Criterion // 1946 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // February 17th, 2004
"This is a very strange love affair." -- Alicia (Ingrid Bergman)
The official title is Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious. What should we make of that apostrophe? Perhaps it refers to reputation, that is, "Alfred Hitchcock is notorious." That would certainly be true. We cannot approach Hitchcock directly: his legend haunts us like his famous silhouette. Notorious is the culmination of his famous Selznick period (although Selznick sold off the project after pre-production) and one of his most fully realized films. Indeed, it is a film about reputations. In the aftermath of her father's conviction for treason, German émigré Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) tries to maintain her composure as the world looks suspiciously at her. She is always watched, always objectified as a potential threat. One man watching her is Devlin (Cary Grant), with a bemused smile and steel eyes. Like the devil his name suggests, he offers her a deal in his cool manner. Tired, she agrees.
Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious. Perhaps it means possession, that this notorious thing belongs to Hitchcock. Certainly, this is a film about possession. Alicia becomes the possession of the American spy Devlin, infiltrating a cadre of escaped Nazis at his behest, becoming the possession of her old lover Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains). But her marriage to Sebastian is at its core always a betrayal: her heart belongs to the cynical Devlin.
This is indeed a very strange love affair.
The affair between Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick (all very platonic, thank you very much) is one of the stranger battles of wills in Hollywood history. Both men were notorious for their, well, control issues. Those talents meshed on Rebecca, in which Hitchcock subsumed his droll humor for Selznick's lush melodrama. Spellbound was less comfortable: one senses in Hitch's free-wheeling approach to psychoanalysis a resistance to Selznick's domineering paternalism. The Paradine Case? Well, it was clear by that point that the partnership was beyond repair.
But before the ignominious end came Notorious. David O. Selznick wanted to make Notorious as far back as 1939, as an alternate project in case Rebecca fell through. When Hitchcock was able to bring Ingrid Bergman aboard, the project became much more than a Selznick melodrama. It became one of Hitchcock's masterpieces.
The key is in the relationship between Alicia and Devlin. These two damaged souls hurt one another out of fear of letting their guards down and getting hurt themselves. Devlin, suspicious of Alicia's notoriety, is cynical toward her, mocking her newfound sobriety and her inexperience at espionage. Even when he admits that "it wouldn't be hard" to fall in love with her, he makes it sound like just another job.
One might chalk up their refusal to admit their love to duty. After all, this is film noir, where desire must be displaced in order to enclose the law. The mission comes first. Besides, there is a war on, or at least its shadow lurks in the background: even if the fighting has stopped, the evil remains. But Hitchcock seems less interested in the bind loyalty places on us than in the psychological damage of war. Hurt by their pasts, these traumatized lovers refuse to heal one another -- they know they are in love, and each torments the other. When Devlin announces to his fellows that Alicia is "first, last, and always not a lady," his desire and regret bear down on him. He is fascinated by her unladylike courage and power, but disturbed by his lack of control. Even Sebastian and his sinister mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) fascinate in their synthesis of threat and sympathy. How can they protect each other, and themselves, and their cause, without betraying something or someone? And how do they bear such betrayal emotionally, in a world where we are all judged (and judge ourselves) on our loyalty?
Thus, what might be a routine romantic thriller becomes unexpected, through the complex psychological drives of the characters. And Hitchcock always plays with expectations of chance. We see the plot drive in one direction, only to be nudged elsewhere. Devlin in the wine cellar, searching for the key to Sebastian's power: he nudges a wine bottle as he tries to inspect the potentially incriminating papers behind it. They bottle falls -- we jump. But the bottle is filled with sand. Suddenly, something is out of place, an anomaly that marks an entirely new direction, a new mystery. Central to Hitchcock's plan is the enigma of the "Unica Key." What might it unlock? And is the mystery merely a MacGuffin that conceals a deeper mystery: what drives Devlin and Alicia's relationship and how can two lost souls in concealment unlock one another?
As always, Hitchcock finds perfect casting hidden beneath Hollywood's need to place glamorous faces at the forefront of a story clearly driven by character. Ingrid Bergman is imperiously beautiful without excessive makeup or fancy knickknacks. The film may dress her up in Edith Head costumes, but she resists gloss for understated psychology: her exhaustion, frustration, and desire always show through. Balancing her, Cary Grant plays the handsome Devlin with detachment. Watch when Devlin tells Alicia that her father is dead, and she thinks about what to say. Better, watch this scene without dialogue, with the isolated music track Criterion offers on this disc: you can see the characters' thoughts come through simply from the movements of their eyes.
Criterion presents a superior release of Notorious with even more extras than usual. The print itself is not perfect, as crisp as might be expected at its age (a few scratches here and there, but its slight grain actually gives it a more eerie and suspenseful quality). Two commentary tracks are offered (along with individual chapter indexes). The first, recorded by Rudy Behlmer for the 1990 laserdisc release of the film, covers the production history. The censorship struggles of the film (especially surrounding Alicia, who was at first portrayed as more openly sexual) are traced, as well as background on all the major players in the production. Behlmer is always listenable and well organized without being stiff and offers a good background on the film for Hitchcock neophytes. He even points out the scene Carl Reiner and Steve Martin parodied in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.
A new commentary track by film scholar Marion Keane offers a more analytical approach, offering a synthesis of feminist, postmodern, and psychological interpretations. She discusses the film's deliberate theatricality and use of the objectifying gaze, Alicia's constant reshaping as an object of desire (by men in particular), the tension between Alicia's sexual power and Devlin's (and Grant's) smug ruthlessness, and even recoups the complex Sebastian as one of Hitchcock's most interesting villains. For those who dismiss Hitchcock as a lightweight director of Hollywood thrillers, this commentary track gives a strong sense of his complexity and sophistication.
Criterion presents a host of additional material in a "Notorious Dossier." The complete Lux Radio Theater adaptation of the film, running an hour, features Bergman and Joseph Cotton (as Devlin) and is a trimmed down and noticeably more melodramatic version of the story. Listening to this without Hitchcock's brilliant visuals should make you respect the director's touch all the more.
The background behind the film's production is developed here through excerpts from the original 1921 John Taintor Foote story, "The Song of the Dragon," upon which the screenplay was loosely based. Try this: "And I kept telling myself that I was only one girl, and it was for America. I must give, as the boys would have to give..." Whew! Thank heaven Ben Hecht shaped this stuff into a screenplay that would not make anyone cringe. In fact, Ingrid Bergman initially resisted the project because of the propagandistic aspects of the story. A collection of production correspondence traces David O. Selznick's plan in 1939 to put Vivian Leigh in the part to Bergman's involvement after the war to the tug-of-war between Hitchcock and the censors. J. Edgar Hoover even makes a cameo: his disapproval of Hollywood depictions of the FBI led to Devlin becoming an agent of an unnamed department. The constant changes to the film are chronicled in a section featuring script excerpts and stills from five deleted scenes (matched to their reshot counterparts or fitted into brief bookend clips) and another section offering five alternate endings, all written as story treatments (none made it to script stage). All other endings pale before the one Hitchcock eventually chose: to leave the action suspended with all outcomes uncertain. Instead, the four by Ben Hecht and one by Clifford Odets all openly show the defeat of the villains (often in a shootout or chase scene) and the happy resolution of Devlin and Alicia's relationship.
Along with two galleries of photographs -- a section of behind-the-scenes candids (Hitch and company clearly enjoying themselves) and a gallery of publicity stills and advertising art (plus comments by Edith Head on costume designs, noting Bergman's dislike of ornamentation) -- we have four trailers, not nearly as witty as the ones Hitch would direct himself during the 1950s, and a minute-long newsreel segment showing Hitch and Bergman arriving at Heathrow Airport. Also included is a short segment on how Hitchcock and Gregg Toland used rear projection (a novel technique at the time) to place the actors in Rio. Of course, Hitch's notorious dislike for location shooting would become a major issue in his films in later years.
But the oddest extra in this collection is a two-minute audio segment from Marian Keane describing Ingrid Bergman's impromptu tribute to Hitch at a 1979 AFI Lifetime Achievement Award banquet. No photos or film clips from the actual event are ever shown. I would imagine that footage from this event must be available: why would AFI not provide this material to Criterion?
Perhaps there is a secret still left here, a hidden mark on the reputation of this film and on Hitchcock himself. Thus, with questions left unanswered, there is still something notorious about Notorious. We desire its capture, but it slips out of our grasp. The film offers us a look at our own desires: for justice, for love, and for self-protection. Like Devlin and Alicia themselves, their frustrated desire anticipating the Cold War and its attempt to enclose all desire, we remain haunted by the possibility that the deepest cruelties that can be inflicted on us come not from somewhere outside, but from ourselves.
Alicia and Devlin are released and their files sealed. This court commends them for their service to their country.
Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2001 Nominee
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1946
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary Track by Film Historian Rudy Behlmer
* Commentary Track by Film Scholar Marion Keane
* Isolated Music Score
* Excerpts from "The Song of the Dragon"
* Production Correspondence
* Rear Projection Demonstration
* Production Stills
* Deleted Scenes
* Alternate Endings
* Publicity Stills
* Audio Essay on the Unica Key
* Hitchcock Newsreel
* Lux Radio Theater Broadcast (1948)