Slide THIS in Your Machine: Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious

Posted on 24 April 2009 by ShepRamsey

In joyous celebration of the DVD and Blu-Ray release of the Biggie biopic Notorious, I think it’s absolutely necessary to dedicate this week’s Slide THIS in Your Machine to no other film than the elegant, stirring, and masterful film that is Notorious. And by that I mean Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 romantic suspense film. Shame on the Biggie movie for trying to steal the title of such an amazing piece of classic cinema! Notorious might just be the best film by the Master of Suspense and is certainly highly revered among many filmmakers and movie buffs.

The good ol’ dependable Criterion Collection had released an edition of this film several years ago along with other late-British and notoriousearly-American Hitchcock films like The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, and Spellbound. Most of those editions (Notorious included) are, however, now out of print. Thankfully, however we have MGM and Fox’s Premiere Collection preserving many early Hitchcock titles that won’t be found in the Warner Bros. or Universal boxed sets. Notorious is one of these films presented in the collection and it is a wholly worthy edition, complete with a fine transfer and a few terrific special features.

The film opens as Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) exits the trial of her father, a Nazi spy just convicted of treason. She is a high society woman, infamous to the public for her heavy drinking, loose nature, and now for this, and is quickly hounded by reporters, to whom she gives no comment. She returns to her beachside home to socialize with friends and drink away her problems. It’s here that she meets Devlin (Cary Grant), a mysterious party crasher who turns out to be a federal agent and there’s something he wants from her.

The US government, having bugged the Hubermans’ house, is aware of Alicia’s loyalty to America and harsh disapproval of her father’s actions. Devlin asks her to accompany him to Brazil and use her persona as the daughter of a Nazi to assist them with a currently unspecified job to help root out more conspiring Nazis. She reluctantly accepts and it’s not long before she and Devlin are on a plane to Brazil, where they await further instructions.

During his mission to oversee Alicia, Devlin becomes infatuated with her. Though he looks down his nose at the implications of her grim public image, he can’t help being taken in by her beauty and strong demeanor. And she proves to be more than responsive to his affections. The two are soon passionately in love, after just days together.

And then comes their assignment. Alicia is to woo the interests of a former friend of her father’s. The target, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), is a charming older man who was once in love with her and finds his old feelings resurfacing when Alicia gallops back into his life. The assignment sparks off a mad feud of jealousy and mistrust between Alicia and Devlin. Devlin can’t stand the idea that she has accepted the job, after letting her choose to do so on her own, subtly testing her against her promiscuous image. Alicia, on the other hand, can’t stand the idea that he would have even given her the choice at all and sees it as an act of coldness. Amid everything, they need to work together to stay on top of whatever notorious1Sebastian is up to, even when things between him and Alicia go as far as marriage.

Notorious is perhaps Alfred Hitchcock’s most emotionally charged film and the romance—not only that between Alicia and Devlin, but Alicia and Sebastian as well—is integral to the unnerving suspense of the picture. Key scenes of intrigue and espionage have us on the edge of our seats, but our concerns are entirely focused on the characters and the weight of their relationships. The three lead performances all have the most interesting of tasks on their hands and there’s a vulnerability to each of them that we rarely see in Hitchcock pictures or anyone else’s for that matter.

Ingrid Bergman is spectacular as always, but there’s something more that she brings to this film that isn’t present in her other work. She has a harsh exterior and she rings true to her “notorious” persona. In the early scenes where she drives drunk and makes an arrogant fool of herself, her character is fairly unlikable. We’re given the same view of her that Devlin has, and as his affections for her grow, so do ours. She has a strong personality and makes for a solid lead, but there’s a distinct weakness underneath of it, far more complex than most Hitchcockian characters. When she and Devlin are at their most passionate, she keeps a firm and loving grasp on him and we know that she really does need him and to prove her worth to him.

Devlin, too, is a particularly interesting character. Cary Grant is probably my favorite actor of Hollywood’s illustrious yesteryear and he always brings an unmistakable charm and wit to everything. For quintessential Cary Grant, watch him in one of Hitchcock’s most famous film, North by Northwest. He brings the same elements to Notorious, but it’s all so much dryer. Grant is more reserved and judgmental air exudes a palpable insecurity. I know what you’re thinking—Cary Grant?? Insecure?? It sounds absurd, but there’s something so human about his frightened coldness to Bergman’s Alicia, constantly testing her and doubting her. At times it’s truly heartbreaking to watch them together.

And what of Claude Rains as Sebastian? What a terrific performance! He’s certainly one of Hitchcock’s most sympathetic villains, alongside Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt and Anthony Perkins in Psycho. However, those villains were the leads in their respective notorious3films and the reveal of their true villainy was hinted at, but delayed in both circumstances. In Notorious, right off the bat, we know that Sebastian is a Nazi, and he and his cohorts are plotting something awful involving uranium kept in wine bottles (a classic MacGuffin, a plot device of which Hitchcock was a great fan). But we can’t help but respond to the desperation and loneliness of his character. We get dangerously close to wanting him to end up with Alicia, as we sense that he loves her more than Devlin.

But, oh how betrayal can shake things up for everyone! I won’t say anymore of the plot, suffice it to say that there are several outstanding scenes, some of the best-directed and most suspenseful of Hitchcock’s career, and a wonderful ending. It’s a totally compelling thriller and dark-natured romance told through the use of the most suspense-inducing human emotions of jealously, mistrust, and the dread of unrequited love. I think Tony Gilroy must have watched this film a hundred times when he sat down to write last month’s hugely underrated and sadly underseen Duplicity.

Hitchcock’s visual storytelling is also at a peak in this film. Whether it’s through the use of his camera or the performances of the actors or both, there isn’t a single frame wasted in painting the exact portrait that he wants the audience to see. It’s pretty much a fact that Hitchcock used the medium of film better than anyone else ever has. He knows the psychology of his audience and he knows every trick to captivating them. His stunning camerawork, particularly a famous shot of his which starts at the top of a ballroom, overseeing a large party, and slowly cranes down to focus on a single key—the core of the scene’s drama—illustrates the story in the most rousing and fascinating way, with full dependence on the key ingredient that sets film apart from all other mediums of art and storytelling.

As I mentioned before, the Premiere Collection DVD is quite the terrific package. It contains a solid 28-minute featurette called The Ultimate Romance: The Making of Notorious. It’s a good doc with some interesting tidbits and insights about the film by authors, historians, and fellow filmmakers, but ultimately it’s just a bunch of guys talking about how great the movie is—and I already know that. Another 13-minute featurette, Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Spymaster examines Hitchcock’s influence on the spy genre, with particular attention paid to Notorious and Hitch’s 1936 film, Sabotage. There’s also a charming and very brief look at Hitchcock’s acceptance speech for the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, in which he thanks only four people: a film editor, a writer, notorious4the mother of his daughter, and the greatest cook he ever knew—and they’re all his wife, Alma.

There are also two commentary tracks for the film–one by film professor Rick Jewell and one by another film professor, Drew Casper. Personally, I’m not much for film professor commentaries–it usually seems like if they aren’t stating the obvious, they’re stating the insanely obscure. It’s frustrating and you usually get very little out of it aside from some pretentious guy’s random opinions. Having said that, I must say that I have yet to hear the ones on this disc and for all I know, they might be scintillating.

Ironically, given the sweeping cinematic nature of the film itself, the most intriguing features on the disc are audio-only. First, there’s a full hour-long 1948 radio play version of the film starring Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton. It’s tough to call it good—given the format, it speeds through things at rapid pace, killing much of the subtlety and nuance of all of the dialogue that it takes straight from the film. It’s exceptionally interesting to listen to, however, and certainly accents how cinematic the film is and everything that Hitchcock brings to it with his expertise. If nothing else, it’s a fascinating historical artifact tied to the picture.

Another outstanding supplement is the inclusion of audio excerpts from two different Hitchcock interviews by fellow filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich and Francois Truffaut. The Bogdanovich interview is very brief, but there’s more from it on the making-of doc. The Truffaut interview is all exactly as it was published in Truffaut’s book, Hitchcock, which was essentially a transcript of several interview sessions they had together in which they discussed his entire career. Having read Truffaut’s book, I was already familiar with all of the content, but it’s nevertheless one of the most interesting ruminations on cinema technique that you’re ever likely to hear. Much of the conversation deals directly with Hitchcock’s strongly-held belief in MacGuffins and its importance (or lack thereof) to Notorious. It’s also wonderful to hear Hitch talk in his slow and articulate guttural drone—he’s a real character, that one.

So, at the risk of sounding out of line, take that, Biggie! If there’s only one film called Notorious, worthy of being slid in your machine, then it has to be Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 masterpiece. It’s an utterly stirring and emotionally resonant picture and a classic in every way. From a director whose entire filmography is a compilation of bests, Notorious is simply and unequivocally the best.

Buy Notorious on DVD HERE.                           

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