Thursday, January 31, 2019


RKO Radio Pictures, 101m 37s

Professional obligations interfere with private lives in NOTORIOUS, a supremely constructed espionage thriller directed by Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock. Set in the crosscurrents of post-WWII, the story opens in Miami, Florida, where Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is in attendance when her father is sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment for treason. The German expatriate Alicia has earned a reputation as a party girl, though she probably drinks to escape the family connection she detests. At one of her social gatherings she encounters the enigmatic T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant), who only later reveals he is a U.S. intelligence agent who knows quite a bit about her.

Hitchcock never blames Alicia for anything she does or does not do—he seems to be on her side from the beginning. Devlin is introduced as the heel, although any sensible man would have to give pause about Alicia after her reckless evening of drunk driving. This disturbing display of impaired decision-making appears to corroborate what Devlin already had suspected:  she is a lush who can be manipulated. In a moment that sets up much of what ensues, the sequence ends on a disturbing note when Devlin smacks Alicia into submission. Devlin plans to recruit Alicia to infiltrate a group of Nazi industrialists in Brazil, and as fate would have it she is the ideal choice since one of the key Nazi figures is Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a longtime fan of the attractive (and much younger) Alicia. Though at first quite reluctant, Alicia accepts the undercover position after Devlin appeals to her concealed (though undeniable) sense of patriotism. In the operation's development phase, Alicia falls madly in love with Devlin, who appears rather ambivalent about their romantic relationship. Not unaware her emotions may be barreling down a one-way street, Alicia goes so far as to tell Devlin he does not love her. He does not challenge her opinion.

"I guess I'm the girl nobody remembers."
—Alicia Huberman

The film noir regularly reminds us of the difficulty, or even impossibility, of extricating oneself from a questionable past. Even in the very early stages of their connection, there is little doubt Alicia genuinely cares for Devlin, but he smugly looks down on her because of her past. Based on her history, at best he treats her like a woman who merits his caution, at worst he considers her a loose playgirl composed primarily of alcohol and erstwhile conquests. She even obliges his darkest thoughts on occasion, as when she mentions, "You can add Sebastian's name to my list of playmates." After that statement, Devlin condescendingly refers to her as “Mrs. Sebastian.” Devlin encourages Alicia to take dangerous undercover work and perform as required to make her assignment successful, then resents her for it. Devlin's detachment from his feelings for Alicia, and perhaps about women in general, probably was absorbed from his superior Captain Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern), who also labels Alicia as “Mrs. Sebastian,” as if that were a name she would be pleased to hear. "Oh, I don't think any of us have any illusions about her character, have we Devlin?" declares Walter Beardsley (Moroni Olsen) with contempt. The intelligence men of NOTORIOUS embody an established patriarchal order built on inflexible notions about female archetypes. All of them anticipate the overly-confident psychiatrist from Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960), Dr. Fred Richman (Simon Oakland), who seems far too sure of himself.

As to Alicia's patriotic duty to which Devlin makes a powerful appeal, everything right for her country goes wrong for her personally. She cannot have the man she loves, while through professional obligation she marries the man she does not love. Alicia essentially becomes a prostitute pimped out by the intelligence boys. She even learns her true love is to be transferred to a new assignment in Spain, and by his own request! Only when during a meeting his colleagues speak ill of Alicia does Devlin provide definitive evidence he in fact harbors deep feelings for her. The film's conclusion grants Alicia a second chance after plenty of undeserved suffering, but the message that arrives with the ending is problematic from a gender studies perspective:  her redemption would not be possible without the love of an initially uncertain male. It is implied the flawed woman is worth preserving only if she can convince a man she is worthy of rescue. On a more global level, and more likely what was intended as the major takeaway from the director Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht (SPELLBOUND [1945], also starring Ingrid Bergman and directed by Hitch), healthy American love is posited as the cure for the sickness associated with the Nazi Party. At the same time, Devlin makes his departure from the sexist view of Alicia shared by his hardheaded colleagues.

In a multitude of ways, NOTORIOUS is a wonderfully complex romantic drama textured with suspenseful sequences that are pure Hitchcock. He always had a fascination with the subject of voyeurism, and frequently played off that theme in his most popular films. Such is the case with NOTORIOUS, in which Alicia is monitored from beginning to end. She is watched by reporters, intelligence operatives, a husband, a powerful matriarch, and of course by Hitchcock's camera, which always maintains sympathy for its supposedly "notorious" seductress. Only the eye of the lens is consistently accurate in the appraisal of Alicia. In spite of what has become the norm for the genre, Hitchcock proves the complicated spy thriller need not be confusing. If I were to be a little critical of what may seem beyond criticism, I wish Hitchcock were less reliant upon phony-looking rear projection scenes (this gripe could be aimed at a lot of his films). Another minor point of contention is the warp speed at which Alicia falls for Devlin, which seems unlikely for a woman of her experience and appearance (women with looks like Ingrid Bergman need not rush into anything with anyone). Those few reservations are more than made up for by the film's obvious technical accomplishments. After concern is registered about the placement of some wine bottles at a dinner sequence, the setup builds to the pivotal scene in the wine cellar with Alicia and Devlin. As the two somewhat unwittingly discover the contents of the mysterious wine bottles, the gripping power of the black & white cinematography is intoxicating. Another such moment transpires in the concluding shot that shows Alex reluctantly ascending the stairway to his front door, where his stern cohorts await with impossibly tough questions. It is difficult to imagine the film being as impactful, especially in its key movements, were it shot in color. Credit Hitchcock for sure, but also cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, who would go on to impress from the director's chair with the nightmarishly good film noir THE WINDOW (1949).

Though many may understandably consider NOTORIOUS an Alfred Hitchcock thriller foremost, it is also a film layered with visuals, themes and motifs that reflect the classic film noir cycle that was engaged fully at the time of this spy thriller's initial theatrical run. In regard to noir visual schemes, there is the implied significance carried by inanimate objects (wine bottles, a deadbolt and its key, a glass, coffee cups). When emphasized, these items exercise more control over a composition than people. Consider Alicia's drinking, which almost becomes her undoing when poison eventually substitutes for the alcoholic beverages that once defined her (at least to Devlin and his peers). Through focus on various containers of liquids, a connection between all of them is suggested. Then there is the drain in the wine cellar that works to implicate Alicia, who early in the story had alluded to her potential to go down the drain. The drinking motif takes on a subjective perspective when Alicia twice falls into a disoriented state, shared by the viewer through appropriate first-person camerawork. Early in the narrative, we share her hungover look at Devlin approaching her while she lies in bed, later we unravel with her in a hallucinatory segment that reflects her body's reaction to the poison she unknowingly consumed. Both sequences frame Alicia in uncertain terms psychologically and physically. From a noir sensibility, however, her position is familiar; a protagonist shaken by some dark force that cannot be reasoned with or undone.

Alicia may exhibit some of the traits of the noir femme fatale, but the resident spider woman of NOTORIOUS is not her. Instead that individual is Alex's coldly calculating mother Madame Sebastian (Leopoldine Konstantin), who introduces herself to Alicia with a hard line of questioning about why she did not testify on her father's behalf. Alex's mother is wise to the potential of a spy in the house long before her son, but he defensively accuses her of long-term jealousy. As the plot deepens, Alex emerges as a villain with a severe mother complex. Alex visits his mother in her bedroom, confides in her, cries before her. It is Madame Sebastian who condemns Alicia to a mercilessly slow death by poisoning. The fixation on the mother as a controlling or even domineering figure is a recurrent theme throughout the work of Hitchcock, i.e. STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) and PSYCHO. One gets the suspicion under no circumstances could Alex take a wife without some sort of objection from the dominant woman in his life.

The absence of contentment found in the traditional marriage is one of the most recurrent of film noir themes. Prior to NOTORIOUS, unproductive marriages could be identified in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), MURDER, MY SWEET (1944), MILDRED PIERCE (1945) and SCARLET STREET (1945), just to name a few, and many other instances of toxic couples would emerge in the following years. Alicia marries Alex based on her perceived job requirements, not love. From his point of interest, he feels betrayed by the duplicitous nature of his wife, and understands all too well the probable consequences. "I must have been insane, mad—behaved like an idiot to believe in her with her clinging kisses," laments Alex. This existential moment of recognition has its commonality with a wide range of noir films that present characters who cannot comprehend the depths to which they have fallen. As if to erase any doubts about noir credentials, is there anything more noir than Alex's climactic march to certain doom within his own home? Alex trusts Alicia and gets a knife in his back, in contrast Devlin is skeptical about her for the bulk of the film before he recognizes her worth. Good or bad, film noir women are not easy to figure—each man is inaccurate in his initial assessment of Alicia. Ultimately skepticism about her is rewarded, and the man who believed in her the most, with the least information, is condemned. That lesson reflects the sort of entrenched patriarchal values upheld by the American spies; men never should walk blindly into a love affair. It is preferable to maintain some emotional distance, as featured men do in other Hitchcock efforts such as REBECCA (1940), REAR WINDOW (1954) and PSYCHO.

New to the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray, NOTORIOUS has received a much-anticipated 4K digital transfer with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The result is undoubtedly one of the finest-looking restorations available of a revered black & white classic. The visual difference between the new Blu-ray, framed at the correct theatrical scope of 1.37:1, and the comparably cloudy Criterion DVD edition released in 2001 (squeezed to 1.33:1) can be appreciated via the two screen captures below (for an enlarged view, click on either image, then click back and forth on the appropriate images on the photo strip at the bottom).

Criterion Blu-ray

Criterion DVD

This dual-layered Blu-ray upgrade includes both of the audio commentary tracks from the Criterion DVD issued in 2001. The recording with film historian Rudy Behlmer first accompanied the Criterion Collection LaserDisc edition released in 1990. The author of MEMO FROM DAVID O. SELZNICK (1972), Behlmer tackles the film from an historical perspective. David O. Selznick wished to sell NOTORIOUS so he could direct his attention to the production of DUEL IN THE SUN (1946) starring Jennifer Jones (his eventual wife). RKO agreed to a $525K package, just the cash injection Selznick desired at the time. Budgeted at $2.375M, NOTORIOUS grossed $5M in the domestic market and $1.7M in the international arena. The impressive $2M profit was divided equally between Selznick and RKO. According to Behlmer, Selznick greatly influenced the final celluloid product, in particular the final act, which seems the best choice in comparison with the alternate concepts that were discarded. In his review of the production's history, Behlmer delivers a number of thoughtful analytical insights, in particular about how deceptive appearances are throughout the narrative. Everyday items have more importance than characters realize, crucial events are misinterpreted and people's feelings are misread. Behlmer's best observation is that the most effective Hitchcock sequences essentially constitute silent filmmaking. The commentary track recorded in 2001 features Alfred Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane, who employs a descriptive/analytical approach to the motion-picture subject. Keane demonstrates complete understanding of how to read a film, and she is particularly instructive about the meanings associated with blocking and camera movement. Her perceptions are certain to heighten the viewer's admiration for Hitchcock's mastery of the cinematic language. She describes much of the narrative as a battle for control fought by Alicia and Devlin, and argues there is a certain mythical quality to the complexities of the feelings between them. To that end, the story amounts to a fairy tale, with the ending offered as the dream result for both Alicia and Devlin.

New supplemental material gets off on the right foot with the documentary feature "Once Upon a Time . . . NOTORIOUS” (2009, 52m 2s) directed by David Thompson. NOTORIOUS has its genesis in the John Taintor Foote story THE SONG OF THE DRAGON (The Saturday Evening Post, November 12th, 1921), which was inspired by the life of Marthe Richard, a French prostitute and spy. Bill Krohn, author of HITCHCOCK AU TRAVAIL (1999), notes Hitchcock served in a supervisory capacity for MEMORY OF THE CAMPS (shot in 1945 and shelved, not presented to the public until the mid-1980s). Krohn believes Hitchcock's involvement in that project heavily influenced NOTORIOUS, the filmmaker's next endeavor, not just in regard to subject matter, but its strikingly dark look. Another interesting point is NOTORIOUS actually anticipates the migration to South America of the evil Holocaust figures Otto Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele.

Next up is "Powerful Patterns:  David Bordwell on NOTORIOUS" (2018, 29m 42s). Bordwell shows how Hitchcock makes use of all the tools in his toolbox to condition his audience on how to watch his movie. Whether we are conscious of it or not as viewers, recurring cinematic patterns train our responses. Bordwell's examination of point of view is convincing enough; character point-of-view shots, coupled with ensuing reaction shots, cause us to understand what that character understands, and thus identify more closely with that person. "Glamour and Tension:  John Bailey on NOTORIOUS" (2018, 23m 25s) provides an especially enlightening review of the feature film's lauded visual style with cinematographer Bailey (CAT PEOPLE [1982], THE BIG CHILL [1983], IN THE LINE OF FIRE [1993]). Bailey sees Hitchcock as a master of existing filmmaking techniques, not necessarily a great innovator. Bailey connects with Behlmer's notion that Hitchcock's most memorable sequences are mostly silent filmmaking. Bailey expounds on that idea when he notes moments of discovery in Hitchcock cinema are delivered via camerawork, not through characters speaking to each other (which amounts to explaining to the audience). The gradual reveal of Alicia holding the wine cellar key is a fine example of cinematic communication not dependent on dialog. Hitchcock also liked to recall visual conceits from earlier in the film, which created a "visual imprint" according to Bailey. Alicia's departure from the Sebastian estate closely recalls her initial arrival, and prompts what he calls "emotional recall."

Another welcome new supplement is "Poisoned Romance:  Donald Spoto on NOTORIOUS" (2018, 21m 1s). The author of THE DARK SIDE OF GENIUS: THE LIFE OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK (1983) offers a lot of detailed information about Hitchcock, like the fact Hitch did not target classic literature for adaptation. Rather than try to improve on something that was respected widely already, he preferred to adapt popular fiction with his unique touch. The source material for NOTORIOUS was unremarkable in Spoto's estimation. The author has far higher praise for screenwriter Ben Hecht, who Spoto views as one of the industry's most talented writers of his era. Hecht could adapt original material much faster than his contemporaries. Spoto characterizes Hitchcock as a filmmaker who eschewed overstatement. Hitch had faith in the intelligence of his audience of primarily adults, who he felt were capable of following story structure. He liked to create contrasts between what characters say and think, and often a character's gaze tells us everything we need to know about a situation.

"Writing with the Camera" (2018, 15m 54s) examines Hitchcock’s storyboarding and pre-visualization process, with documentary filmmaker Daniel Raim as our guide. One of the primary purposes of the storyboards was to eliminate studio interference. Visually effective storyboards afforded Hitchcock more efficiency and control since they proved excessive takes were unnecessary, and thus prevented the studio from selecting alternate takes (that usually did not exist anyway). He knew the right storyboard proved the resulting shot works. As touched on in the other supplements, Hitchcock preferred the subjective view over the objective, unless the objective look was the only logical option.

Ported from the Criterion DVD is the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of NOTORIOUS (59m 56s) that aired January 26th, 1948 on CBS. Bergman reprises her role as Alicia, and Devlin is portrayed by Joseph Cotten, who was considered for the role in the film. His Devlin comes off as even more brutish ("First time this week I've socked a lady."), but more than anything confirms that Cary Grant was the better choice for the film. It is difficult to accept anyone but Grant, who offers an astonishing performance in the Hitchcock version. Also featured in this radio adaptation is Joseph Kearns as Alex, Gerald Mohr as Prescott and Janet Scott as Madame Sebastian.

Also culled from the Criterion DVD is the newsreel footage (48s) from 1948 of Bergman and Hitchcock, as well as a collection of trailers and teasers, including the spoiler-rich "A NOTORIOUS woman of affairs!" (2m 9s), "Gems in her hair and ice in her heart!" (55s), "NOTORIOUS! NOTORIOUS! NOTORIOUS!" (52s) and "All she was, was all he wanted." (16s).

The packaging contains a booklet essay by critic Angelica Jade BastiƩn.


  1. This is also one of the best acted of Hitchcock's films, with Grant in particular giving perhaps his most powerful screen performance.

  2. Absolutely agree Grant really delivers in this one. Especially upon repeat viewings it really hit me how good in the role he is. Also love Rains's dismissive reaction when the guy who is about to get clipped walks up to the dinner table.