Blu-ray Review: Notorious (1946)

Few filmmakers could make a thriller that has the audience biting their nails about whether the champagne will run out before the party is over–or a romance where the hero treats the heroine with contempt, but the villain truly and tenderly loves her. Yet the team of Ben Hecht and Alfred Hitchcock could put all that and more into one great motion picture.

That picture is Notorious. MGM and 20th Century-Fox are releasing this Blu-ray version of Hitchcock’s masterpiece (well, one of his masterpieces). Neither company was involved with the film’s production or original release.

Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, the apex of this romantic triangle. The daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, she’s made a reputation for herself as a good-time party girl. She drinks heavily and apparently sleeps around (something that an American movie could only vaguely imply in 1946). Then a government agent named Devlin (Cary Grant; we’re never told the character’s first name) offers her a chance to redeem her reputation and prove her patriotism. She’s to fly with him to Rio, and then…who knows?

By the time they get her assignment, Alicia and Devlin are in love–a complication that makes the assignment very bad news. She is to befriend and seduce an old friend of her father’s, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains). She succeeds beyond everyone’s hopes. Sebastian clearly loves Alicia deeply, and seems as devoted to her happiness as he is to reviving the Nazi cause.

What we have here is a heroine who, on orders of the man she loves, is literally sleeping with the enemy. And the man who sent her onto this dangerous and degrading mission burns with jealousy, hating her for doing what he told her to do.

Neither Hitchcock nor Hecht are known as ahead-of-their-time feminists, yet Notorious clearly condemns male hypocrisy concerning female sexuality. Note the scenes with Devlin and his superiors. When Alicia is with them, Devlin can’t even look at her, while the other men treat her with chivalrous courtesy. But when she’s out of the room, they talk of her with contempt, while Devlin defends her honor.

Hitchcock fills the second half of Notorious with some of his scariest set pieces. The wine cellar sequence has been studied by would-be filmmakers for decades, and with good reason. And the long walk down the stairs can tie your stomach in knots–no matter how many times you’ve seen the movie.

Before things get scary, Notorious contains one of cinema’s greatest kisses. The Production Code Authority ruled that no on-screen kisses could last longer than 30 seconds. Hitchcock got around that rule by breaking the long kiss up into multiple, shorter kisses. Kiss, talk a bit, kiss again, and so on. From the audience’s point of view, it’s one very long kiss.

Like so much of Hitchcock’s work, Notorious is great entertainment. But it’s impossible to watch without thinking about hypocrisy, male chauvinism, and the moral compromises people make to fight a worse evil.

How It Looks

I suspect that the original Notorious negative has been lost or destroyed; or maybe it’snotorious_box just in very bad condition. While the video quality is a big improvement over the Criterion DVD, it doesn’t measure up to the best transfers I’ve seen from other black-and-white films of similar vintage. The image is just a touch soft, and a little too grainy. In one or two places I spotted what looked like nitrate decomposition.

Yet the transfer is more than acceptable. There’s many a fine detail that I haven’t seen since I last caught Notorious on the big screen. The bright Rio sun and the dark noir shadows played their atmospheric roles without hurting the picture. This is probably as good as Notorious is going to get.

As is often the case with films of the 1940’s, the HD transfer sometimes brings out the fakery. Only a second unit crew visited Rio, and most of the exterior scenes involving the actors were done in front of rear-projection screens. That’s extremely obvious here, but it was just as obvious with the original audiences. In 1946, people accepted such techniques the way we accept fake-looking CGI today.

(I’ve often wondered what Notorious would have been like if Hitchcock had made it a decade later. He would have shot it in Technicolor and VistaVision, and he would have shot the exteriors in Rio. It would have been a better looking movie, but it would lack much of the atmosphere that makes the film work.)

How It Sounds

MGM and Fox present Notorious with the original mono mix, in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. It doesn’t sound like modern, explosive surround sound, but it’s not supposed to. This is the original soundtrack, sounding as good as it possibly can.

And the Extras

This disc comes with a large selection of extras. Some of them are even worth listening to.

  • Commentary by Film Professor Rick Jewell. Imagine signing up for a class in a subject that fascinates you, then discovering that the professor is the dullest lecturer alive. I gave up about half an hour into the lecture. He spent those 30 minutes droning on about the history of RKO.
  • Commentary by Film Professor Drew Casper. This one’s a lot better. Casper’s voice drenches with enthusiasm (sometimes too much enthusiasm) as he goes through the film shot by shot, discussing the characters, the story, the cinematography, and a lot of other topics. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but it was always interesting.
  • Isolated music and effects track.
  • The Ultimate Romance: The Making of Notorious: 28 minute. A pretty typical making-of documentary. Interesting, but not exceptional.
  • Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Spymaster: 13 minutes. A number of film historians make the case that Hitchcock defined the spy genre, and influenced the James Bond films–although the Bond franchise lacks Hitchcock’s moral complexity. There’s a fair amount to think about here.
  • The American Film Institute Award: The Key to Hitchcock: 3 minutes. We get a few brief excerpts from Hitchcock’s AFI award ceremony. It includes his speech, where he honors his wife and primary collaborator, Alma Reville. That’s good, because too many people forget that Hitchcock was the famous half of a team.
  • 1948 Radio adaptation starring Joseph Cotton and Ingrid Bergman: 59 minutes. It’s a curious adaptation, vastly inferior to the film, of course, but interesting in how they adapt it to the shorter and audio-only medium. You even get to hear to the old commercials. It’s also the only extra on this disc that’s also on the Criterion DVD.
  • Two audio interviews with Hitchcock, one by Peter Bogdanovich and the other by François Truffaut
  • Restoration comparison: A very short look at how they fixed up the image from their original source material. They never say exactly what that source material was.
  • Theatrical trailer: This makes it look like a love triangle drama, with little suggestion of espionage or thrills.

Here’s one of the great Hollywood movies, and MGM and Fox have done a solid job bringing it to us in Blu-ray.