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: USA
Notorious DVD Cover
Notorious is the best of Alfred Hitchcock's espionage thrillers and one of the strongest works of his extensive cinematic career. In 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 theme 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 difficult mission that requires her 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 screenwriter Ben 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 atom 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 she and Devlin to find out what the Nazis are up to, but also leads to Sebastian's uncovering of her true motives. That shot is more the exception that 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. Hitch 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 his persona. 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 other thrillers of his day.

Notorious: Criterion Collection Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioDolby Digital 1.0 monaural
SupplementsAudio commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane
Audio commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer
Isolated music and effects track
Complete broadcast of the 1948 Lux Radio Theater adaptation
Excerpts from the short story "The Song of the Dragon"
Production correspondence
Rear projection stills
Deleted scenes script excerpts
Alternate ending script excerpts
Production stills
Publicity stills
The Fate of the Unica Key
Newsreel footage
Four theatrical trailers
Distributor The Criterion Collection / Home Vision
Release DateOctober 16, 2001

The image quality of Notorious is absolutely stunning. Recently restored from the original 35mm nitrate camera negative, a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master, and a 35mm nitrate copyright print, the film has never looked better. The actual digital transfer for this disc was made from a newly struck 35mm fine-grain master, and the results are impressive. 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 an absolute minimum, and there are only the slightest traces of age marks and wear, quite impressive for a film of its age.

As with the image, the soundtrack for Notorious was also recently restored, and its presentation here in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural is wonderful. Crisp and clear without the slightest traces of ambient hiss, the film sounds like new. Criterion also offers an isolated music and effects track so we can fully enjoy Roy Webb's rich musical score and the sound design.

Notorious was released by Criterion back in 1990 as a special-edition CAV laser disc. For this DVD, most of the supplements from the laser edition have been maintained and many, many more have been added, making this a fully loaded special edition.

The disc includes not one, but two commentaries that compliment each other nicely by covering different aspects of the film. The first commentary, newly recorded by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane (who also provided a commentary for Criterion's DVD of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, as well as their recent release of Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve), 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).

The disc includes a number of stills galleries. The "Production Stills" gallery features primarily photographs of Hitchcock working with Grant and Bergman or the actors relaxing between takes. The "Publicity Stills" gallery features a host of glamorous publicity shots, lobby cards, and an assortment of international poster designs. The "Rear Projection" section of the disc focuses on the extensive use of rear projection in the film, alternating between behind-the-scenes photographs and the corresponding scenes from the movie.

Also included are some textual supplements, including script excerpts from several deleted or never-filmed scenes. The disc provides context for these scenes by showing brief bits of what would have come before and after them. Another section of script excerpts provides several treatments of alternate endings, none of which work even remotely as well as the one that was finally used.

One of my favorite parts of the disc is the "Production Correspondence" gallery, which features fascinating reprints of various letters and memos that were circulated before and during production. These include early memos from Selznick about his interest in the short story "The Song of the Dragon" (parts of which are reprinted in a separate section on this disc), which would eventually provide Notorious's source material; a letter from Bergman to Selznick apologizing for initially rejecting the project; a letter from Produce Code Administration head Joseph Breen about the moral issues the project posed; and, most interesting, a letter from FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover asking that no mention of the FBI be made in the movie as he felt it would reflect poorly on the bureau. I've said it before and I'll say it again: It's the inclusion of this kind of rare historical material that truly sets the best Criterion special editions apart from so many others.

Other supplements include a brief bit of rare newsreel footage of Hitchcock and Bergman on the runway at Heathrow. And, while the laser disc contained only excerpts from the 1948 Lux Radio Theater adaptation of Notorious with Ingrid Bergman reprising her role and Joseph Cotton filling in for Cary Grant, this DVD features the entire broadcast from start to finish. Also included are four theatrical trailers.

Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (4)

James Kendrick

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