Notorious is a classic Alfred Hitchcock film written by Ben Hecht and starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains. That right there should be enough to sell it, but in addition to the fine film, Criterion has assembled a first-rate collection of new and carryover bonus features and a stunning new restoration of the film itself.
The Production: 5/5
Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious is a major touchstone within his storied career, the pinnacle of his work with producer David O. Selznick. (And it is perhaps not a coincidence that this is the film in which Selznick stepped back, allowing Hitchcock to flourish on his own.) While other films Hitchcock made with Selznick received more awards recognition (Rebecca), it is Notorious that feels most like a Hitchcock picture, and the love triangles, intrigue and suspense that he invoked here would remain signature elements for the remainder of his career. Throw in one of Cary Grant’s more nuanced performances, along with the reunion of Casablanca stars Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains, and a script by the great Ben Hecht, and you’ve got all of the ingredients necessary for one of the all-time greats.
The classic tale begins when Alicia (Bergman), an heiress and socialite whose father was a Nazi sympathizer, is recruited by a government official (Louis Calhern, excellent in an un-flashy role). Alicia is tasked to infiltrate an organization in Brazil which the U.S. government believes has ties to the old Nazi regime, and Alicia’s family history and well-publicized history of promiscuity makes her an ideal agent to seduce Sebastian (Rains), an old friend of her father’s who the government believes holds the secrets to whatever plot there is to uncover. An agent named Devlin (Grant), is assigned to supervise the assignment as Alicia’s handler in Brazil. Serving as a formidable foe is Sebastian’s mother (a chilling Leopoldine Konstantin), who is suspicious of her son’s new love affair. What makes Notorious so fascinating is that Grant and Bergman are allowed to play flawed characters who remain so throughout the film. Devlin falls hard for Alicia, but won’t allow her to see the truth of his feelings so as not to interfere with the mission. And Alicia is ultimately willing to do what must be done, putting aside her own longings for Devlin. Sebastian, in a way, is a tragic figure, for the love that he develops for Alicia is genuine on his part.
Hitchcock, always a master of pacing, is seemingly able to manipulate the flow of time at will here. Opening sequences which establish Alicia’s personality, her father’s shameful history, and the government’s interest in checking in on suspected Nazi activity in Brazil all move along at a rapid pace. When Alicia and Devlin first meet, time seems to stop as the two circle around each other, poking and probing for defenses, and discovering that they’re more compatible than they would have expected. And nowhere is Hitchcock’s use of pacing better demonstrated than in the final moments of Notorious; it’s a race-against-the-clock scenario paced at a crawl, allowing the tension of every breath and every footstep to be deeply felt by the audience.
3D Rating: NA
Notorious is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Normally, when I watch a film for the sake of a review, I keep my trusty notepad nearby, and jot down little bits of info and timecodes to return to for more in-depth study. My page for Notorious is a little different. I wrote down the word “exquisite” shortly after the movie began, and just kept returning to underline that word throughout the film. This is a stunningly gorgeous transfer, that retains the beautiful rich look of nitrate film, with all hints of age and wear swept away. The entire film has near perfect clarity and a beautiful range of black and grey tones. Detail is perfect, with Grant and Bergman looking every bit the radiant movie stars that they are. Even the film’s numerous opticals have been greatly improved, now blending in almost seamlessly with the rest of the presentation. The previous MGM/Fox Blu-ray disc from 2012 was actually above-average for that label’s catalog releases, but this new Criterion edition represents a substantial upgrade.
The film’s audio is presented in an uncompressed PCM 1.0 monaural track. The audio here is also an improvement over the previous Blu-ray edition, allowing for a much more even, balanced experience with a significant reduction in hiss and crackle compared to the earlier released. Dialogue is always easy to discern, and is well-balanced with Roy Webb’s score.
Special Features: 4.5/5
This Criterion edition of the film carries over bonus features from their previous laserdisc and DVD releases and adds a significant amount of high quality new material. Fans of the film who own the previous MGM-Fox Blu-ray release may wish to hold on to that edition as its unique bonus features have not been carried over.
Rudy Behlmer Commentary – Carried over from both the Criterion laserdisc and DVD, this commentary track features Behlmer recounting the film’s history in a remarkably pleasant fashion.
Marian Keane Commentary – Carried over from the Criterion DVD, this is a more academic track than Behlmer’s, and is focused more on film analysis and theory rather than history.
Once Upon A Time … “Notorious” (52:02, upscaled from SD) – A 2009 documentary from a French series, this feature not only details the creation of the film but also context about the time in which it was made.
Powerful Patterns (29:42, HD) – A compelling new featurette analyzing the film’s ending, with film historian David Bordwell.
Glamour and Tension (23:25, HD) – Noted cinematographer John Bailey analyzes the film’s photography in this interesting new featurette.
Poisoned Romance (21:01, HD) – Hitchcock scholar Donald Spoto analyzes the moral chasms the film’s characters must navigate in this enjoyable new featurette.
Writing With The Camera (15:54, HD) – A fascinating new featurette created from new and archival interviews concerning Hitchcock’s preproduction process on the film.
Lux Radio Theatre (59:56, audio only) – A 1948 radio adaptation of the film, with Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton.
Pathe Reporter Meets… (0:48, HD) – A 1948 newsreel clip with Hitchcock and Bergman.
Trailers (HD) – Four trailers of varying quality and length are included on the disc.
Booklet – Includes an essay by critic Angelica Jade Bastien and notes about the film’s restoration.
Notorious represents some of the very best work from Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. While the film speaks for itself, this new Criterion edition is also a winner, presenting a tremendous upgrade in visual and audio quality from the previous release while adding a significant set of new bonus material.