Notorious ranks as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces, and this new edition from Criterion, featuring a brand new 4K digital restoration of the film, excellent audio, and a plethora of new and vintage supplements, instantly eclipses any previous home video release. Perfect performances from Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains enhance this riveting tale of espionage, romance, and unrelenting suspense that demands a spot on every movie lover’s shelf. Must Own.
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 strIkes the right tone, balancing tension and unease with elegant romance, sardonic wit, brutal irony, and sexual innuendo. Like any director, he both hits the bullseye and misses 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. Rest assured, plenty of Hitchcock‘s patented artistry and invention dazzle the senses, but there are no chase scenes, no explosions, and 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 an undercover milieu where duty trumps romance, longings go unfulfilled as the characters risk their lives and sacrifice their well-being in an effort to eradicate evil from our society. 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 fugitive 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 suspected Nazi conspirator 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 - outweigh 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 delicate, treacherous 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 of the Sebastian mansion 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 relished pushing buttons, pushing envelopes, and pushing 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. (He also starred in Suspicion, To Catch a Thief, and North by Northwest.)
And Bergman was one of his favorite leading ladies. She also appeared in Spellbound and Under Capricorn, but Notorious is without question her finest Hitchcock portrayal. As the brazen bad girl early in the film, Bergman 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 coolness with a savage vulnerability. Bergman won three Oscars during her long career, but it's shocking 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 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
The Criterion edition of Notorious arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 12-page foldout booklet featuring an essay by Angelica Jade Bastien, a cast and crew listing, transfer notes, and portraits of Grant, Bergman, and Rains is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
First of all, let’s makes one things clear. This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Criterion greatly improves upon the previous 2012 MGM Blu-ray rendering. Newly remastered in 4K resolution from three elements - the 35 mm original camera negative, a 35 mm nitrate fine-grain, and a 35 mm safety fine-grain - this transfer at last gives Notorious the digital makeover it has long deserved. As addressed in the liner notes, Notorious has not been particularly well preserved over the past 70 years - and evidence of that lack of care is still evident - but this version lends the film a vibrancy and lushness I never thought I’d see again.
Grain is evident, and in a few isolated scenes it’s rather heavy, but on the whole it is well resolved and not nearly as pronounced as it was on the 2012 Blu-ray. The picture possesses a lovely film-like feel, with upticks in clarity and contrast heightening the image’s immediacy and impact. Black levels are rich, whites are bright, patterns resist shimmering, superior shadow delineation keeps crush at bay, and excellent gray scale variance enhances the feeling of depth. Hitchcock employs abundant close-ups in Notorious to pump up romantic tension and produce a sense of psychological claustrophobia and they are all deliciously sharp and glamorous. Best of all, the myriad nicks, marks, and scratches that plagued the 2012 Blu-ray have all been meticulously erased, so attention never wavers from the absorbing narrative or Hitchcock’s stunning technique.
The only thing I can think of to harp upon might be that the picture occasionally seems a tad bright, but the instances are so rare they hardly merit mention. Though seven years ago I praised the MGM transfer, this new Criterion remaster blows that rendering out of the water and breathes new life into this beloved masterwork. Notorious will never look perfect, but this transfer comes closer to achieving that elusive result than any other home video version. If you’re a Hitchcock aficionado, I would highly recommend upgrading, especially if you have a high-end display. You will not regret it, I assure you.
According to the liner notes, “the original monaural soundtrack was first restored in 2001 from a 1954 35 mm acetate release print and a 35 mm nitrate fine-grain master” and “additional restoration was performed by the Criterion Collection for this release.” The LPCM mono track is free of any age-related hiss, pop, and crackle, which is especially good news given all of the film’s silent stretches and hushed conversations. A wide dynamic scale benefits Roy Webb’s magnificent music score, which exudes more fullness and tonal depth than ever before, and no distortion disrupts the audio. Subtleties come through clearly, sonic accents like the shattering wine bottle and police car siren possess appropriate oomph, and all the dialogue, even when breathily whispered, is easy to comprehend.
Is this audio better than the DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track on the 2012 Blu-ray? Yes, but the aural improvements aren’t nearly as noticeable as the visual ones.
Here’s where things get a bit dicey. Aside from the original Notorious theatrical trailer, only ONE extra from the 2012 Blu-ray’s extensive supplemental package has been ported over to this Criterion release. That poses a problem for special feature junkies like me who would love to get rid of the old MGM edition, but can’t bear to part with all the great supplemental material contained on that disc. If you’re a hardcore Hitchcock fan, you just might want to hang on to the 2012 Blu-ray. I certainly am. The Criterion extras, as always, are terrific. Informative, insightful, often rare, and elegantly produced, they provide superior context and perspective on this classic motion picture.
Audio Commentaries - Two commentary tracks were included on the 2012 Blu-ray, and two are included here as well. The first was recorded in 2001 by Hitchcock expert Marian Keane, who provides an insightful scene specific discussion that analyzes the story and characters of Notorious within the context of Hitchcock’s cinematic style, and examines how that style influences our interpretation of the narrative. She also addresses the fairy tale elements that pervade the film and talks about how the shot/reverse shot pattern that Hitchcock employs enhances the viewer’s perspective. The second commentary was recorded by Rudy Behlmer way back in 1990 (likely for the film’s laserdisc edition) and it is equally informative. Behlmer concentrates more on the production of Notorious, chronicling casting, screenplay development, studio dealings, and the relationships between Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick, Ingrid Bergman, and Cary Grant. He reveals alternate casting choices for key roles, points out script deletions, and explains several proposed endings. Behlmer’s commentaries are always top-notch, and this one is no exception.
Documentary: “Once Upon a Time...Notorious” (HD, 52 minutes) - In addition to film analysis, this exceptional 2009 documentary explores the political climate that influenced the conception and production of Notorious. Directors Stephen Frears and Peter Bogdanovich, several noted Hitchcock historians, actress Isabella Rossellini, and Hitchcock’s granddaughter Mary Stone discuss such topics as the film’s problematic view of love, the unique hostility that infuses the romance between Grant and Bergman, the real-life roots of the movie’s story, and the domineering mothers that pervade many Hitchcock tales. Bogdanovich cites Grant’s portrayal as “the darkest characterization of [his] career” and we learn Hitchcock once said Notorious contained the “fewest mistakes” of any of his films. Newsreel footage, archival interviews with Hitchcock from 1964, 1966, 1968, and 1973, a 1971 interview with Bergman, and excerpts from the famous Hitchcock-Truffaut audio interviews enhance this perceptive, well-made documentary.
Featurette: “Powerful Patterns: David Bordwell on Notorious” (HD, 30 minutes) - Film scholar David Bordwell meticulously examines several key scenes in Notorious, but focuses intently on the construction of the film’s narrative and stylistic climax. Elements of his discussion include optical point of view, the juxtaposition of long and short takes, Hitchcock’s use of stairs, and the romantic suspense that complements the espionage plot.
Featurette: “Glamour and Tension: John Bailey on Notorious” (HD, 23 minutes) - Cinematographer John Bailey (Silverado, In the Line of Fire) looks at the film’s visual profile, citing subtle lighting and film noir camera angles as distinguishing elements of Hitchcock’s style. He also praises Ben Hecht’s sophisticated script and the photography of Ted Tetzlaff, offers up an explanation for Hitchcock’s puzzling penchant for fuzzy and artificial-looking rear projection footage, and provides a fascinating tutorial on reflex and non-reflex cameras. In addition to Notorious, clips from The Lodger and North by Northwest illustrate his points.
Featurette: “Poisoned Romance: Donald Spoto on Notorious” (HD, 21 minutes) - HItchcock biographer Donald Spoto talks freely about the director and regards Notorious as not just a great Hitchcock film, but one of the greatest films ever to come out of Hollywood. Among other things, Spoto discusses myriad motifs in the film, including the woman-in-trouble theme that pervades many Hitchcock works, salutes writer Ben Hecht as the movie’s unsung hero, and rhapsodizes about the picture’s “brilliant structure.”
Featurette: “Writing with the Camera” (HD, 16 minutes) - This absorbing piece focuses on Hitchcock’s obsession with storyboards and how he used them to maintain control of his films and protect them from studio interference. Several Hitchcock collaborators discuss the director’s technique and how the storyboards acted as a visual screenplay, and side-by-side comparisons between the storyboards and finished film illustrate just how closely Hitchcock followed them. (Maybe that’s why he always classified the shooting of a picture as boring.) Clips from Notorious, The Birds, and Psycho add luster to this fascinating featurette.
Vintage Radio Adaptation (60 minutes) – This 1948 Lux Radio Theater adaptation is the only extra ported over from the 2012 MGM Blu-ray release. Bergman reprises her role as Alicia Huberman, while Joseph Cotten takes over for Grant as Devlin. With its nuances, subtleties, and long stretches of visual exposition, Notorious isn't the kind of film that translates well to the audio medium, and this condensed version, though efficient, lacks the romantic and physical tension of the original work. Cotten is also no Grant, and the character of Devlin loses a fair degree of magnetism in this adaptation.
Vintage Newsreel Footage (HD, 1 minute) - This brief clip shows Hitchcock and Bergman arriving in London in 1948 to film Under Capricorn. Shot on the airport tarmac, the footage features playful banter between the two icons that largely revolves around the richness of British cuisine.
Theatrical Trailers (HD, 4 minutes) - The film’s original theatrical preview along with three rarely seen teasers complete the extras package.
Notorious ranks as one of Alfred Hitchcock's finest films, and this new Criterion Blu-ray edition brings the film to life like never before. A meticulously constructed and brilliantly directed espionage romance, featuring a suspenseful, substantive plot, excellent performances, and plenty of dazzling cinematic style, Notorious is instantly absorbing and keeps us riveted from the first frame to the last. A brand new 4K digital restoration, excellent audio, and a terrific array of new and vintage supplements make this release the new gold standard for one of Hollywood’s greatest films. You can never have enough Hitchcock on the shelf, so even if you already own the previous MGM Blu-ray from 2012, definitely grab this fantastic Criterion release, too. Must Own.