MGM // 1946 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 6th, 2012
Deep their love! Great the risk!
"There's nothing like a love song to give you a big laugh."
Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca) is going through a rather difficult period in her life. Not long ago, her father was convicted of being a Nazi spy, and his nasty secret has significantly tainted her reputation. She just wants to drown her sorrows in parties and alcohol; attempting to numb the pain inspired by these events. One night, one of her parties is crashed by the handsome, elegant Devlin (Cary Grant, Charade), who demonstrates considerable interest in Alicia. She's flattered and charmed by Devlin until he reveals his intentions: he's a government agent who wants to recruit Alicia for a top-secret spy mission. In fact, it's so secret that even Devlin doesn't know the details; he was handed the assignment of recruiting Alicia by his superiors.
Alicia resists at first, but eventually agrees to help out for the sake of bringing some dignity back to her family name. During the weeks of planning and preparation, she and Devlin start to fall for each other and begin conducting a passionate affair. Then they both receive a rather nasty piece of news: Alicia's assignment is to reconnect with an old flame named Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains, Casablanca), who is suspected of being a Nazi spy. Both Devlin and Alicia loathe the idea on a personal level, but recognize the importance of the mission on a professional level. Alicia proceeds with her unpleasant task, untangling a web of deceit while creating uncomfortable romantic entanglements.
I'm certainly not a proponent of cinematic censorship, but one can't help but have some small measure of admiration for the Hays code when examining the manner in which it inspired the creative mind of Alfred Hitchcock. Few filmmakers were as skilled at finding clever ways to work around the conservative rules and regulations of Hollywood's golden age. While some directors seemed stifled by the impositions and delivered films that felt fundamentally dishonest or compromised, Hitchcock made such stiff restrictions seem like inspired artistic choices. There are famous examples of this throughout his filmography, from the subtle homosexual subtext of Rope to the "train enters tunnel" innuendo of North by Northwest to the infamous shower scene in Psycho (which seemed so much more violent than it really was precisely because it obscured the truly graphic stuff). However, Notorious stands out as Hitchcock's most thorough trampling of the Hays Code.
The most prominent instance of this, of course, is the infamous three-minute kissing scene featuring Grant and Bergman. At the time the film was made, the rule was that an onscreen kiss couldn't last longer than three seconds, so Hitchcock improvised by requiring his actors to pause briefly for loving looks, nuzzling and other sweet nothings (remaining locked in each other's arms all the while). The result is a scene of passion that feels far more lusty than a three-minute sequence of uninterrupted face-sucking would have, and is commonly hailed as a triumph over the era's restrictions. Even so, it's hardly the only instance the film has to offer.
The relationship between Devlin, Alicia and Sebastian is one that offers a great deal of complexity. Devlin's instinct is to ask Alicia not to go on the "seduction of Sebastian" mission, but his allegiance is to his country prevails (a wise plotting choice by Ben Hecht, who must have recognized that almost any action can be excused if you're attempting to take down Nazi spys). So he bites his tongue, swallows his protests and sends her off. Likewise, she would like nothing better than to decline the mission, but carries forward with it due to the belief that it's what the man she loves actually wants her to do. Things get even stickier when Sebastian enters the picture, as he's not your ordinary mustache-twirling villain. A Nazi spy with uranium in his wine cellar, yes, but also a man who seems to genuinely love Alicia. He dismisses the clucking of his overbearing mother (a very good Leopoldine Konstantin, an Austrian actress making her first film appearance in nearly a decade) and proceeds to woo his old flame in earnest. We never doubt for a moment that Alicia is sleeping with Sebastian, as Hitchcock constantly finds ways to imply that fact without ever actually saying it. As Alicia tells Devlin, "You knew very well what I was doing!"
Though the three characters can certainly be labeled as heroes or villains, Hitchcock and Hecht were smart enough to realize that that doesn't mean they have to act heroic or villainous on a consistent basis (as so many cinematic characters did in those days). Devlin comes across as needlessly caustic at times, allowing his own heartache to translate into surprisingly hurtful barbs from time to time. It's an atypical performance from Grant, who offers flashes of his usual charm but seems vastly more jaded and vulnerable than the majority of his characters. Meanwhile, Rains brings a wounded soulfulness to the slimy Sebastian, whose actions are immensely wicked but whose emotions are often relatable. The film's final act offer revelations for both characters which inspire some of the film's best scenes, and the movie ends in appealingly abrupt fashion (don't worry, it's more akin to the revealing final scene of Stanley Kubrick's The Killing than the startling cinema interruptus of, say, Meek's Cutoff). The best performance comes from Bergman, who turns in one of her definitive performances as a character not too dissimilar to the Casablanca's Ilsa: a good-hearted woman torn between passion and duty, albeit in a much different way this time.
Notorious (Blu-ray) might be getting an unceremonious, menu-free release from MGM rather than the Criterion treatment it deserves (it was released on DVD by Criterion years ago), but it certainly doesn't look bad. There are occasional flecks, scratches and other bits of damage, but overall this 1.37:1/1080p print looks impressively detailed and vibrant. There are quite a few moments of softness, but these are built into the film itself (oh, those angelic soft-focus actress shots of yesteryear). There's also a moderate amount of grain present, but it never becomes distracting. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio track gets the job done well enough, presenting clean dialogue which is mostly free of hissing and crackling. The solid score courtesy of Roy Webb sounds a bit wobbly at times, but I'd say it sounds decent for its age. Supplements are ported over from the most recent DVD release: commentary tracks with Professors Rick Jewell and Drew Casper, a couple of high-quality featurettes ("The Ultimate Romance: The Making of Notorious" and "Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Spymaster"), an archival clip of Bergman presenting a famous prop from the film to Hitchcock at an AFI ceremony, a 1948 radio version of Notorious starring Bergman and Joseph Cotton, audio interviews with Hitchcock conducted by Peter Bogdonovich and Francois Truffaut, a restoration comparison and a theatrical trailer. If only MGM could have thrown together a disc menu (seriously, it's a little thing which just makes their releases seem so lazy).
Notorious is arguably Hitchcock's finest film of the 1940s, an appealingly complex spy thriller filled with stylish visual flourishes and emotionally bruised performances. Despite MGM's lack of effort, Notorious still manages to provide a satisfactory transfer and a generous portion of supplements.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1946
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Archival Footage
* Audio Interviews