It’s one of the most debated questions in all of movie fandom, “What is Alfred Hitchcock’s best movie?” There really aren’t any bad answers, it boils down to personal taste. It’s a question I myself have always gone back and forth on for most of my life. I used to state, in somewhat of a cliche, that 1958’s “Vertigo” was the finest work by The Master of Suspense. Though one can not deny that “Vertigo” is one of the most visually stunning films of all time, I have found as I’ve gotten older that my response to “What is Hitchcock’s best?” has changed. These days, I think The Master’s finest work is 1946’s “Notorious” which has just been released by The Criterion Collection in a stunning new blu-ray edition.
“Notorious” has one of the finest casts Hitchcock ever assembled for a movie. Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claud Rains—perfection. “Notorious” was the second time Hitchcock had worked with Bergman and Grant. Bergman had previously starred in the director’s 1945 film “Spellbound,” and Grant in 1941’s “Suspicion.” In “Notorious” Bergman plays Alicia, a young woman whose father is sentenced to twenty years in prison for being a Nazi spy at the start of the film. Alicia throws a party at her bungalow that evening and soon finds the mysterious Devlin (Grant) in her life.
Devlin is an agent for U.S. Intelligence and wants to recruit Alicia to help the good fight, Alicia is reluctant at first, but then Devlin plays recordings of her bugged home where she can be heard arguing with her father over her love for America. As Devin woos Alicia into becoming an Agent, he also woos her and the two fall in love. Which is splendid until Devlin’s bosses reveal to him the plan is to have Alicia seduce a Nazi businessman (Claude Rains).
The cast aside, there is much to love about “Notorious.” The film features two of Hitchcock’s standout movie moments—a two and a half minute kissing sequence that is not only one of the sexiest sequences ever put on film, but also Hitchcock’s subversion of The Production Code. The code stated that kisses could not last for longer than three seconds. So Hitchcock had Grant and Bergman kiss for three seconds, break, talk, nuzzle, and repeat. Then there is that incredible crane shot that kicks off the last third of the film. Starting from impossibly high at the top of a grand staircase, descending until it finishes up on a close up of a very important key in Alicia’s hand.
For my money “Notorious” is one of Hitchcock’s sexiest films, and features sequences of suspense that can still rile the nerves even after multiple viewings. Even though I know the ending and know it well, I still found myself anxious during the last ten minutes of the film as I was watching it for this week’s column. In 2017 I had the chance to introduce a screening of “Notorious” at The Capitol Theater in downtown Greeneville, TN. Sitting in the audience watching their reactions was a joy, as Devlin explored the wine cellar and that bottle of wine inched closer and closer to falling off—there was an audible gasp from someone.
This is not the first time The Criterion Collection has released “Notorious,” having previously released a Laserdisc edition in 1990 (which I own a copy of), and a DVD in 2001. This isn’t even the first time “Notorious” has been released on blu-ray, it made it’s debut on the format in 2011 from MGM. So what does Criterion bring to the table this time for a film that not only they’ve visited before, but that has been on blu-ray prior?
To start off with, there’s a stunning, brand new 4K digital restoration of the film. Luckily, the original 35mm nitrate camera negative for “Notorious” still exists. The original negative was combined with two other sources for the 4K restoration. Those other sources are a 35mm nitrate fine grain from the Museum of Modern Art, and a 35mm safety stock fine-grain from the British Film Institute. The audio track is based on Criterion’s 2001 restoration, created from both a 35mm acetate release print and a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master.
The special features on this edition of “Notorious” are rich and expansive. First off, there are two commentary tracks from Criterion’s earlier releases of the film. From the 1990 Laserdisc comes a really wonderful commentary by historian Rudy Behlmer—which I used when I was researching my previously mentioned introduction to the film—and from the 2001 DVD, a track with Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane. Both tracks feature a lot of information, with the Keane track focusing more on what’s on screen, and the Behlmer track giving more production background.
A set of programs discussing the film are included as well. This kicks off with “Once Upon A Time…Notorious” a 2009 documentary on the film. New Features created by Criterion for the release include an interview with Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto, A talk with cinematographer John Bailey on the film’s visual style, a scene analysis by scholar David Bordwell, A program on Hitchcock’s storyboard process by filmmaker Daniel Raim, and a new Essay by critic Angelica Jade Bastién. Archival features include a collection of trailers and teasers, the 1948 “Lux Radio Theater” adoption of the film with Bergman and Joseph Cotton in the Grant role, and a fun bit of newsreel footage from 1948 with Bergman and Hitchcock.
Criterion has produced a really fantastic blu-ray of not only one of Hitchcock’s best but one of the best films of the classic Hollywood era. “Notorious” is a must own, in my humble opinion, and you really owe it to yourself to add hits new blu-ray edition to your shelf. Top notch from start to finish! See you next week.