Until recently my only reference point for Ingrid Bergman was Casablanca (1942), and I suspect that many others share this limited exposure. Yes, playing Ilsa to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick is an iconic role, and one that fits her steely Nordic demeanor. However, she was also the star of three Hitchcock films. In Spellbound (1945), she plays a psychiatrist trying to cure Gregory Peck’s amnesia and consequently solve a murder. In Notorious (1946), she’s hanging out with Nazis-in-hiding as a spy for the U.S. government.
In hindsight, it seems obvious that Ingrid Bergman would be an ideal Hitchcock heroine. She’s a visually striking woman with a sophisticated European air. Her persona is less delicate than Grace Kelly or Kim Novak, making her feel like a dame with some agency. That is, until it occurred to me that in all three of these movies, Ingrid Bergman is taking one for the team. By this I mean, she’s putting herself through emotional turmoil for the greater good or for the man she loves.
Okay, you probably know how Casablanca ends. Ilsa gets on the plane with her Super Noble Resistance Fighter Husband, even though Rick is actually her One True Love. Casablanca isn’t a Hitchcock film, but it sets the tone for Bergman as the sacrificial lamb. (Not to mention, her other roles include Joan of Arc and a nun.) Her characters tend to be introduced as ice queens, whether in the form of party girl Alicia in Notorious or unromantic doctor Constance in Spellbound. Well, prepare to have your cold heart thawed by love, missy.
Her Notorious character is particularly complicated for me. Alicia’s father is a convicted Nazi collaborator, and although the government knows that she refused to be involved in his treason, they pressure her into exploiting her family connections to work as a spy. Cary Grant basically calls her hussy but doesn’t stop her from using her wiles to woo a Nazi pal of her dad’s, now hiding out in South America. In other words, “Alicia, I want you to feel bad about your past behavior, but also please keep acting that way for the greater good. And I will probably still make you feel guilty about it.” This woman cannot catch a break.
At the beginning of Spellbound, a fellow doctor is teasing/trying to flirt with Constance about her disinterest in romance. In truth, she responses with self-effacing good humor. Maybe she’s just not that into you, Dr. Secondary Character. I’m not giving much away when I say that she falls in love with (amnesiac!) Gregory Peck, but that leads to risking her career in order to prove him innocent of murder. In the process she gets a lot of men implying that love has addled her judgement. Here again, her behavior is criticized when she prefers science to men, but criticized again when she values love over rationality.
This tension is common in Hitchcock’s female characters, and obviously I’m a bit obsessed with his portrayal of women. Making these connections gave me a newfound respect for Ingrid Bergman because she can play both strength and vulnerability. She may be expected to pay for the sins of others, but she takes an active role in the plot while doing so. I’m indebted, as always, to Anne Helen Petersen, whose very first Scandals of Classic Hollywood post was about Ingrid Bergman’s star image. Although my focus ended up being quite different from her post, I may never have watched these films without it.