Claude Rains received his fourth and final Oscar nomination for portraying Alexander Sebastian in Notorious.
Claude Rains lost every time he was nominated but I have the feeling that he probably received the second most votes every time except for perhaps 1944. Although he lost each other time to another well liked character actor this time he lost to the non actor Harold Russell, who most certainly had other factors in his favor to win. Rains though lost once again in a role that shares similarities with his other two performances I have nominated so far which is that he portrays sort of a villain, but a not at all standard villain who has a lot more to them than one would really expect.
Here he portrays Alexander Sebastian who is an important part of a secret Nazi group, that Bergman's character infiltrates through Sebastian's infatuation with her. What is fascinating about this performance by Rains is the fact that he never for a moment portrays Sebastian as any sort of standard villain who is just simply evil. He instead always presents Sebastian as a man first and a villain second. His business with the Nazis never seems to be the most pressing factor Rains suggests in the way he performs each of his scenes.
One of the best parts of his performance is his chemistry with Bergman in the film. With the part of Sebastian's romance with Alicia it would have been easy for Sebastian to come off as only a fool, or just a man who simply lusts after her. What makes Rains take on this so special though is the idea that he conveys a genuine love in these scenes. Rains never makes it out to be anything less. Rains makes it almost a tragic portrait of a man who is seeking for something that is not there.
What I love about his scenes with Bergman, is that Rains almost shows that Alexander is almost ready to be let down at any moment. In every scene where he sees Alicia with Devlin, Rains is terrific because he does not show any sort of angry or jealous outburst. Rains though subtly shows a fairly sensitive man who honestly does not want to be wounded, and even suggests that he may have been before in the way he quietly pressures her to admit she does not love him, almost as to say that Alexander could never truly believe someone like her could possibly love someone like him.
It is almost surprising how sympathetic Rains manages to make Alexander without ever going to far and making him not longer a villain. Rains honestly makes you sorry for Alexander when he finally does find out about the truth of why Alicia married him. Rains is actually quite moving in that he shows Alexander feels genuinely betrayed on a deeply emotional level. Rains never shows him as simply angry over her betrayal but as actually hurt by her betrayal and false affection when all his affections where truthful.
I suppose I should note as well how Rains acts as a villain, even though I feel I almost do not need to as he makes Alexander such a layered man to begin something that usually does not go hand in hand with a villain. As a villain though Rains again is brilliant in his refusal to ever portray Alexander as any sort of simple evil doer. There are several shades to his characterization from how he appears outwardly as well to the way he appears in more confined quarters.
Outwardly even Rains never takes one approach and still only shows complexity within his characterization. Alexander never lets on to the evil he really is able to do, but rather Rains makes him quietly imposing. There is never visible malice in face, but rather a more businessman sort approach to the proceedings. He is especially chilling in a single scene where he and his Nazi cohorts decide a man must die for a slight mistake. Rains and the others show such a casual approach to their decision that it is absolutely chilling.
Also Rains portrays Alexander quite intelligently throughout. Although he is indeed being tricked the for most of the film, Rains still makes Alexander an astute adversary. I particularly love his single scene where he figures out the betrayal of his wife. The scene is just about silent but Rains is brilliant in his reactions as Alexander breaks down the plot against him clearly in his mind.
In his more enclosed scenes with his mother Rains though shows a very different side to Alexander as a villain. There again is always a man there first, and his actions to deal with his wife's betrayal are made not out to be a vile decision but an unavoidable act of self defense. It seems almost impossible to make a scene where you might have sympathy for a man who is intent on killing his wife, but Rains makes Alexander's fear for his own life such a reality that he almost makes Alexander's actions seem understandable.
This is just an outstanding turn the whole way through for Rains, and for me turned Alexander oddly enough in the character I became most interested in. This is all despite the fact that Alexander could have been one dimensional and a simple evil figure. Rains though creates a compelling portrait of a man, that I must say I was surprised how much I felt sorry for him, particularly in his final scene where Alexander can do nothing but accept his fate. This is a perfect supporting performance, that just may be Rains's best work.