One of the more interesting Hitchcock films, as far as those set in modern historical times and events, was Notorious, a rather tense thriller starring Cary Grant as a spy, the luminous Ingrid Bergman as the cat's paw, and the the versatile Claude Rains as the Nazi. How little its audiences knew that Grant was in fact a real-life spy and Nazi hunter from 1938 on, or how many parallels his spy career had with that 1946 film.
In the summer of 1939, a Hollywood partnership was formed as a front for British Intelligence (MI6-- Military Intelligence 6). It was made up of Samuel Goldwyn, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Alexander Korda (the Hungarian producer), Walter Wanger and Korda's London Films. Cary Grant worked with this partnership to flush out Nazi sympathizers in Hollywood and its environs. (Another similar partnership was organized by Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount.)
Grant's chief contact with British intelligence was Noel Coward, the author of numerous plays and humorous songs.
It may surprise some film buffs to learn that the major accomplishment of Cary Grant the Nazi hunter was to out the Australian actor, Errol Flynn, as a Nazi sympathizer.
Flynn had been recruited early into the Nazi cause by a German friend, Hermann Erben, back in 1933 when they both were aboard a German steamer, the Friderun. Later in England, Flynn wrote letters in support of Hitler, including one where he stated he would like to see Hitler in London to take care of the Jews there. Such was Flynn's popularity and star power that he was able to associate openly with Erben, even in the midst of the Jewish community in Hollywood. Flynn and Erben traveled together to Mexico City, ostensibly to report for Collier's magazine on Fascism in South America, but they were really contacting the Nazi community in Mexico.
Grant had turned in Flynn's name to authorities but told New York literary agent and friend Joseph Longstreth in 1941 that he was nonplussed by the fact that nothing had been done about Flynn. Among other things, Flynn had arranged a rental car so that Erben could escape across the border into Mexico. This would have been a treasonous offense if legal proceedings had been initiated. Erben eventually made his way to China, where he was busy with the Nazi spy ring in the Orient.
Still, the question of why Flynn was not charged with various offenses such as violating the Trading With the Enemy Act is unclear. He may have been more useful as part of anti-Nazi propaganda in films, he may have been too well-protected, or MI6 may have decided that the spy you know will lead you to other spies that you don't know.
In June of 1940, William Stephenson of British Intelligence arrived in New York under the cover as a passport control officer with offices at Rockefeller Center. He then began organizing a system of spies which became known as BSC, or British Security Coordination. This BSC became the focus of MI6 operations in both North and South America.
One of the people Grant investigated was Barbara Hutton, who was in a messy divorce and trying to regain custody of a son from her German ex. Grant is presumed to be the one who intercepted her mail and forwarded it to BSC. Apparently Grant must have thought that Hutton passed muster because he later married her.
One of the most interesting parallels between real life and reel life is seen in the movie Notorious. Like the character he played in that Hitchcock film, he had to learn to crack safes as part of his spy duties. According to Grant's one-time personal assistant Ray Austin, Grant confided some details of his spy career, including the safecracking and bringing back information hidden in his clothing.
Other parallels reflect the fact of Nazi cells not only in Mexico and Argentina, but in much of Latin American – as Grant's character Devlin uses Bergman's character Alicia to infiltrate the circle of German industrialists in Rio. The menace conveyed by Claude Rains and Leopoldine Konstantin perfectly reflect the suspicious characters that Grant had unwittingly rubbed elbows with in his private life. He and Barbara Hutton had been friendly with Countess Dorothy de Frasso and her husband, not knowing that they were fanatic Nazi supporters, and also with Count Cassina, another Nazi that he had gotten a studio job as a translator.
It must have been incredibly tense on the set of the classic 1939 film Gunga Din, to co-star with the openly anti-Semitic Victor McLaglen, who had been discovered more than one beating up Jews in the Hollywood area. Some see the plot of the film Gunga Din as a thinly-disguised attack on Nazism, represented by the evil Indian guru and his supporters.
Grant had already donated his salary for his next film that year, The Philadelphia Story, to British War Relief and the Red Cross; however, it was later learned that the publicist entrusted with the funds had stolen them. This did not keep Grant from donating his later salary from Arsenic and Old Lace to the war effort.
It was most meaningful to Grant when the U.S. Army sent some officers to present him with an American flag as a token of thanks “for his work as a special agent, provider of funds for the war effort, and champion entertainer of the troops.”
Higham, Charles and Roy Moseley, Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart, Avon Books (Hearst Corporation), New York, 1989, 380 pages not including index.