Alfred Hitchcock has a reputation for three things: style, suspense, and his distinctive profile, which turns up in cameo in every film. His 1946 film “Notorious” also has a reputation for three things: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and “the kiss.”
It’s all part of Hollywood lore how Hitchcock ingeniously subverted a Production Code limit of three-second kisses by having Grant and Bergman take heavy-breathing breaks every three seconds, while still pressing close to each other, before locking lips again to produce one of the Big Screen’s longest and most notorious kisses.
This is a very strange love affair.
Maybe because you don’t love me.
When I don’t love you, I’ll let you know.
Contemporary audiences might wonder where the thrills are in this psychological thriller, because the first half of the film plays very much like a straight drama with romantic overtones. It’s only toward the end of the second act, really, when viewers begin to feel the suspense that each character is internalizing beneath their calm and composed exteriors.
What does the speedometer say?
I’m going to go for 80 and wipe that grin off your face.
The film opens with a judge pronouncing a “guilty of treason” verdict on an older man who’s rattled adult daughter (Bergman) tries to make it past a swarm of cameras and reporters. In sequences that will surprise viewers who’ve only seen Bergman in “Casablanca,” Alicia drinks to drown her sorrows, whether in private or at a party. That provides the perfect opening for T.R. Devlin (Grant), a federal agent who coerces her into doing a bit of spying for the government. Her job: go to Brazil with him and infiltrate a group of suspected Nazis who have fled there. They’d trust her, since her father was just sentenced.
But a funny thing happens while the two are in Rio, awaiting orders. They start to grow fond of each other, and that makes it difficult for both for both of them (though they try to hide their feelings) when her orders finally arrive: to use whatever means possible—even sex or marriage—to grow close to Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), one of the group’s ringleaders and a former friend of her father’s. Even more sinister than Sebastian is the mother (Leopoldine Konstantin as Madame Sebastian) who lives with him.
After that, it’s all about three things: poison, uranium, and dazzling cinematography. In the film’s most famous shot, Hitchcock begins with a high shot of guests at a party below as they stand on parquet flooring looking a lot like pieces on a chessboard. Then the camera gradually pulls closer and closer until we see, in close-up, the Alicia’s hand holding the key that she plans to hand off to Devlin in plain sight of the Nazis who could have them both killed. Hitchcock was a firm believer in the build-up, convinced that it made such moments as this more effective, and he’s right. But for contemporary audiences who seem unable to walk without texting someone, that slow simmer may not be nearly as effective as it was in the ‘40s, when audiences had more patience.
Assessing the video quality for this title is a tricky business.It’s been well publicized that the original source elements weren’t in the best of shape, and that extensive restoration was needed even before the DVD release, which still retained dirt, lines, and grain that couldn’t be fixed. Well, there are still scenes in which the grain is heavy and shimmers with noise. But at least DNR hasn’t been applied to excess. Contrast also suffers in some scenes that seem a little soft (backgrounds especially, while the foreground figures are higher contrast), and there’s still the occasional flicker or fleck of dirt.
On the other hand, high definition makes enough of a difference that you suddenly notice the rear projection and matte paintings used in the backgrounds. They stand out now more than they ever did, and that’s when you realize that there’s stronger edge delineation on the actors and other objects and more detail in the close-ups than on the DVD. And as far as I can see, the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer did its job. “Notorious” is presented in black-and-white 1.33:1 full screen.
The audio is an English DTS HD MA 2.0 Mono, with subtitles in English SDH. It’s devoid of distracting crackle and hiss, delivering silence when it’s demanded, and for Hitchcock fans that’s no small thing. Other than that, there’s nothing much to say about an audio presentation that’s mostly functional.
As on the DVD there are two commentary tracks, but not the same ones. Unfortunately, neither film professor (Rick Jewell or Drew Casper) is as interesting as Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane or film historian Rudy Behlmer from the DVD commentaries. Jewell spends more time talking about RKO than he does “Notorious,” and Casper pitches his remarks at the 100 level when, I’m convinced, it’s 200- and 300-level mindsets who tune in to commentary tracks.
The 1948 Lux radio broadcast featuring Bergman and Joseph Cotton is ported over from the Criterion DVD, and there’s also an isolated music/effects track—surprising, actually, since the music for this particular film seems to recede into the background. Rounding out the bonus features is a 28-minute making-of feature in standard def, a 13-minute feature on how “Notorious” influenced the spy genre (quite good, actually), a three-minute AFI clip in which Hitchcock’s granddaughter introduces segments from the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award, two audio interviews Hitchcock gave (Peter Bogdanovich, 2 min.; Francois Truffaut, 16 min.), a brief restoration comparison, and the theatrical trailer.
The key (pun intended) is to ignore the label of “psychological thriller” that this film has drawn, since what it means to “thrill” has changed over the past 70 years. That label may have come from a review in which New York Times critic Bosley Crowther said, “Mr. [Ben] Hecht has written and Mr. Hitchcock has directed in brilliant style a romantic melodrama which is just about as thrilling as they come.”
Romantic melodrama. If contemporary viewers think of “Notorious” in those terms, it will still strike them as the classic it’s become.