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Notorious   A+

The Criterion Collection

Year Released: 1946
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Ben Hecht
Cast: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Louis Calhern, Leopoldine Konstantin, Reinhold Schunzel, Moroni Olsen.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

In Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman star as two people who desperately want to be together, but who can't come right out and say it even if their lives depended on it. Their failure to communicate leads to Bergman's character getting caught up in some nasty espionage business that finds her marrying a neo-Nazi in postwar Rio and ultimately puts her life in jeopardy.

But let's back up here for a moment.

Ingrid Bergman is Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. Alicia is notorious for her "loose sexual nature" and her drinking. At one of her parties soon after her father is locked away, she meets a handsome man named Devlin (Cary Grant), who she starts to seduce nearly the moment she lays her eyes on him. As it turns out, Devlin is an American agent who wants Alicia to put her seductive charms to good use by spying on a ring of neo-Nazis in Rio. But Devlin never considered that they might fall in love before the time comes for her to start her work. Nor did he know exactly what her mission would entail -- specifically that it would involve Alicia seducing an old friend of her father's, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), who was once in love with her. Of course, Sebastian's subsequent marriage proposal is a surprise to everyone.

To begin my unabashed gushing about Notorious, I must say that the black and white photography is absolutely gorgeous and Hitchcock's unmistakable visual style is on full display. There are many subjective point-of-view shots that effectively pull us into the action and make us participants in the film's action. In one brilliant shot, Alicia wakes up after a night of drunken joyriding to see Devlin standing in the doorway and the camera twists around so that we see him upside down, as she does, as he walks over to her side. It's a shame that so few filmmakers know how to use the camera as brilliantly as Hitchcock, who makes every shot count to enhance the story and pull us further into the action.

And pull us further into the action is exactly what Hitchcock does in the controversial three-minute kissing scene with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Hitchcock moves in for a tight two-shot at the beginning of their embrace, reeling us in with stunning ease, and he holds tight on them for nearly three minutes. It's not one continuous kiss, of course (the Production Code wouldn't allow any kiss over three seconds long), as their kissing is broken up by dialogue. The camera doesn't cut away once, even as the two lovers leave the hotel balcony, still embraced, and make their way to the telephone and, finally, to the front door, at which point the embrace comes to an end and Grant exits. It's a genuinely erotic scene, even if it's extremely tame by today's standards.

But one of the things I find intriguing about this film is that its villain, Sebastian, is more sympathetic than its hero, Devlin. Devlin isn't exactly your typical charming hero. As played by Cary Grant, he hides his emotions under a veil of cold arrogance; he even hits Alicia to get control over her when she's freaking out in the car. Is that was a nice-guy hero does? Devlin does fall in love with her, but he can't find the courage to admit that to himself or to her. Sebastian, on the other hand, truly loves Alicia and shows it. He's oblivious to the game being played on him and doesn't know that Alicia is just "pretending" to love him back. In true Hitchcock fashion, Sebastian has a creepy domineering mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), so that we feel even more sympathy for the poor bastard. Sebastian is ultimately a slimeball, but Claude Rains plays him with such a human touch that it's tough not to feel sorry for him.

As wonderful as Cary Grant and Claude Rains are, however, Notorious is Ingrid Bergman's show all the way. Her performance is unforgettable, conveying much more with her eyes and subtle facial expressions than with words. In fact, much of what Alicia is thinking throughout the film remains unspoken, but we know exactly what she's thinking without her saying a word. She and Grant have terrific chemistry, but she's the one who's running the show here.

I could also heap praise upon the almost unbearably suspenseful party sequence at Sebastian's mansion in which Alicia carefully passes a cellar key (which she stole from Sebastian's key ring) to Devlin when he arrives, so that they might discover what Sebastian and his friends are hiding down there. I could also gush about the unforgettable climactic sequence, which doesn't step wrong once. But I'll spare you.

Notorious is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. The disc is chock-full of special features, including commentaries by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane, who digs really deep in her scene-specific analysis, and film historian Rudy Behlmer, who tells all about how the movie got made in the first place. Then there's the complete broadcast of the 1948 Lux Radio theater adaptation (starring the voices of Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten), an enormous collection of still photos, production correspondence, a nice collection of trailers and teasers, script excerpts of deleted scenes and alternate endings, short newsreel footage of Hitchcock and Bergman, an isolated music and sound effects track, and, uh, gee, is that it? It's a wonderful DVD and a must-have for any hardcore Hitchcock fan.

I'd place Notorious not far behind Vertigo as one of Hitchcock's best films, and close to Casablanca as one of cinema's greatest romances. I don't think I'd be exaggerating to say that it's as thrilling and suspenseful a romance as you're likely to see. The tension steadily tightens as the film progresses, building to as perfect an ending as there's ever been.

Review published 11.26.2001.

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