Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Notorious remains to this day the most beloved by audiences and critically revered of Hitchcock’s early American films. It was the film that incontestably cemented both Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman as screen icons and Hitchcock as a master of the suspense genre. I don’t deny that Notorious is a very good film - maybe even a truly great one - but after the complex and layered Rebecca and the ambitious Spellbound I can’t help but find it a bit superficial and disappointing.
After her father is tried and convicted for treason against the United States, Alicia Hubermann (Ingrid Bergman) descends into a spiral of drunken excess. American agent Devlin (Cary Grant) insinuates himself into her circle of friends and recruits her to work as an American spy. The US government bugged her house months before her father’s trial and their recordings revealed that, despite her father’s treason, Alicia herself holds steadfast patriotic beliefs. This makes Alicia the ideal candidate for undercover work: a promiscuous drunk who’s the daughter of a convicted traitor would be the last person anyone would suspect of being a spy. Devlin brings her to Rio for her first assignment, but while waiting for their orders the pair develops romantic feelings for one another. Their romance is cut short when Alicia’s orders finally come through: the US and Brazilian governments are collaborating to bring down a ring on Nazi sympathizers headed by scientist Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains). Sebastian was once in love with Alicia, so head US agent Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern) is hoping that Alicia can use his romantic feelings against him to gather intelligence about his organization.
She successfully re-establishes contact with Alex and begins seeing him romantically, but she does her job perhaps a bit too well. After spotting Alicia talking to Devlin at the race track the jealous Alex puts her to the ultimate test of loyalty: he proposes marriage. Her American handler Prescott immediately signs off on the idea, but Devlin clearly has reservations. So, too is Sebastian’s mother, (Madame Konstantin), wary of this union being utterly convinced that Alicia is a gold digger after Alex’s sizable fortune.
Settling into Alex’s estate, Alicia comes up against a mysteriously locked wine cellar that Alex’s mother has the only key to. Confident that the cellar holds the evidence needed to break up the Nazi spy ring, Devlin suggest that Alicia host a reception at Alex’s house and slip him the key so he can investigate. They successfully get into the wine cellar and find that some of the vintage bottles are filled not with aging vino, but with strange metal filings. Alicia and Devlin avoid immediate discovery of their snooping by pretending to canoodle on the patio but the next morning a still suspicious Alex investigates the cellar and finds a broken wine bottle. Realizing that his wife is actually an American spy, he begins plotting with his mother to do away with her.
My biggest issue with Notorious is that the spy elements are largely relegated to second fiddle, which is a serious problem considering they comprise some of the film’s best moments. The scene where Alicia and Devlin search Sebastian’s wine cellar is classic Hitchcock: the intercutting between the team in the basement and the champagne bottle upstairs that serve as a timer is fantastic. As is the shot of an unaware Devlin sloooowly inching a wine bottle off the shelf until it finally falls and shatters on the floor. This is the sort of thing we watch a Hitchcock film to see. It’s kind of sad, then, that all these wonderfully choreographed suspense scenes are secondary to what’s the film is truly about. The spy elements are never resolved but just ended in a final shot that, while it satisfies the needs of the story, still feels totally anticlimactic.
I guess I never fully bought into the romance between Devlin and Alicia, and that’s a pretty big problem considering that the entire film hinges on it. The setup is good but at some point in Brazil the two fall in love, or at least they’re supposed to, and it feels more like plot mechanics than true love. It’s not Alicia who fails to sell the romance; she wears her heart on her sleeves, but Devlin. He’s just so distant and cold – intentionally so – that his 180 turnaround doesn’t ring true. What was really needed to sell it was a scene where Devlin’s veneer of uncaring slips to reveal his true feelings to the audience even while he’s still in denial. Grant is just too implacable in this role, a rare miscalculation from a truly fine actor.
The Rio scenery was no doubt impressive and exotic back in the 1940s and it stands out as exemplary among its contemporaries. Decades upon decades of films have done it one better, however. The luscious tropical foliage of Brazil is not terribly well served by the black and white cinematography. Not helping matters any are some really obvious and distracting optical process shots. With Brazil a hotspot of activity right now, both culturally and economically, the resultant opening of its borders to the international community has made Hitchcock’s version of Rio quaint at best and hopelessly outdated at worst. Even silly popcorn entertainment like Fast Five has a more authentic feel for the land and the culture of Brazil than Notorious.
Years of Bond films exploiting the trope of the “Good Bad Girl” dilutes the impact of the character of Alicia somewhat. We expect that she will complete her mission or die trying, thereby redeeming herself for her inaction while her father was sympathizing and collaborating with the Nazis. I kept waiting for Hitchcock to subvert my expectation, to twist the film to show that Alicia had her own motives and was actually the one in control all along; playing Devlin, Alex and Prescott like a fiddle the whole time. That the film plays out pretty much the way you’d expect is not necessarily a flaw but it does make the movie feel disappointing in its relative straightforwardness.
I don’t intend to give the impression that Notorious is a bad film or unworthy of its place in the Hitchcock canon, it’s not. I guess I just prefer the brooding, gothic Hitch of Rebecca or Psycho to darkly romantic Hitch. I count myself lucky, as should all film fans, that one of the greatest directors left us enough films that you have plenty of options no matter what flavor of Hitchcock you prefer. Many may disagree with my assessment of Notorious but doesn’t it speak highly to Hitch’s legacy that even his middling films are still pretty damn good?
Notorious looks fantastic for a 60+ year-old movie but compared to the picture quality of the Rebecca Blu-ray, it’s a bit of a disappointment. The source material shows a lot more blemishes despite Notorious being six years newer than Rebecca. Hitchcock’s reliance on process shots ensures that there’s a lot a graininess that occasionally causes compression issues. There’s also a fair amount of flickering in the image and overall it’s a lot softer than I expected. A lot of the issues clear up somewhat as the film progresses. The restoration featurette included on this disc illustrates just how much work was done to get the film into as good as shape as it is, and the work is to be commended, but I think that there’s still quite a bit of room for improvement.
I experienced no disappointment in the DTS-HD Master Audio mono track. Despite much of the dialogue being spoken in hushed tones, it’s always crisp and clear. There’s no audible hiss or distortion when listening at a comfortable level. The string-heavy score never experiences clipping on the high end. Again, no alternate language audio or subtitle options are provided meaning non-English speaking Hitchcock fans are, once again, S-O-L.
Accompanying the film is not one, but two Audio Commentaries. The first, with film professor Rick Jewell, provides a historical context for the film while the second, with film professor Drew Casper is the more typical analysis of the film itself. Setting out to include two commentaries with very different but complementary focuses is a fantastic idea I wish was employed on more classic film re-issues. Between the two commentaries, nary a stone is left unturned. Fans should be pleased.
Notorious is a film driven largely by dialogue and exposition with a score that is used very sparingly, so the Isolated Music and Effects track isn’t quite the boon that it would be for another Hitchcock film, like Rebecca. Still, it’s there for the purists who want it.
Focusing on primarily on the relationship between Alicia and Devlin is The Ultimate Romance: The Making of Notorious (28:22). This is a well put together documentary with knowledgeable participants who go into a great deal of depth. I don’t agree with the overall thesis of the piece, but I still found it a fascinating watch.
Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Spymaster (13:10) is not specifically about Notorious, but a general overview about the techniques that Hitchcock employed to create suspense and how his career helped shape the spy genre. Good, but a bit slight given the considerable impact Hitchcock can claim.
Not really the footage of the actual ceremony as its title would imply, The American Film Institute: The Key to Hitchcock (3:20) is sort of a documentary about the footage. It’s short but scattershot, with awkward observations on the AFI event from Hitch’s granddaughter that are not nearly as interesting as simply watching the footage from the ceremony itself would be.
As with the other Hitchcock films in this wave of MGM reissues, another exceedingly well preserved radio adaptation is included. This time it’s a 1948 Radio Play Starring Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton (59:35). Notorious is a pretty talky movie, so it actually lends itself to radio adaptation better than Rebecca, which relied much more heavily on its visuals.
There are also more clips of the Bogdanovich (2:14) and Truffaut (16:22) Hitchcock Audio Interviews, these ones pertaining to Notorious. The Bogdanovich clip is too short to go into very much detail and Truffuat interview still has the language barrier making it feel stilted but still, it’s great to hear Hitch talk without the affectation of his public persona.
The aforementioned Restoration Comparison (2:50) provides viewers with a side-by-side, before and after look at the difference in picture pre and post restoration. Like I said, a commendable job has been done but the end result is still far from flawless.
Rounding out the supplemental package is the Original Theatrical Trailer (2:31). As was the case with the trailer for Rebecca, the 4:3 image is oriented not in the centre of the screen as is standard, but all the way over to the left. I’m at a loss to explain why the trailer is presented this way. Still, the trailer is interesting and in good condition, though the last few seconds are clipped off.
Notorious is a film about how reputation can serve as a smokescreen to reality. I find that an appropriate metaphor for how I feel about the film. It’s still a great story well told, but lacking in the depth of theme or sophistication of construction that I’ve come to associate with Hitchcock’s finest works. My opinion is certainly in the minority; Notorious is one of Hitchcock’s best loved films and that’s unlikely to change any time soon. C’est la vie. Notorious’ myriad of fans shouldn’t hesitate to pick up this disc. Minor reservations about the video quality aside, this is a handsome, well priced release that’s loaded to the brim with quality special features.
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