Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Ben Hecht
Stars: Cary Grant (T.R. Devlin), Ingrid Bergman (Alicia Huberman), Claude Rains (Alexander Sebastian), Louis Calhern (Capt. Paul Prescott), Leopoldine Konstantin (Madame Sebastian), Reinhold Schünzel (Dr. Anderson), Moroni Olsen (Walter Beardsley)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1946
Country: U.S.
 Notorious Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Notorious is the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s espionage thrillers and one the strongest works of his extensive cinematic career. In his book Hitchcock’s Films Revisted, Robin Wood described it as “one of Hitchcock’s finest works,” and François Truffaut, in his interviews with Hitchcock, professed that it “is truly my favorite Hitchcock picture ... In my opinion, Notorious is the very quintessence of Hitchcock.”

One of the things that makes Notorious “the very quintessence of Hitchcock” is how effectively it creates an exhilarating surface of romance and intrigue that barely disguises its true underlying concerns. Written by prolific screenwriter Ben Hecht (a frequent collaborator with producer David O. Selznick) in close collaboration with Hitchcock, it is ostensibly a spy movie about infiltrating a ring of Nazi agents in Brazil. And, while Notorious deals on the surface with classic themes such as love versus duty (a common subject in movies made during World War II), it is really about the hypocrisies of gendered social codes and mores.

Ingrid Bergman, having just starred in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), plays the central role of Alicia Huberman, the “tainted” daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. I describe Bergman’s role as “central” despite Cary Grant, as a U.S. agent named Devlin, getting top billing. While Notorious has been viewed by many as another of Hitchcock’s films in which male identification dominates, I am in firm agreement with Robin Wood’s argument that the film, in fact, employs a female identification system in which we as viewers most thoroughly identify with Alicia. She is the central character about whom we care the most; she is the most sympathetic and engaging person on-screen.

Hitchcock brings us into identification with Alicia in the film’s opening moment when she is swarmed by reporters asking questions and flashing cameras in her face as she leaves her father’s trial. Alicia is a complex woman, and her “tainted” status derives not only from her familial connections to Nazism, but also from rumors about her “unladylike” behavior, particularly her loose sexuality and heavy drinking. Bergman’s performance is crucial here, as she portrays Alicia as a woman who uses cynicism and alcohol to mask her pain and sadness. She purposefully flaunts the social codes that define “womanly behavior” not out of a feminist edict, but because she has simply stopped caring. She is a woman in despair, which makes her vulnerable and, in Hitchcock’s frame, ultimately sympathetic.

Alicia is convinced by the U.S. government to go to Brazil to infiltrate a ring of Nazi agents who are hiding there after the war. Her contact is Devlin, and although they are at first antagonistic, they quickly fall in love. That romance is complicated when Alicia discovers that her mission involves infiltrating the Nazis by sleeping with and eventually marrying Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), one of her father’s former associates who uses his enormous house as a base for Nazi scientific activities. If this were a conventional male-dominated narrative, the story would focus on the ramifications of Devlin having to subsume his romantic interests in Alicia to his professional and patriotic duty to push her into another man’s bed for the good of the country. But, crucially, the movie focuses on Alicia’s need to sacrifice both body and soul because, after all, until the final moments, she is the one in danger, not the male government agents who mostly sit around hotel rooms monitoring the situation from a safe distance.

The majority of the film takes place in Rio de Janeiro, as Alicia works her way deeper into Sebastian’s world. The whole time she is viewed with a cunning and suspicious eye by Sebastian’s domineering mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), which makes for an interesting precursor to the maternal-dominated murderous activities in Psycho (1960). Sebastian’s mother never fully trusts her son’s infatuation with Alicia, and, in the end, she is right—it proves to be his downfall.

Sebastian himself is a fascinating character as he fits into a long line of pathetic villains in Hitchcock’s work (the nadir being Lars Thorwold, the much-put-upon murderer in Rear Window). Although he is a Nazi who is helping in the development of weapons of mass destruction, he is fully human throughout. Even when he discovers that Alicia is an American agent and he and his mother begin to slowly poison her with arsenic, he remains a strangely compelling and sad figure. Hitchcock and Hecht concoct the perfect demise for Sebastian, as Devlin manages to take the near-death Alicia out of Sebastian’s home right in front of the other Nazis because Sebastian is terrified that the others will find out that he married an American spy.

Notorious also contains one of Hitchcock’s most brilliant Macguffins: uranium ore hidden in wine bottles. The idea is that the Nazis are trying to build an atomic bomb, which was considered ludicrous when Hitchcock was originally developing the project in 1944, a year before Hiroshima. In fact, Hitchcock was so far ahead of the curve on this one that the FBI had him under surveillance for three months.

On a technical level, Notorious is another of Hitchcock’s visual triumphs. One of the most famous sequences involves an elaborate crane shot from the top of a long flight of stairs that slowly moves down on Alicia until it ends with an extreme close-up of her hand in which she clutches an all-important key that ultimately allows her and Devlin to find out what the Nazis are up to, but also leads to Sebastian’s uncovering her true motives. That shot is more the exception than the rule, though, as Hitchcock relies primarily on medium shots and close-ups to continually emphasize that this is a psychological story, not an action picture. He never allows the romantic pathos to be overshadowed by the espionage, hence the use of the uranium ore as a Macguffin, not the primary aim of the narrative.

Most importantly, though, Notorious reveals the hypocrisies of social mores that govern the behavior of men and women. Although Alicia is the central character, the one with whom we most readily identify, this theme is expressed most clearly in a scene involving Devlin and several other government agents, in which the men look disparagingly on Alicia because of her social conduct while ignoring the fact that she is currently risking her life when she didn’t have to. In their world, prior sexual behavior matters more than bravery and sacrifice, pointing up just how severely these relativistic social stigmas have warped their larger world view.

Devlin’s particularly vocal defense of Alicia in this scene is crucial, as he often treats her badly in their face-to-face confrontations. But, like Alicia’s own scandalous behavior, Devlin’s insults and brush-offs are a protective defense mechanism, not a true revelation of who he is and how he feels. As Hitchcock himself put it, “Cary Grant’s job—and it’s a rather ironic situation—is to push Ingrid Bergman into Claude Rains’s bed. One can hardly blame him for seeming bitter throughout the story ...” While Hitchcock is often justly celebrated for his visual prowess as a director, such comments provide insight into how thoroughly he understood his characters, which is why his films—especially Notorious—were so much more psychologically dense and thematically compelling than so many other thrillers then and now.

Notorious Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary from 1990 by film historian Rudy Behlmer
  • Audio commentary from 2001 by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane
  • Video interview with Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto
  • Program about the film’s visual style with cinematographer John Bailey
  • Scene analysis by film scholar David Bordwell
  • Once Upon a Time . . . Notorious 2009 documentary
  • Program about Hitchcock’s storyboarding and previsualization process by filmmaker Daniel Raim
  • Newsreel footage from 1948 of actor Ingrid Bergman and Hitchcock
  • Lux Radio Theatre adaptation from 1948, starring Bergman and Joseph Cotten
  • Trailers and teasers
  • Essay by critic Angelica Jade Bastién
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 15, 2018

    Notorious has undergone an extensive new digital restoration (a joint effort between Criterion and The Walt Disney Company), which began with a 4K scan of three separate elements: the original 35mm camera negative, a 35mm fine-grain nitrate print, and a 35mm safety fine-grain print. The majority of the restoration was done from the 35mm negative, although some damaged sections had to be replaced with sections from the fine-grain prints (good luck spotting them—I couldn’t). The resulting image quality is absolutely stunning. The black and white cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff looks gorgeous, with solid blacks, gleaming whites, and fine gradations of gray through. Grain is kept to a minimum, although it is still clearly present, and there are virtually no traces of age marks and wear. The monaural soundtrack derives from the same restoration that was used on Criterion’s 2001 DVD edition (sources being a 35mm acetate release print and a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master) with some additional work having been done. Presented in Linear PCM mono, it is crisp and clear without the slightest traces of ambient hiss.

    Criterion’s 2001 Notorious DVD maintained many of the supplements that were originally part of their 1990s laserdisc edition, while adding a bunch more. Some of those have been retained for this new Blu-ray edition, but you might want to hold onto that DVD because a lot have gone missing, as well, including the isolated music and effects track.

    Retained from the DVD are two audio commentaries that cover different aspects of the film and compliment each other quite nicely. The first commentary, recorded in 2001 by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane, is more of a formal analysis, examining the meaningful details of the film scene by scene. The second commentary, by film historian Rudy Behlmer, who edited Memo From David O. Selznick, a collection of the producer’s personal correspondence, originally appeared on the Criterion laser disc. Behlmer’s commentary is more institutional in nature, filled with fascinating background information about the film’s production, the development of the script, and the behind-the-scenes working relationship between Hitchcock and Selznick (which, for those interested in studying the subject further, is thoroughly covered in a fantastic book by Leonard Leff called Hitchcock and Selznick). Also retained from the DVD are a brief bit of rare newsreel footage of Hitchcock and Bergman on the runway at Heathrow; the 1948 Lux Radio Theater adaptation of Notorious with Ingrid Bergman reprising her role and Joseph Cotten filling in for Cary Grant; and four theatrical trailers.

    Missing from the DVD are a number of stills galleries, including production stills, publicity stills, and a gallery focused on the extensive use of rear projection in the film and many textual supplements, including script excerpts from several deleted or never-filmed scenes, several treatments of alternate endings, and production correspondence that featured fascinating reprints of various letters and memos that were circulated before and during production. So, like I said, hold onto your DVD if you still have it.

    And, while those loses are notable, there is plenty of new material to take their place, starting with Once Upon a Time . . . Notorious, a 52-minute documentary that traces the film’s production history, including extensive discussion of the sociopolitical climate in which it was produced. Directed by David Thompson for a French DVD series in 2009, it features a host of archival and then-new interviews with the likes of Ingrid Bergman, Isabella Rossellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Bogdanovich, Claude Chabrol, and Stephen Frears. Brand new to Criterion’s disc are a number of insightful new programs: in “Power Patterns” (29 min.), film scholar David Bordwell offers detailed narrative and stylistic analysis of the film, with particular attention to the climactic sequence in which Devlin rescues Alicia, which he describes as “Hitchcock’s Odessa Steps sequence”; in “Glamour and Tension” (23 min.), cinematographer John Bailey looks at the film’s visual style; in “Poisoned Romance,” Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto discusses the film; and, in “Writing With the Camera” (20 min.), filmmaker Daniel Raim explores the film’s storyboard and previsualization process with help from archival audio and video interviews with Hitchcock scholars Steven D. Katz and Bill Krohn, storyboard artists Gabriel Hardman and Harold Michelson, and production designers Henry Bumstead and Robert F. Boyle, among others.

    Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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