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Probably the best of the Selznick-owned Hitchcocks and still the most dramatically satisfying product of that producer-director arrangement, Notorious is a fascinating film, a superior romance and a model of suspense construction. It follows up Hitchcock's noir classic Shadow of a Doubt with another fundamentally sick premise, one that meshes well with the hazy post-war moral climate. It also offers proof that Hitchcock was aware of the Manhattan atom project before Hiroshima!
The story begins with a headline court case. U.S. spymaster Capt. Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern) needs to ferret an agent into the midst of some surviving Nazi conspirators operating out of Rio de Janeiro. The solution is to recruit Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a convicted traitor. Emotionally disturbed by the revelation of her father's crimes, Alicia volunteers mainly because of her attraction to agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant). Their romance is cut short when Devlin discovers Alicia's role will be to play Mata Hari with the enemy. In Rio, Alicia renews her acquaintance with the shady industrialist Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), and swiftly marries him. After more or less seducing Alicia into the role of sex-spy, Devlin communicates his amorous distress in perverse insults and bitter resentment. Professionally, Devlin and Huberman zero in on Sebastian's secret, which has something to do with uranium ore hidden in champagne bottles. But Sebastian is beginning to suspect that something is amiss with his new bride, confirming the suspicions of his calculating mother (Madame Konstantin). Besides adding to Alicia's misery, Devlin's abusive behavior is beginning to put her at risk.
Almost perfectly constructed by writer Ben Hecht, Notorious combines pitch- perfect Hitchcock direction with excellent casting. Hitchcock's visual command is always in the service of the story, raising the suspense sequences to impressive heights. Even the editing is of the not-one-frame-more, not-one-frame-less variety. The movie is a model of understatement and intelligence, which must be why it "got away" with its rather racy theme of a woman sleeping with the enemy.
The characterizations and casting are fascinating from several points of view. Ingrid Bergman's Alicia actually does what her character tried to do in Casablanca, feign love and sleep with a man for a higher principle. In the queasy postwar years the morality of victors and defeated alike could sometimes seem to be in question, and Alicia Huberman's past promiscuity and personal shame are terrible burdens to bear. Agent Devlin's unpleasant situation, watching as his woman romances another man, adds another level of doubt and tension. Seeing Cary Grant carry out such a coldblooded affair is faintly disturbing -- these are complicated characters, and so are our reactions to them. Even 'villain' Claude Rains adds to the growing interpersonal tension. As the romantic fall guy, he's more than sympathetic, and viewers probably identify more closely with his predicament than with Bergman and Grant's.
Finally, in light of the public castigation soon to be given Ingrid Bergman in retribution for choices in her personal life, Notorious seems almost prophetic. Agent Devlin's condemnation of Alicia parallels the hypocritical media lynch mob that excoriated Bergman for running off with an Italian film director. Of all the vintage scandals that hit Hollywood this may have been the most unjust. The situation is comparable to The Scarlet Letter.
Julie Kirgo in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (still the best book on the subject) brought out the truly perverse angle in Notorious, where a man encourages his lover to sleep with another man for patriotic reasons, only to despise her 'low morals' when she does. The resulting strange triangle acknowledges a weird undertow in the concept of 'romance'. People raised in a repressive society can be completely hypocritical when judging those that violate conventions, and the burden on women to be saints and sluts at the same time creates a tangle of crossed messages and emotional barriers.
Hitchcock's MacGuffin in this thriller is uranium ore, which Hitchcock claimed he was aware had something to do with a super-bomb secretly being made in New Mexico -- in 1944! Although the idea was just a hook for his story, Hitchcock liked to hint that during production he had been investigated by the FBI. The same year's Gilda also took as its plot motivator the notion that Nazi-sympathizing industrialists were conspiring in South America, to corner the world's supply of Tungsten. The idea of counterpointing twisted political intrigues against twisted sex relationships worked well in that film, too.
A decade later, when postwar jitters had condensed into a continual Cold War, Hitchcock and writer Ernest Lehman revisited the central idea of this film. Their North by Northwest often plays like a Notorious-lite on the move, with laughs. Cary Grant redeems his ungallant behavior with Ingrid by being decent with Eva Marie Saint. Roger Thornhill is not such a priggish jerk about the idea that a love interest might be independent, might sleep with another man. NxNW shifts the burden of hypocrisy to the C.I.A. Audiences cheer a pointed line, when Thornhill declares that if America can't fight communism without sending their women off to sleep with the enemy, "Then maybe we ought to start losing a few Cold Wars." Good show.
MGM / Fox's Blu-ray of Notorious gives us this great film in Hi Def for the first time. Older DVD transfers were always very good and materials on this title have apparently been well preserved. With the higher resolution it is easier to see the traveling matte work used to insert the lovers' balcony scene with backgrounds filmed in Rio. Even a door opening to the courtroom in the first scene, is revealed to be a traveling matte optical. Although real Brazilian backgrounds appear only in rear projection, with doubles used to replace the stars, Hitchcock's technique and the tight script keep us believing in the story. The scene on the bridle path appears to have been filmed in Griffith Park.
Although owners won't want to part with their Criterion DVD special editions, the disc producers have assembled some good extras. Professors Rick Jewell and Drew Casper offer separate academic commentaries. The two new featurettes for the disc are limited in scope but fairly entertaining. The Ultimate Romance is the making-of piece and The Ultimate Spymaster goes into the espionage angle. Other extras include a radio performance with Joseph Cotten and Ingrid Bergman, audio interviews with the director and a theatrical trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Notorious Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.