Criterion Review: NOTORIOUS (1946)

Alfred Hitchcock weaves a twisted love affair amidst a gripping spy thriller

There are entries in the careers of directors that often feel like watershed moments where they find their own style, their voice, or cut loose and unleash something memorable. When you say Hitchcock, your mind goes towards the later thrillers, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, Rear Window, mysterious movies with twists and his aesthetic and obsessive themes fully formed. Notorious is one early entry that feels like a pivotal moment for the filmmaker. His style is evident, but married to a narrative that feels in a way streamlined, resulting in a showcase for mastery of suspense to blend with a rather twisted love affair.


With this twisted love story, Alfred Hitchcock summoned darker shades of suspense and passion by casting two of Hollywood’s most beloved stars starkly against type. Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia, an alluring woman with a checkered past recruited by Devlin (Cary Grant), a suave, mysterious intelligence agent, to spy for the U.S. Only after she has fallen for Devlin does she learn that her mission is to seduce a Nazi industrialist (Claude Rains) hiding out in South America. Coupling inventive cinematography with brilliantly subtle turns from his mesmerizing leads, Hitchcock orchestrates an anguished romance shot through with deception and moral ambiguity. A thriller of rare perfection, Notorious represents a pinnacle of both its director’s legendary career and classic Hollywood cinema.

The story itself is relatively simple. It’s the dynamics between the three leads that give the film most of its substance. Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is a socialite, driven to alcoholism by the conviction of her father for treason, but one day is offered a shot at redemption by Agent Devlin (Cary Grant). Use her family contacts to ingratiate herself with some former colleagues of her father in Brazil, to uncover information pertaining to Nazi activity. Her primary target is one Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), an older businessman who has key ties to members of the German government. Alicia is deployed by Devlin to win his affections and trust, all the while aiding his investigation into the man. However, matters are complicated by a burgeoning romance between Devlin and his ward, and Alicia’s spiraling ‘relationship’ with Sebastian that swiftly results in marriage and a resulting wedge between her and her lover/handler.

As it sounds, Notorious has all the ingredients for a spy thriller and melodrama, and it delivers both. The noir-spy component is engaging, the stakes are real and relevant, and a sense of urgency and danger is palpable. This doesn’t just come from the complex, propulsive script from Ben Hecht, but by the circumstances that befall Alicia. A flawed, troubled women, thrust into this escalating situation despite her ongoing alcoholism, she’s forced to not just hold herself together, but contend with the affections of these men and the growing resentment of Devlin. He’s essentially whoring out the woman he purportedly loves, both of them bound by a sense of duty, and in pursuit of this, in conflict with their own morality. He’s torn between his mission, his love, and witnessing this developing relationship with Sebastian, who despite being a Nazi, can be viewed as treating her with more honor that Devlin.

It’s a tortured, twisted love story, given an added edge by the thriller component. Much rests on the lead trio, and they all turn in sublime work. Bergman makes it easy to fall for Alicia, imbuing her with a sass, a devil may care attitude, alongside the empathy for her plight. Grant is an imposing, complex character, working vulnerability into his authoritative position. Together, they sizzle. Claude Rains’ performance is key to much of the drama though, serving in some ways as a counterpoint to Grant, while adding a genuinely believable darkness to proceedings. For Hitchcock, this does feel like a stripped down affair, free of some of the complexity that is present in his later films. This allows a precision to his direction, more control of the story and the emotion within. While some parts of the film do seem a tad clichéd or lean into the melodrama, it’s fitting for the era and handled well, fitting into Hitchcock’s mastery of tone, transition, and atmosphere. While the film as a whole impresses, there are a few flourishes that standout amidst his entire oeuvre. The first, a incredibly long lasting kiss between Alicia and Devlin, is orchestrated to not only light up the screen with passion, but also defy censors who at the time forbade kisses lasting longer than 3 seconds. The second is a panning shot that moves from a wine cellar, through a bustling party, only to end up focusing on a key in the palm of Alicia’s hand. Notorious is a more than an enthralling love story and thriller, it’s a potent example of the technical and dramatic prowess of Hitchcock.

The Package

Criterion offers up a new 4K remastering of Notorious, one that shows off an impressive amount of detail and depth. The grain present is natural, not overly processed, with a superb contrast showing a nice range of greys and whites, with deep blacks. Extra features are impressive, even by Criterion’s usual standards:

  • Audio commentaries from 1990 and 2001 featuring film historian Rudy Behlmer and Alfred Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane
  • New interview with Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto: The author of The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock discusses the origins of Notorious, the development, and Hitchcock’s work with producer David O. Selznick. New interview for this release.
  • New program about the film’s visual style with cinematographer John Bailey: New interview shot for this release, where the Bailey talks about some of the distinct looks and shots from the film, and how many of these aspects of the film worked their way into Hitchcock’s style over his entire career. Insightful and entertaining.
  • New scene analysis by film scholar David Bordwell: Largely focuses on the tone of the film, how the atmosphere was built by Hitchcock, as well as how the finale unfolds.
  • Once Upon a Time . . . “Notorious,” a 2009 documentary about the film featuring actor Isabella Rossellini; filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich, Claude Chabrol, and Stephen Frears; and others: A very good documentary that does much to frame the film against the political/social climate of the era in which is was set/made. A very insightful work, drawing from multiple talents, to add context to the film.
  • New program about Hitchcock’s storyboarding and previsualization process by filmmaker Daniel Raim: A great, albeit short featurette that uses interviews with production designer Robert F. Boyle (The Birds), storyboard artist Gabriel Hardman, amongst others, to detail the original conception of the film as well as much of the pre-production process.
  • Newsreel footage from 1948 of actor Ingrid Bergman and Hitchcock
  • Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Notorious from 1948, starring Bergman and Joseph Cotten: A 60 minute radio adaptation of the film, originally broadcast January 26th, 1948.
  • Trailers and teasers: Four different trailers.
  • Liner booklet: Featuring details on the restoration as well as an essay by critic Angelica Jade Bastién.
  • New cover by Greg Ruth

The Bottom Line

As you’d expect from Hitchcock, Notorious is a great thriller, but it also manages to deliver complex examinations of morality within a enthralling love triangle. Slickly constructed, it’s pared down in a way that puts much on its lead trio of Bergman, Grant, and Rains, who all more than rise to the occasion. A dark, seductive work that gets a impressive treatment from Criterion.

Notorious is available via Criterion from January 15th, 2019.

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