Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains
Anchor Bay Entertainment; standard format (1.33:1 aspect ratio)
If it's true, as Freud argued, that the secret of art is making our fantasies palatable to other people, then for me "Notorious" marks the apogee of Alfred Hitchcock's art. As my friends would tell you, no doubt rolling their eyes, I'm one of those people who have major issues with Hitchcock. For all his unparalleled technical mastery, to me he seems like a sadistic little boy, concocting cruel tricks to play on his characters (especially the icky girls) as well as on his audience. In the immortal phrase of critic David Thomson, Hitchcock is "an inventor of thumbscrews."
That said, my problem is less with Hitchcock's movies themselves than with their far-reaching influence; to this day, entirely too many young directors imitate Hitchcock's stylistic innovations -- with little of his wit and none of his almost diabolical obsession. The result is a filmmaking culture in which style is consistently confused with substance and art is understood as an elaborate practical joke.
Generally speaking, I prefer Hitchcock in black-and-white to Hitchcock in color, and I think his tortured sensibility works best when constrained by the glamorous studio style of the '40s and '50s. When you get right down to it, the 1946 "Notorious," a thriller scripted by Hollywood legend Ben Hecht, is as twisted a love story as anything in Hitchcock's work. Ingrid Bergman's heroine seems to spend half the movie insensible in Cary Grant's arms: She begins it dead drunk, she ends it nearly dead from poison and in between he knocks her cold. But the passion between Bergman's Alicia, daughter of a Nazi sympathizer, and Grant's Devlin, the American agent who persuades her to spy on a group of German imigris in Rio, is so powerful it's almost the movie's fourth character. Few movies of the period -- and none of Hitchcock's others -- feature such frank and potent sexuality between such incandescent stars.
Some of Hitchcock's then revolutionary camerawork, like the shot from the hung-over Alicia's perspective in which Grant's lean form revolves around the frame like the hand of a clock, will still make you leap from the couch in delight. Claude Rains nearly steals the proceedings as the oddly sympathetic Nazi whom Alicia marries, a vulnerable mama's boy who is childishly jealous of her and marches all too willingly into her trap. Is the role a directorial self-portrait?
Ciniastes may wish that Anchor Bay had put a few of the critics and scholars eager to discuss Hitchcock to work on some extra material. At least the DVD transfer of this lustrous classic captures Ted Tetzlaff's extraordinary cinematography clearly and vividly (although the musical score by Roy Webb feels a little "hot" in places, compared with the rather muted dialogue). And the bare-bones package for this midpriced disc is honestly presented.
"Sabotage" and "Secret Agent" Was 1936 Hitchcock's very best year? Two thrillers, including the director's weirdest movie ever, make the case.
By Michael Sragow [08/18/00]