I have a confession to make: I’m incredibly conflicted about 1940’s Hitchcock. Two of my favorite films of his, Lifeboat and Rope, were made during those formative Hollywood years, and yet the vast majority of his output – Suspicion, Spellbound, and best picture winning Rebecca, among others – left me a little cold. And those are arguably some of his better films from that era (Paradine Case, Foreign Correspondent, and Under Capricorn hardly registered for me at all).
Compare this to his fantastic output through the 1950s and 60s. Even his late 1930’s work, prior to his transition to Hollywood, maintains a rough, immediate edge that seem more daring, perhaps due to the heavier German impressionistic influences.
I know why Lifeboat and Rope still seem fresh and engaging to me. It’s because Hitchcock filmed these like stage plays, and let the actors really fill into their roles and carry the stories. All of his other early Hollywood films seem exactly that: early Hollywood, with its uniquely cardboard style, which can sometimes seem a bit stiff, stodgy, and more than a little dated today.
And then there’s Notorious. Released in 1946 by RKO Radio Pictures, it tells the story of Alicia Huberman (played confidently, albeit a bit densely by Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy who is recruited by the US government to infiltrate a Nazi organization in post-WWII Brazil. Accompanying her is US agent T.R. Devil, played by Cary Grant in one of the most gloriously misogynistic roles of his career.
It certainly has the makings of a Hitchcock classic: the tightly woven mystery, the perfectly timed tension and release, the beautiful younger woman, and Cary Grant being, well, Cary Grant. Compared to Hitch’s other contemporary work, it certainly has a more foreboding, noir feel to it, and it’s probably no coincidence that this was an RKO production (who also produced Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Suspicion), which supposedly gave him more freedom to explore some of the darker themes of the story.
So, what’s the problem, you ask? Well, perhaps it’s the incredibly convenient plot, where many scenes seem to exist only to move the story forward in an awkward, unbelievable way. Or the all-too-sudden, totally passionless romance (which was apparently quite erotic for its day). Maybe it’s Ingrid Bergman, playing one of the worst spies I’ve ever seen on celluloid. And it probably goes without saying that the film is misogynistic; to a degree, most of Hitchcock’s work is, but some of these earlier Hollywood films are especially bad (Suspicion being the worst offender). His later films, while often dragging their female protagonists through dirt and mud, at least flesh them out as complex, multidimensional, and even likable characters. Here, Bergman comes off as shallow, overly-needy and brazenly irresponsible, making it difficult to muster up any sympathy for her.
Notorious does have its merits, of course. Hitchcock was known for his aspiration for “pure cinema”, and the movie is a joy to watch simply for its wonderful cinematography (Roger Ebert has a convenient listing of many of the exceptional scenes in his Great Movies article). The final scene, with Alexander Sebastian walking back to his home towards his inevitable fate, is satisfying and not a million miles away from a similar shot at the end of Kubrick’s 1956 The Killing. And the famous tracking shot, which begins wide on the 2nd floor balcony of Sebastian’s home and slowly tracks in to the key in Alicia’s hand, still demonstrates how masterful Hitchcock is at creating suspense without resorting to meaningless action.
On the other hand, some scenes, like the “passionate” extended kiss between Grant and Bergman, don’t quite work like they once did, and seem almost silly and quaint now. This film also has one of the most absurd car sequences in the history of cinema, although to be fair it does make you almost want to like Bergman’s character, which is helpful in a film so openly antagonistic to its female lead.
The video quality on this disc certainly leaves something to be desired, especially compared to North by Northwest or Psycho. Of course, those were laboriously remastered for their blu-ray debuts (not to mention films from much later in his canon), and Notorious carries over the HD transfer made for its 2008 DVD release. While I don’t have that disc to compare the two, this print is lacking in the kind of fine detail that many other black and white films from that era have been able to achieve in their recent remasters. Apparently a lot of work went into cleaning up the source materials they had to work with, and while the film certainly doesn’t look bad, it did leave me wanting more.
Special features include a radio play edition of Notorious, commentary with film professor Rick Jewell, an isolated music and effects track, and two retrospectives, The Ultimate Romance: The Making of Notorious, and Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Spymaster. I found them both moderately interesting, although I wasn’t nearly as engaged as I was by the Universal retrospectives they commissioned for all of their catalogue Hitchcock titles several years back. Or maybe it’s because I simply like those films better.
It must be said that the cover art on these MGM/UA Hitchock blu-ray releases are pretty terrible. A member on the blu.ray.com forum has created much better cover art (for this film, as well as Spellbound and Rebecca) that stay truer to the original promotional artwork released with those films: http://forum.blu-ray.com/showpost.php?p=5713718&postcount=9092
If I had to choose, I’d go with Rope or Lifeboat over Notorious any day, and I’d even rank other early Hollywood-era Hitchcock films next on my list (likely Saboteur, Spellbound, and Shadow of a Doubt). While I struggle trying to understand the critical consensus that this is one of Hitchcock’s best, Notorious still works well enough, and exists as a beautiful and confident expression on film in true Hitchcock style. As it’s been said countless times over, even a mediocre Hitchcock film is better than the best films by most other directors, and if that’s the worst that can be said about Notorious, then this is an easy recommendation.
*** out of ****