****/**** Image B Sound B- Extras C+
starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Louis Calhern
screenplay by Ben Hecht
directed by Alfred Hitchcock
by Walter Chaw Other than Psycho, the most examined, most carefully raked-through picture in Hitchcock's filmography might be the cold, meticulous, perfect Notorious. It serves as a model for technique, offered as the pinnacle of Hitchcock's early American period and used as proof by some that Hitch was a misogynist. The Dark Side of Genius author Donald Spoto wrote a fitfully interesting (if ultimately useless) article about how the first half of the film is a mirror image of the second--rising to a midpoint before diminishing at the end to the same composition as the first shot. (I'd argue that you could say the same for Shadow of a Doubt--particularly during the movie's character-/setting- establishing sequences.) Stories of how the FBI began a file on Hitch because of his prescient use of uranium as his MacGuffin in Notorious are among the most beloved Hitch arcana, and critics who favour Lacan as the prism through which to analyze the Master of Suspense have found in the picture compelling demonstrations of spectatorship and gender construction. For Freudians, it has its Oedipal elements, its Madonna/Whore complexities--it's a very fine historical relic, one of maybe only two of the director's films (the other being Shadow of a Doubt) that's ever entered into a noir conversation. And at the end--among those in the know, at least--it's the better version, in every way that matters, of Casablanca. Robin Wood writes a brilliant piece on it in his second Hitchcock book, taking on previous brilliant takes by Laura Mulvey, Raymond Bellour, and Michael Renov. I probably like Raymond Durgnat's quick-hit the best, however, for his pegging of the picture's iciness and of Hitch at this moment as midway between idealistic and cynical (though I'd go farther and say he's pretty much all the way cynical by now). Notorious is possibly, neck-and-neck with Vertigo, the best film Hitchcock ever made, though it's seldom identified--unless you're Francois Truffaut--as anyone's favourite (leave that for the bitterest (North by Northwest), the most nihilistic (Psycho), the least sick (Rear Window)), and when the dust settles, the prospect of writing about it is almost as intimidating as pretending that there's anything new to say about it. But here goes.
Notorious is among the most observant films about the intricacies of male sexual jealousy (not the male gaze, Mulvey) and the destructive impact of traditional family structures on a woman's gender identity. It's deeply wise about the world, deeply cynical, it goes without saying, and at least as damning a personal referendum on Hitchcock's sexual insecurities and peccadilloes as Vertigo. It opens with an annotation of the scene's time and day and place, very much like Psycho will--and, also like Psycho, it invites a conversation about voyeurism in the image of a reporter peeking through a cracked doorway into the courtroom, where Nazi sympathizer John Huberman is being sentenced for treason. It's our introduction, too, to Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), harassed by the media (gathered like the crowds of vultures outside all of Hitch's courts) and later by a motorcycle cop (shades of Psycho, again) before she's bludgeoned into unconsciousness by spook Devlin (Cary Grant) and forced to drink some milky-looking liquid upon her return to the world. Devlin is only the first man to ask her to drink something. (It's worth wondering if contemporary viewers would have remembered Grant in his previous Hitchcock collaboration Suspicion, bringing poor Joan Fontaine a glass of radioactive milk.) Here Devlin, in the employ of the U.S. government, recruits Alicia to infiltrate a Brazilian cell of Hun through a sham marriage. The title refers to Alicia, of course, driven by her intense unhappiness and unfortunate association with a Nazi to drink, coarse talk, and, it's strongly implied, promiscuity. I like to think that "notorious" also refers to the obvious proclivities of men when presented with women they'd like to tame, to place upon the mantle next to their other trophies and outward measures of masculinity.
Alicia is drunk at her party--she'll spend the rest of the film under some form of intoxication; the MacGuffin is hidden in wine bottles; Devlin forgets a champagne bottle in his boss's office; and Hitchcock's cameo is of the portly director quaffing a glass of wine at Sebastian's (Claude Rains) mid-film shindig. When Alicia's true allegiances are uncovered by her Nazi husband and his dragon-mother (Leopoldine Konstantin, billed as Madame Konstantin), the two conspire to poison her slowly--Alicia's subsequent blurriness resulting in lover Devlin becoming disgusted and accusing her of boozing again. A romance strictly in the bleakest, darkest sense of the word, Notorious portrays marriage as first a kerchief tied around Alicia's middle and a drunken newlywed ride into the night (the corollary to this DUI occurs in North by Northwest, another Mata Hari story with Grant, this time cast as the compromised woman opposite Eva Marie Saint), then as one of sexual enslavement in the name of Old Glory, and finally as a betrayal of a man, Nazi or no, apparently true in his love for Alicia. Alicia chooses love instead with an arrested, repressed, bona fide bastard of a man. It's the correct ending to Casablanca--it's Gilda, isn't it? The bride is drugged and robbed of her vitality and the things that made her an object of interest in the first place. In Notorious, Alicia, as with other Hitchcock women, experiences a transformation over water with news of her father's death; has decisions made on her behalf regarding her protean nature; and is moored to surrogate father figures intent on bending her to their own old/new patrician ideologies. The main difference between Notorious and Gilda, really, is that in place of firebrand brunette Rita Hayworth, you have wholesome milkmaid Ingrid Bergman, the embodiment of what Wood would call "natural"--turned out like a ten-cent whore by the biggest star on the planet.
There's much talk, and rightfully so, of the party scene at Sebastian's and its extended crane shot from eye-of-God to extreme close-up of a key Alicia's hiding in her hand. It's a virtuoso camera move--the kind people talk about when they talk about Hitchcock. There's the checkerboard design of the floor where Alicia will eventually collapse, the white queen as gambit--and isn't that Devlin eternally moving across the board like a knight in Hitchcock's chess match? There's intrigue in the way that tension is created in the steady imbibing of wine and champagne, with Devlin in the basement like a Jungian in-joke: Alicia's repressed desires at literal war with her drab marital reality. The glue is Bergman, who gives her best performance as Alicia, boozy, confused, martyred to male sexual jealousy--the hands nailing her to the cross her own. There's a scene at a racetrack where Sebastian, looking at his horses, trains his binoculars on Alicia, talking to Devlin by the rail. It's an issue not of spectatorship, as a similar scene will be in The Birds as Rod Taylor watches Tippi cross back over Bodega Bay, but of the role the masculine lizard brain plays in reducing Alicia to a piece to be manoeuvred, displayed, etherized, and finally muzzled and embalmed into marriage. The fascination comes in the idea that Alicia consents--it's the same fascination in all of Hitchcock's American films: The women always consent, even though surrender means the rejection of vitality, individuality, and free will. When Hitchcock finally shoves a woman's corpse into a bag of potatoes (Frenzy), it's not so much shocking as it is the Master at last cutting the shit.
Notorious is a beautiful, frigid clockwork, a surgical dissection of adult manners and social mores adorned with romantic love only inasmuch as a "Grey's Anatomy" schematic could be called pornography. It prefigures all of Hitchcock's subsequent work and summarizes all that came before; with Selznick distracted by problems with Duel in the Sun (his attempt to turn Jennifer Jones into Vivien Leigh), Hitchcock had an unusual amount of latitude, and so, with briefly-favourite screenwriter Ben Hecht, he plowed through multiple drafts of this loose adaptation of a SATURDAY EVENING POST story from 1921, "The Song of the Dragon."* It's fascinating to chart the progression of the scripts (as Leonard Leff does in his well-researched Hitchcock and Selznick), especially the evolutions of the character of Devlin and the ending, which vacillated from the death of one of the major players to a traditional wedding cutaway to how it stands today: this chilling, amoral little smile that drifts across the face of America's sweetheart as her demon lover helps her kill the man who loved her and who she betrayed in every way it's possible for a woman to betray a man. Hitchcock identified with some dark, lonesome, ambiguous element in Cary Grant (hence their quartet of collaborations), but I do wonder if his casting alongside one of Hitchcock's first forbidden objects of desire doesn't speak to an infinitely more complicated relationship. A chicken picnic originally written for this film appears in To Catch a Thief; it seems that when Hitch wanted to tap his own jealousy, he hung out with his handsome surrogate. Once we get to North by Northwest, Hitch exacts a bit of revenge in an extended lecture about the popularity of his wrong films for the wrong reasons besides, casting Grant in the role of Bergman on a drunken drive and as the protean female fucked for God and country. Edmond Rostand, eat yer heart out.
Notorious has a wonderful scene involving a giant coffee pot, a series of surreptitious glances, and a set of Rorschachian shadows blending mother and son into a single black barrier against escape. It deals with deception and play-acting, with dangerous ideas about patriotism and how love of country is so often transposed over the love for a father, indistinguishable in its dogma from any other belief in the arbitrary and the irrational. Yet it's not the technical wizardry or the political topicality, the "romance" or the intrigue, that leave this slick aftertaste, but rather the essential sickness of how men perceive women. When we speak of mirror images, consider that Alicia begins as Madonna for Sebastian and Whore for Devlin, and how that shifts for Devlin only when she's about to be killed by his sexual rival--and how that shifts for Sebastian in what is at its essence an identical circumstance. It speaks to impossible complexity and unwinnable contests, to what it is to be trapped by our nature in cycles of adoration and revulsion. The picture's closest analogue in Hitchcock's oeuvre is Vertigo: the same iconography of obsessive desire, the same transformation of one woman into multiple shards and fragments in various mutant aspects. Making more sense as you get older as a cautionary tale, it's one of the few undisputed masterpieces in the short history of this medium, and there's no analysis of it yet that is comprehensive. It's arguable that one couldn't exist, because Notorious constantly fluxes in direct pace with every audience's personal evolution. It's different every time.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Through Fox, MGM drops Notorious on Blu-ray in an AVC-encoded, 1080p transfer in the proper Academy ratio of 1.37:1 that, again, doesn't represent a quantum upgrade to the previous DVD release (or, indeed, the Criterion edition from a few years back), but is enough of an improvement to be noticeable. There's a bit of jitter in the early going, black levels are erratic, and for a while it seems like every third shot suffers from generation loss that in many but not all cases points to optical trickery (like when an upside-down shot of Grant rights itself), but for me, Notorious has proved revelatory in every incarnation...and this one is no exception. Even Gregg Toland's grain-heavy, second-unit Latin America work has in it the seeds of Touch of Evil. The connection, incidentally, between Hitchcock and Welles has never been adequately explored; someone smarter than me should give it a go. Presented per custom in 2.0 DTS-HD MA, the mono soundtrack is wholly unremarkable but for the clarity with which it delivers dialogue. Once more, echo is a slight but negligible problem.
Two non-Criterion, very conspicuously "MGM" commentaries dress the disc, the first from film professor Rick Jewell--who goes on at extreme length about the history of RKO, the involvement of Selznick, and the efforts of Hitchcock to assert himself as producer with fairly dickish demands and peevishness--and the second from the ubiquitous Drew Casper. Casper concentrates on the film itself, but at times he can sound more like a cheerleader (as when he gawps at how long it takes the Grant character to grow a name) or a narrator. Much preferred is Rudy Behlmer's yakker for the Criterion platter, if you can score it. The "Isolated Music and Effects Track" for whatever reason pulls Roy Webb's score out from under the picture. "The Ultimate Romance: The Making of Notorious" (28 mins., SD) is the only place on this BD where you'll find Behlmer, who gathers with others (Leff included) to discuss the romantic-ness of the picture. No. Michael Medved contributes the worst comments to the piece with his broad, ignorant generalities, declaring, among other things, that all of Hitch's American films featured big stars. Truly? I hate this man--and this did nothing to change my mind.
"Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Spymaster" (13 mins., SD) does its best to recast Hitchcock as the Master of Espionage, which handily, I think, deflates what this film is about along with every notion ever put forward about the form and function of the MacGuffin; and in "The American Film Institute Award: The Key to Hitchcock" (3 mins.), beautiful Hitchcock granddaughter Mary Stone introduces footage from Hitch's AFI award ceremony, complete with a cameo from Bergman. A "1948 Radio Play starring Joseph Cotten and Ingrid Bergman" (60 mins.) has everyone's sociopathic uncle doing another Hitch-flick role in a well-honed radio adaptation, while the now-perfunctory snippets from Bogdanovich's (2 mins.) and Truffaut's (16 mins.) chats with the Master continue the supplements. Rounding out the all-SD, 100%-recycled presentation are a cool "Restoration Comparison" (3 mins.) that would fit in well with any Academy interstitial plus the theatrical trailer for Notorious. If only Criterion had done these three Hitchcock Blu-rays (Rebecca, Spellbound, and this one). If only. Originally published: March 6, 2012.
*One image from the third draft persists with me as though it were shot--something to do with it kind of having been filmed as the entire Forio weirdness in Marnie: Picture Alicia surrounded by prized racehorses as they foam and snort, eyes rolling--and a shot, briefly held, of a dollop of said foam as it lands on Bergman's snow-white shoulder. return