Bergman, Grant, Hitchcock...a recipe for cinematic success if ever there was one. Made in 1946, "Notorious" is a dark film that isnít afraid to reveal the morally ambiguous nature of the espionage trade -- a fairly bold stroke given the fact that the greatest conflict in human history had just ended and the "good guys" were practically above reproach. "Notorious" is also unique in that it serves as a bridge between Alfred Hitchcockís classic British mysteries of the 1930s and 40s and his later more Americanized films of the 50s and 60s. There are no real heroes of this tale but the ending still manages to be happy and Hitch isnít nearly as jaded here as he would become in later films like "Vertigo" or "The Rope."
Previously available as a much less expensive disc from Anchor Bay, "Notorious" was been fully remastered and is here presented as a full-blown special edition from the folks at the Criterion Collection.
Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is the lovely daughter of a Nazi agent who has just been found guilty of crimes against the United States. Something of a party girl and wanton woman, Aliciaís dubious reputation precedes here wherever she goes (hence the title of the film). Dashing agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) convinces Alicia to go to work for the U.S. and accompanies her on a trip to Rio to uncover the activities of a cell of ex-Nazi agents based there. Refusing to admit his love for Alicia, Devlin callously throws her to the wolves and watches as she marries Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) to infiltrate the inner circle of the Nazis. Sebastian may be a bit of a dolt blinded by love but his stern mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) is not so easily charmed -- although her reasons for hating Alicia have little to do with any suspicion about her loyalties and more to do with her own unhealthy relationship with her subservient son. As Alicia and Devlin slowly uncover the mystery so to do they fall ever deeper in love with one another. But will Devlin express his love in time or will his stubborn streak lead to ruin?
"Notorious" is among my favorite films and contains all the hallmarks of a classic Hitchcock yarn. Letís see, thereís a beautiful blonde heroine, a dashing cad of a hero, a domineering mother figure, slowly building suspense, and the wonderful use of the camera to tell the story in images as much as in words. If you had to pick one film that was quintessential Hitchcock this one would certainly be in the running.
The chemistry between Bergman and Grant is wonderful and one can barely resist the urge to reach out and slap some sense into Devlin. But Konstantin practically steals the show as the mother who clearly delights in her sonís missteps. Unfortunately for Rains, his character is given little to do but appear the idiot. This is really a fine ensemble cast and nary a line of Ben Hechtís fine script is spoken wrong.
"Notorious" is presented in its original full frame, black and white format. Cobbled together from a number of 35mm source prints, this new restoration offers a fairly seamless experience and only a few scenes stand out as being of lesser quality than the picture as a whole. The image is nice and sharp which is of the utmost importance for a black and white film as a soft picture leads to nothing but a mess of gray. Black levels are also solid offering fine detail across the entire spectrum.
There are a few problems with the transfer the most noticeable being the large amount of film grain evident. While grain is a given for a film of this time period there are a few scenes where it becomes quite distracting. In addition, reel change markers were left in place and a few scenes display shifts in brightness that appear to be the result of some severe damage to the original film elements.
All in all this is a solid transfer and I canít begin to imagine what state the film was in before restoration supervisor Scott MacQueen and crew got their hands on it. But those expecting the sort of miracles seen on the recent DVD for "North by Northwest" may be a bit disappointed. Just bear in mind that "NbNW" was restored strictly in the digital realm while "Notorious" was restored on film and then transferred digitally for this new DVD.
Audio is a newly restored English Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack that is just as good in terms of quality as the new video transfer. There is of course very little dynamic range and some minor distortion here and there but the track is very clean with no audible hisses or pops. Dialogue is always clear and is never eclipsed by the musical score or sound effects (which, by the way, are offered on their own on a separate isolated track). Thereís nothing here that will challenge your system but itís a relief to just sit back and listen to the film without once having to grab for the remote to hear a muddled passage or two.
While the previous Anchor Bay edition offered up a fine enough version of the film on DVD, itís in the extras department that the new Criterion release of "Notorious" really begins to pull away from the competition.
First up are two commentary tracks. Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane anchors the first track and offers up a shot-by-shot account of the film that reveals much of the symbolism inherent in the staging of each shot. One would think that this type of scholarly excursion would get old after a while but Keane manages to keep the discussion relevant and interesting from start to finish.
The second commentary is by film scholar Rudy Behlmer who has leant his considerable expertise to a number of DVD and laserdisc special editions over the years. His tone is always conversational as he delves into a non-stop discussion of the film. This track offers a more general look at the film and its stars and is wonderfully entertaining.
As previously mentioned, an isolated track featuring the filmís score and sound effects is also included and sheds much light on the new restoration of the audio elements.
The disc also offers a number of text-based supplements including script excerpts for deleted scenes and alternate endings (some of which are really quite grim), production correspondence, and excerpts from the short story "The Song of the Dragon" on which the film is based.
Also included are a number of still galleries covering aspects of the filming such as the use of rear projection as well as the more standard publicity shots.
Of particular interest to fans of the golden age of radio, the complete hour-long Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of "Notorious" is presented uncut with full introduction and commercials. This 1948 production features Ingrid Bergman reprising her role with Joseph Cotten taking over for Cary Grant. This is a wonderful feature that Criterion has been including of late on many of their classic films.
One unique extra is entitled "The Fate of the Unica Key" and it features Martha Keane recounting how Ingrid Bergman presented Alfred Hitchcock with the famous prop at the 1979 American Film Institute ceremony honoring the director.
Rounding out the extras are theatrical teasers and trailers and a few seconds of newsreel footage showing Hitchcock and Bergman getting off the plane at Heathrow airport.
"Notorious" is a wonderful film that fans of Hitchcock canít possibly be without. While the newly restored audio and video do offer a slight increase in quality over the less expensive Anchor Bay edition of the film, the wealth of fine bonus features really makes the Criterion edition the one to get. Very highly recommended.