathetic character than Cary Grant’s hero. It was his fourth and final Academy Award nomination.
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Images courtesy of Dr. Marco