Notorious Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 2 release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. Perhaps his best film, presented on a rather average DVD in PTV’s “Hitchcock Collection”.

We’ve all heard the arguments about which of the fifty three films that Hitchcock directed is “the best”. Some go for Psycho, others for Vertigo or North By Northwest. Well, all of those movies are brilliant of course but my own favourite among his films is the 1946 thriller Notorious. Beautifully compact, elegant and genuinely disturbing, it deals with issues that few other mainstream American films of the period would have dared to even skate around. As a thriller, it’s totally compelling and as a romantic drama it equals Vertigo for its probing into the darker areas of the human heart.

Ingrid Bergman, in what is probably her best screen performance, plays Alicia Huberman, daughter of a Nazi spy who has been imprisoned. About to descend into the comforting void of alcoholism, she is approached by an Intelligence Agent, Devlin (Grant) who asks her to do some work for his department. This is 1946 and the Nazis are still the bad guys; the Truman Doctrine is a year away and the Communists are not yet recognised as a threat. Using the accusation that she collaborated with her father in his espionage activities, Devlin forces her to become the focus of a honey trap, designed to reel in Alex Sebastian (Rains), a prominent Nazi sympathiser now living in Mexico. So far so familiar, but Hitchcock then turns the screw by turning Alicia and Devlin into lovers. Devlin manipulates Alicia’s emotions with astonishing cruelty, violently rejecting her when she begins seducing Sebastian, even though he knows that she is just doing the job for which he recruited her. Things become even more complicated when Sebastian unexpectedly asks Alicia to marry him, thus putting her life at risk if she is discovered. Desperate for help, she turns to Devlin but is abruptly rejected by the man who she thought was her lover.

It is this insight into the cruelty of lust and the dark side of romance that makes Notorious such a great film. The thriller stuff works beautifully – there is a set-piece involving a bottle of wine packed with uranium – but it is the emotional side of the film that makes it a masterpiece. As in Vertigo, Hitchcock reveals astonishing insight into the games that lovers play. Devlin is, unusually for Grant, entirely unsympathetic for much of the film and his treatment of Alicia is shockingly cruel at times. His professional role conflicts hopelessly with his all too human jealousy and possessiveness and when he can’t align the two he relies on his bitterness. As Alicia says, he knows exactly which buttons to press to pierce her heart – “right below the belt, every time”. This means that Hitchcock can do something interesting with the stereotypes; the intelligence agent is the cold seducer while the Nazi is by far the most sympathetic character in the film. Claude Rains brings immense subtlety to the part; Sebastian is charming and socially adept but also self-conscious and hopelessly dominated by his Gorgon of a mother (a terrifying turn from Madame Konstantin), an Oedipal nightmare. His role in the climax is fascinatingly double edged. On the one hand, he earns his punishment, but on the other we are left wondering whether he really deserves his inevitable fate.

This is a very subtle film, much more so than most of Hitchcock’s work. His eye for detail was rarely better and his respect for the audience’s intelligence is manifest throughout – just look, for example, at the superficially low-key conclusion which is actually an emotional powerhouse told more through implication than direct narrative. This is among his most confident work as a director; he evidently has immense respect for these performers and seems to have been given a free hand by David O’Selznick for once. It’s the small touches that impress most; I love the fact that the first crucial reunion between Alicia and Sebastian occurs in mute long shot while we are left to fill in the blanks ourselves. This confidence extends to the handling of the actors. Ingrid Bergman is allowed to deliver her finest work, apparently free of the creepy obsessiveness which so often creeps into the female protagonists of later Hitchcock films. Beginning as a nihilistic party girl she soon reveals the vulnerability at the heart of the character and it is genuinely painful to see her manipulated so harshly by Devlin. This is a genuinely passionate performance, a million miles away from the tedious stateliness that she displayed in films like Anastasia. Cary Grant is also impressive in that he actually plays a character rather than simply the extension of himself that became so familiar in the fifties. That’s not a complaint by the way, he was perhaps the greatest of all light comedians, but Notorious proves that he was also a very fine actor. Devlin is one of the most unpleasant characters he played, but his skill makes sure that the character change (on which the end of the film pivots) is convincing and even touching. Claude Rains is typically brilliant, especially in the final scenes when he has one of those great moments when the actor’s face has to reflect a realisation of what he’s got into – like Bob Hoskins at the end of The Long Good Friday, the shocked stare on Rains’s face is worth many feet of film.

As usual, Ben Hecht supplies slyly witty dialogue which is relished by actors. The best lines go to Louis Calhern’s amusingly jaded spymaster, but Hecht is also adept at supplying Devlin with just the right level of nastiness to reduce Alicia to a wreck. Technically, the film is beyond criticism, overcoming a fairly low budget with first class process work. But at the centre of it all is Hitchcock. One of the first directors in Hollywood to get his name above the title, Hitch turns this spy drama into a probing study of the power games between men and women and the fragility of the human heart. Any suspicion that this is easy to do should be allayed by a look at Mission Impossible 2 that steals most of this plot, paces it much more slowly and makes a total mess of it. Packed with scenes that cut deep into the viewer’s emotions, Notorious is impossible to forget and probably, along with Vertigo, Hitch’s greatest work.

The Disc

This is another R2 release from Pearson TV in their “Hitchcock Collectionof the Hitchcock-Selznick films from the forties. It’s the best film of the bunch but not the best DVD.

The film is presented, quite correctly, in the original fullscreen ratio. It’s not the worst transfer I’ve seen but also far from the best. The monochrome image is rather muddy in places without the fine contrast that the film requires. Some print damage is evident in places along with some annoying white speckles. The detail level is not too good either with the picture as a whole looking generally rather soft. Artifacting in the blacks is a problem too. However, the second half of the film shows some improvement in all these areas. A proper remastering is obviously required however and I would imagine that the forthcoming Criterion release will be an improvement.

The soundtrack is the original mono. It’s clear and crisp without any obvious problems.

There are a number of extras promised on the cover but be warned ! Several of these are duplicated on the other PTV Hitchcock discs. The ones present of all of them are the Kim Newman video interview, the Hitchcock interview, the article from the Express “The Real Me (The Thin One)”, the Hitch and Bergman biographies, quotes and trivia. See my review of Spellbound for more details of these. Unique to this disc are the Cary Grant biographical material, extracts on the film from Truffaut’s book about Hitchcock, a photo gallery and production notes. All of these are entertaining to look at and it’s nice that PTV have tried to make these discs a bit special but the fact that most of the extras are identical on each disc does remove some of the pleasure. One point I would quibble with, incidentally, comes in the Newman interview where he says that Notorious was the first Hitchcock American film to fully show off his personality and talents. To me, Shadow Of A Doubt from 1942 is a better candidate for such praise, not least because it remained Hitchcock’s own favourite film.

There are 15 chapter stops, not 14 as indicated on the list of chapter headings, and the main menu is backed by some of the music from the film.

Inevitably, I could complain that this film deserves a top-class special edition and I hope this will be provided by Criterion on their upcoming release. But this disc will do to be getting on with. The weakness of the picture quality does make it less attractive than Spellbound but it’s worth buying in order to have a copy of the film in your collection while you wait for a better release.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Jul 09, 2001

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