Love is a dark, corroded obsession in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, a black-velvet biocide brimming with notes of tabloid titillation, spy-versus-spy nonsense, and romance as rotten as a half-eaten Granny Smith left out in the summer sun. And like much of Hitchcock's catalogue, the elements of entertainment it puts the psychosexual screws to were often initially taken as the film's triumphant gospel. Whether Hitch meant to pull the wool over the audience's eyes or was simply being misinterpreted is meant for terminal debate, and gives the film the attitude and mood of a nasty bit of gossip being whispered in your ear.
The courtship between Cary Grant's secret agent, Devlin, and Ingrid Bergman's tarnished heiress, Alicia, is quick and filthy, beginning at a cocktail party and elevated with a reckless bit of shit-faced car swerving in Miami. Devlin knows the play and by the time the two arrive in Rio de Janeiro, on orders from an unnamed government agency, cynical Alicia is all melted in love with him like a palm full of margarine. This sudden outpouring of affection between these two scorpions in heat, however, is immediately interrupted and consistently troubled by Devlin's seemingly nonchalant ability to turn his newfound love out within a moment's notice.
In this case, he turns her into a squirmy piece of bait for Sebastian (Claude Rains), an older confidant of her government-secret-spilling father who's selling a dangerous bit of something-or-other to ze Germans. There's a sick bit of business involving the quasi-incestuous bonds between Sebastian and his conniving mother, an eloquent monster in the hands of Austrian silent-era actress Leopoldine Konstantin, but it's no more unsettling than the ties that bind Devlin to Alicia, nor Alicia to Sebastian. Each character seems to be directly communicating with their own set of ambivalently monstrous mother and father figures, manipulating them into scenes of revolting desperation and long bouts of powerful depression and anger.
Hitchcock's set pieces are particularly assured here, moving in a deliriously seductive lockstep of motion in calibrated space and rhythmic cutting. Devlin's spontaneous cover-up of a shattered wine bottle topples over beautifully into a masquerading smooch between him and Alicia, right in front of Sebastian no less. There's a catchy back and forth between Devlin and Alicia, setting bets at a race track as they spy and are spied on, compliments of Ben Hecht's excellent script, loaded with pressure-cooked emotions and rupturing psychological hysteria.
It's ultimately most telling that the film ends not on Alicia and Devlin's reuniting and quick getaway, but on Sebastian, walking off into what assures to be his demise. It's one of Hitchcock's best endings; the monster is still standing proudly outside the closet, but it makes no secret of Hitch's outrage against the Nazis and those who enabled their reign. But it has taken Alicia's methodical poisoning and near death for Devlin to abandon the pursuit of possible information on other crimes and finally serve justice when it is due. This career of attempting to stop crime as a force, of ignoring or dulling the punishment of major crimes in order to pursue other crimes, offers an explanation of why he'd allow the love of his life to become romantically and physically entwined with a villain such as Sebastian. Devlin's tragedy is that he wants to extinguish evil as much as his own doubt. The man just can't help himself.
IMAGE / SOUND:
Strong contrast and excellent black levels permeate Fox's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of Notorious. Work has been put in since Criterion's quite admirable DVD release of the film, and the transfer is inarguably clearer on this disc. Scuffs, warps, and scratches remain but are impressively rare in this print. Texture and density are equally superb. The audio portion isn't exactly on par, but it's certainly above serviceable. In fact, the major flaws of this mono soundtrack can be blamed largely on the age of the film. Dialogue is crisp and clear out front, while effects and Roy Webb's lovely score balanced very well in the back with minimal hiss.
Very substantive featurettes and opinions are offered on this disc, but few are hugely memorable. The commentaries, from film professors Rick Jewell and Drew Casper, are informative and alert, but rarely allude to the dark streaks in the film overall. The featurettes are largely disposable, though the making-of has some moments of intrigue worth its runtime. The isolated music and effects track gives due credit to the work of Roy Webb on the score, and the audio interview between Hitchcock and François Truffaut is terrific fun. A radio play, transfer comparison, and theatrical trailers are also included.
Passions run dangerously hot to the point of near-dementia in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, arriving in a strong package from MGM's vaults.