It's always a bit tricky to approach a review of an older "classic" film. The weight of film history, and the director's reputation, can be intimidating. Yet as a reviewer, I believe that a film should always be viewed simply as a film: in the space of two hours' time, with outside considerations put aside, did it entertain me? move me emotionally? give me an insight into another time, place, or person? I anticipated liking Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, considering that I've enjoyed several of his other films tremendously, including North by Northwest, which also stars Cary Grant. But to my surprise, I found that Notorious left me cold.
In this 1946 black-and-white film, Ingrid Bergman stars as Alicia, the daughter of a captured German agent, who is recruited by Devlin (Cary Grant) to help infiltrate a Nazi spy ring in Rio de Janeiro. Love seems to develop between the two, but the question is whether the love is real on both sides, and whether it can withstand the necessities of Alicia's role as a spy.
As a spy thriller, Notorious doesn't really come together. Some key elements, such as Alicia's initial motivation to take on the job, are glossed over in order to move the story to Rio and set up the impending clash of personalities. Plot-wise, it remains fairly straightforward, with little suspense apart from a few interesting moments such as the wine-cellar / party sequence. My expectations for the film were that it would be a "spy adventure," so I kept waiting for a more complex development of the plot... all the way up to the final scene. In this case, my expectations led me astray, because in looking back at the film, I can see that Notorious isn't really about espionage at all. The "thriller" aspect of the movie is just a setting for what Hitchcock is really interested in: the tensions in the relationship between Alicia and Devlin.
However, I found that the film didn't work for me on that level, either, for several reasons. First, I didn't find either Alicia or Devlin compelling as characters. Their love/disdain relationship is the core of the movie, but I found it to be curiously flat, as if I was expected to take it as a given that the two had fallen in love, rather than being shown it in the movie itself. Bergman does a fine job of presenting Alicia, but there doesn't seem to be much of a spark between her and Grant.
Second, it seems to me that a great deal of the tension in the relationship is intended to reside in the image, and potential reality, of Alicia as a degraded person. In this case, I wouldn't be surprised if the potency of Alicia's characterization has dwindled as cultural mores have changed since 1946. Her heavy drinking is arguably a flaw in her character, but to a certain extent it's understandable, given that she's just gone through the trial and death of her father, and feels oppressed herself. With regard to her "tainted past," the film is unclear as to whether this taint comes from her father's treason or her own relationships with men in the past, or a combination of the two. Viewing Notorious in the present day, I find it hard to perceive Alicia as even potentially "tainted": her father's actions were not her responsibility, and her relationships with men are her own business... so what's the big deal? But clearly it is a big deal, both to Alicia and to Devlin, and not viewing Alicia that way cuts me off from the tension in the film between Alicia and her self-perception (and her perception of the way others perceive her).
My favorite performance in the film is actually that of Claude Rains as Alex Sebastian: an interesting and very human villain. While his actions at the end of the film are certainly not those of a "good" person, it's clear that he has a great deal at stake, that there's no easy way out of the dilemma for him, and also that he feels personally betrayed. Notorious would have been a richer film if Hitchcock had explored this territory a bit more: when both sides are doing what they feel is necessary for their country, both sides are engaging in espionage, and both sides are willing to betray another's trust... how can we say that one side is right and the other is wrong?
Notorious strikes me as a film buff's movie. It's great if you enjoy seeing it as one stage of Hitchcock's career, or if you appreciate examples of the development of cinema over the past forty-five years. But in comparison to other Hitchcock films that I've seen and enjoyed, such as North by Northwest, Rear Window, or The Man Who Knew Too Much, Notorious doesn't seem to have as much to offer the modern audience in and of itself as a movie.
The Criterion edition of Notorious presents the film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The contrast is quite good, with subtle shadings present even in relatively dim light. The overall transfer quality is not bad, but it still looks like the print could have used more restoration. A moderate amount of noise is present throughout the image; I ended up turning on the "noise reduction" feature to be able to enjoy the film more. Many scratches and flaws in the print are evident; some scenes are better than others, but there are at least minor flaws popping up throughout the entire movie.
Notorious is presented in Dolby Digital mono. The soundtrack is satisfactory throughout most of the film, but the sound clarity isn't consistent. A few lines of dialogue in some places are soft and difficult to hear properly.
Criterion has done a reasonable job of assembling special features related to Notorious for this edition, though I'd say that the extras will be mostly appreciated by devoted Hitchcock fans.
A number of text-only features are included: production correspondence, script excerpts of deleted scenes and alternate endings, and excerpts from "The Song of the Dragon," which was source material for Notorious. The video elements of the special features include brief clips of newsreel footage of Bergman and Hitchcock, trailers, and a gallery of production and publicity photos. Three special audio tracks are provided as well: a commentary track by film scholar Marian Keane, another commentary track by film historian Rudy Behlmer, and an isolated music and effects track. A "Lux Radio Theatre" adaptation of the film from 1948 is also included in its entirety.
For more casual viewers, these special features lack the interest that a good documentary would have had, such as those on the Universal Hitchcock collector's editions, but this is one extra that the Criterion disc doesn't offer.
Notorious: Criterion Collection is a good choice for your DVD collection if you already like the film a great deal. If you have never seen it, the price tag on the Criterion edition makes it difficult to recommend as a sight-unseen purchase; it's probably wise to rent it first, unless you find a particularly good sale. As for me, I'm not sorry I watched it, but it doesn't match the enjoyment value of the other Hitchcock films in my collection.