They call him the Master of Suspense, and Alfred Hitchcock earned the moniker by crafting myriad classic films over the course of a 50-year career that spanned six decades. No one directed better thrillers, and no thrillers were better directed. Whether chronicling a man on the run, a woman in jeopardy, an international conspiracy, or a deeply disturbed psychotic, Hitchcock almost always struck the right tone, balancing tension and unease with elegant romance, sardonic wit, brutal irony, and sexual innuendo. Like any director, he both hit the bullseye and missed his mark on various occasions - though his "misses" often outclass many of his colleagues "hits." The truly great Hitchcock pictures, however, tie together a riveting plot, thought-provoking themes, snappy dialogue, interesting locales, crackling chemistry between the leading actors, and Hitchcock's dazzling, inimitable, and omnipresent technique. Remarkably, this rare confluence of cinematic elements distinguishes not a few, but a bumper crop of Hitchcock films, including 'Notorious,' which stands as not just a great Hitchcock picture, but as one of the director's crowning achievements and one of the best espionage movies ever made.
'Notorious' isn't flashy and slick; there are no chase scenes, no explosions, no fisticuffs, save for a brief scuffle between co-stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Rather the film's power and allure stem from simmering undercurrents of personal conflict and political skullduggery that gradually wreak havoc on the characters' lives, ripping them to shreds on the inside, while they put on a brave face for the world and stoically soldier on. Cutting barbs hide their hurt, but in a world where duty trumps romance, longings go unfulfilled as the characters risk their lives and sacrifice their well-being to make the world a better place. A noble profession, yes, but not one that yields many happy endings.
Party girl Alicia Huberman (Bergman) is the "notorious" daughter of a Nazi sympathizer whose recent trial and conviction caused a sensation in Miami. In a futile effort to escape her shame and ease her pain, Alicia drinks to excess, dallies with too many men, and lives life on the edge. The U.S. government, however, views her as a potential ally, a tool to infiltrate a secretive circle of Nazis who have made Buenos Aires their center of operation. Agent Roger Devlin (Grant) recruits Alicia for the job, and asks her to exploit her lineage to gain intimate access to the affairs of Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), an old family friend who once pursued her romantically. Alicia's sense of guilt, desire to clear her name, and innate patriotism, as well as her burgeoning attraction to Devlin, overcome her fear and doubts, and convince her to take the assignment. Yet little does she know how far she will have to go to achieve the government's goals, and the personal toll this mission will exact.
From its opening frames, 'Notorious' grabs the viewer with its elegance, intrigue, and complex characters. The spy plot is central to the film's engine, yet it takes a back seat to the frustrated romance between Alicia and Devlin, which ups the story's ante and makes the action more intimate and urgent. Though quashing the Nazi threat and seeing our country's ideals prevail matter deeply to the audience, more than anything we want Alicia and Devlin to overcome the odds, resolve their issues, and unite. Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht brilliantly juggle these two storylines, fashioning a different kind of suspense for each. Seeing Alicia walk willingly into a lion's den and navigate the pitfalls and dangers lurking around every corner creates one kind of tension, while watching her and Devlin silently deny and doubt their true feelings for each other because of their respective precarious positions creates another. And caught in the middle is Alex, the supposed villain of the piece, who's often a hapless mama's boy who somehow earns our sympathy and pity. His love for Alicia is real, yet his jealousy and inability to escape the domination of his mother (Madame Konstantin) put him in jeopardy as well.
The subtle layers and twisted relationships create a highly textured drama that casts a mesmerizing spell and is enhanced by Hitchcock's superior visual sense, impeccable production values, and excellent acting. Hitchcock is at the top of his game, employing off-kilter camera angles, distorted images, and one breathtaking boom shot to create stimulating scenes that thrust us further into the action. Some might mistake such artistry for gimmickry, but Hitchcock never overplays his hand, sparingly inserting these shots where they wield the most impact. He also fashions one of the sexiest love scenes to come out of Hollywood's Golden Age, an elongated kissing sequence between Alicia and Devlin photographed in close-up and peppered with whispered dialogue and tender caresses. Who knew that two fully clothed actors could generate such heat, but such is the mastery of Hitchcock, who knew how to push buttons, push envelopes, and push audiences to places they hadn't gone before.
Grant and Bergman are perfectly cast, and their pairing here is the stuff of legend. Grant retains a debonair air, but his clever repartee is often laced with venom and delivered with a square jaw. Rarely has Grant underplayed so effectively or conveyed so much with a narrowed glance, withering stare, or wounded squint. Though he expresses nothing, we know everything that's going on inside him - his intense love for Alicia, his jealousy, his concern, his bitterness, his fear. It's a far more difficult role than it appears on the surface, and yet Grant, in one of his most underrated and effective performances, makes it look easy. It's no wonder he became one of Hitchcock's favorite leading men, starring in three other of the director's films ('Suspicion,' 'To Catch a Thief,' and 'North by Northwest').
And Bergman was one of his favorite leading ladies, also appearing in 'Spellbound' and 'Under Capricorn.' 'Notorious,' however, is without question her finest Hitchcock portrayal, and she exudes a confidence in her acting that allows her to faithfully express Alicia's many facets. As the brazen bad girl early in the film, she exhibits a fascinating and rarely seen coarseness and cynicism. Later, as the starry-eyed lover, she's disarmingly natural and passionate. And still later, as the lady of the Sebastian manor whose mind focuses on the task at hand while her heart hemorrhages, she mixes a regal air with a savage vulnerability. Bergman won three Oscars during her long career, but it's amazing both she and Grant weren't nominated for their work here.
Rains was, and deservedly so. One of Hollywood's best character actors, Rains could play anything, and his finely etched portrait of Sebastian, a poor fool who's led astray by love and the calculating wiles of an attractive American agent, adds a welcome element of complexity to the espionage aspect of the film. And as his mother, a modern day Madame Defarge who quietly embroiders while her son tries to seal Alicia's fate, Madame Konstantin makes a strong impression. Like a puppeteer, she deftly manipulates Sebastian, and the scene where she calmly lights up a cigarette remains one of the film's most wryly amusing moments.
Criminally, 'Notorious' was not nominated for Best Picture or Best Director (however it did pick up a Best Original Screenplay nod for Ben Hecht), yet the movie's Oscar snub doesn't diminish its worth. Though Hitchcock's reputation would continue to soar over the course of the next three decades, the stature of 'Notorious' has never waned. It remains a stirring, absorbing, emotionally involving, and artistically satisfying film that hits all the right notes; a symphony of suspense, if you will, conducted with nuance and gusto by the genre's most accomplished maestro.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Notorious' comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case. The 50GB dual-layer disc features a video codec of 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and a DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack. (There's also an isolated music and effects track, described below, that can be accessed from the extras menu.) Interestingly, this disc features no main menu; when the disc is inserted into the player, the film begins immediately; extras, audio options, and chaptering can only be accessed via the pop-up menu button on your remote.
'Notorious' was restored for its 2008 DVD release, and that transfer is the one used for this Blu-ray edition. Though further clean-up would have been warmly received, this is still a stellar effort, marked by lusciously inky black levels, marvelous contrast, and good clarity. A natural grain structure maintains the film-like feel, though a few shots exhibit a rougher look. Mild speckling and a few faint lines and marks can be discerned (most likely these escaped notice on the DVD), but for the most part, 'Notorious' appears clean and sharp in high definition.
Backgrounds can look a bit fuzzy at times, but patterns remain rock solid, and textures, such as Alicia's white fur and Devlin's tweed jacket, come across well. Close-ups sport stunning levels of detail, especially those of Grant and Rains. Bergman's tight shots appear a tad diffused, but that was typical of the period. Gray scale variance is quite good, and, for the most part, the substantial rear projection work blends in well with the foreground action.
Whites are bright but resist blooming, and shadow delineation is excellent. Many scenes take place at night, but no crush muddies the image. Noise is also absent, and no edge enhancement or banding disrupt our enjoyment of this above-average rendering of a Hitchcock classic. Could it be better? Of course. But as it stands, this is arguably the best 'Notorious' has ever looked, and fans shouldn't hesitate to upgrade.
The DTS-HD Master Audio mono track supplies surprisingly clear and clean sound that belies its advanced age. Silence plays a big role in 'Notorious,' and the long stretches where it complements hushed dialogue or critical action are refreshingly pristine, with no hiss or surface noise disrupting the mood. Conversations are also subtly presented, with many remarks spoken barely above a whisper, yet nary a word is lost or unintelligible. Pleasing dynamic range handles the audio's highs and lows well, and the track exudes a warmth and resonance that keeps us involved in the film.
The music score by Roy Webb doesn't flaunt the fidelity and tonal depth one craves, but still conveys the aura of romance and suspense that's essential to the movie's success. Atmospherics, such as street noise, enhance the action without intruding upon it, and effects, such as a wine bottle crashing to the floor, supply appropriate impact.
All in all, this is a fine rendering of a tricky track, and MGM has done a marvelous job sprucing it up for this Blu-ray release.
All of the extras from the 2008 DVD release of 'Notorious' have been ported over to this Blu-ray edition. It's quite a bounty, and well worth delving into.
USC professor Drew Casper handles the second commentary, which delves deep into the film's fabric, analyzing the plot and characters, and describing Hitchcock's "pervasive and profound" influence on the art of motion pictures. This largely scene-specific discussion examines the self-reflexive nature of 'Notorious,' how Hitchcock employed elements of German Expressionism and Russian Constructivism throughout the movie, censorship issues, the significance of Bergman's various hairstyles, and the idea of duty versus romance. Casper says there's more sexual treachery than political treachery in 'Notorious,' and provides background on Bergman and Grant. He also freely admits 'Notorious' is his favorite of all Hitchcock's films, and his unbridled enthusiasm at times gets the better of him, but this is still a rich, substantive commentary that's presented like a college master class, and those who take the time to listen will reap substantial rewards.
'Notorious' ranks as one of Alfred Hitchcock's finest films, a meticulously constructed and brilliantly directed espionage romance, featuring a suspenseful, substantive plot, excellent performances, and plenty of dazzling cinematic style. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman make an incendiary team, and Hitchcock brings out the best in both actors. A slick video transfer, solid audio, and a wealth of supplements make this an impossible-to-resist upgrade for Hitchcock fans, and a treat for those who've never seen this superior, mesmerizing film. Highly recommended.