In the spring of 1945, filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht were hard at work on their latest project—Notorious, a story of expatriate Nazis hiding out in South America. Hitchcock and Hecht had pulled together the plot from parts of a Saturday Evening Post serial and real-life spy tales from Hitchcock’s friends in the Ministry of Information.
On its face, the film was a love triangle, with an undercurrent of espionage. It is as famous today for a then-daring love scene between stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, which skirted the strict production codes of the day, as for its masterful suspense elements.
Less well-known is a meeting between Hitchcock and Caltech scientist Robert A. Millikan that took place during preproduction and got Hitchcock placed on an FBI watch list.
Hitchcock was fond of having a “MacGuffin”—an intriguing object or device that carries the plot forward—in his films. In the story he and Hecht came up with, the film’s female protagonist is recruited by an American government agent to infiltrate a group of Nazis living in Rio de Janeiro. But, as Hitchcock later recalled, “We had to have a reason for the Germans to be in Brazil.” A December 1944 trip to Washington D.C. supplied the perfect solution.
Having been hired to produce a short film on postwar directions for the U.S., Hitchcock and Hecht were granted access to high-security areas and personnel during this brief visit, and there they gleaned details of the Manhattan Project—the secret American plan to develop the atomic bomb. Through a journalist friend, Russell Maloney of The New Yorker, Hitchcock had already heard about a secret place in New Mexico “where everyone goes and no one comes out,” and during his visit to the Capitol, Hitchcock learned that uranium was a key component of the bomb-making project.
As a wine aficionado, Hitchcock delighted himself with the notion that uranium sand might be smuggled in bottles that once held some expensive vintage, and then hidden in a wine cellar to be used by the renegade Nazis in his story to construct an atomic bomb in South America. Never content to fabricate details, Hitchcock wanted to verify if this was actually possible, so he and Hecht decided to ask a real authority: Caltech scientist Robert A. Millikan, who was serving in his final year as chairman of the Executive Council at the university.
A 1923 Nobel Prize winner in physics, Millikan was known for his study of “cosmic rays” (a term he coined), as well as his attempts to reconcile science with his Christian faith and his sometimes controversial views on eugenics. (He once described San Marino, where he lived, as “the westernmost outpost of Nordic civilization.”)
In March 1945, Hitchcock and Hecht trekked from Bel Air to Pasadena to confront the physicist about the mystery bomb. “I guarantee he will go white at the question,” Hitchcock reportedly told Hecht. Indeed, Millikan was shocked. Hitchcock later recounted the meeting in a 1963 interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci:
“I put on my hat and go to the California Institute of Technology, where the most important scientist of all is working: Doctor Millikan […] I shake hands with the doctor, who has a bust of Einstein in a corner of the room, and I ask him, ‘Doctor, how big would an atom bomb be?’ The scene that follows! He jumps up, yelling ‘Do you want to be arrested? Do you want me to get arrested too?’ Then he spends an hour explaining to me that it was impossible to make the atom bomb, that the atom bomb never would be made, and that consequently I should not make the atom bomb my MacGuffin.” (Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, 2003)
Hitchcock was not deterred, however. Though Millikan had tried to steer them away from mentioning the atomic bomb, he had let slip that uranium could in fact be smuggled in a wine bottle. Millikan was not amused by the meeting, however. After the pair left, he contacted the authorities, and in May 1945, Hitchcock’s producer David O. Selznick received a letter from the FBI warning that all portrayals of American intelligence agents in his film had to meet the approval of the State Department.
“I learned later that afterward the FBI had me under surveillance for three months,” Hitchcock told director François Truffaut in 1962.
Nevertheless, production of the film went forward—though Selznick eventually sold the project to RKO Radio Pictures, feeling skeptical about its prospects and frustrated with Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, which he felt audiences would not understand. The film was not released until 1946, but by then, the U.S. had dropped the atom bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hitchcock’s canny pursuit of his MacGuffin had paid off. When Notorious was released on August 15, 1946, the atomic bomb was no longer a whispered rumor, but a chilling reality.