Notorious Blu-ray ReviewFebruary 16, 2012
Watching Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious is like stepping into a time machine.
Apart from the fact that the film is 56 years old, it employs numerous storytelling techniques that the average modern moviegoer would flat-out not sit still for.
Rather than leaning on a lot of sound and fury, this is a story that relies on character development to drive the narrative forward. Like Spellbound before it, it's the relationship between two characters, painstakingly developed over the course of literally the entire first act, which makes the rest of the movie fall into place seamlessly.
In Notorious, Ingrid Bergman stars as Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a recently-convicted German-born traitor to the United States. Not long after her father's conviction, she is sought about by Devlin (Cary Grant), an American intelligent agent who wants to use Alicia's status as the daughter of a traitor to spy on a group of Nazis hiding out in South America.
Once in Rio de Janeiro, Alicia (under the instruction of Devlin - and in the midst of the two falling in love) makes contact with and seduces Alex Sebastian, played by the immortal Claude Rains, the Nazi ringleader in a plan involving the cultivation of uranium.
If this movie were to be made today, it would be filled with such modern contrivances as car chases, and it would culminate with a fist fight on top of a skyscraper. Rather, Hitchcock keeps our interest the old-fashioned way: He takes advantage of a remarkable script by frequent collaborator Ben Hecht, and he allows the characters and his own camera work to tell the story.
As with Spellbound before it, the crux of the story lies upon the relationship between its two main protagonists. Well into the second act, even after Devlin and Alicia are in the midst of their mission (which requires them to be frequently separated); we are given reminders that it is their relationship (and the complications that result from it - jealousy, suspicion, etc.) that enables the plot to move forward.
Bergman's performance as Alicia is one of the finest I've ever seen committed to screen. And although it's Casablanca she'll always be most remembered for, it's her work with Hitchcock - and Notorious in particular - that shines as her greatest performance.
Here is an actress who can, without forcing the issue, convey the entire emotional spectrum with little more than the raising of an eyebrow or the slightest inflection in her voice. She's a breed of performer that doesn't exist anymore, except in the rarest of circumstances.
As for Grant (who has long been maligned as a less-than-capable actor), his performance as the cold, calculating, and difficult-to-unthaw Devlin is remarkable in its own right. And while monotony and Milquetoast acting is something of a staple for Grant, that's specifically what the role calls for.
In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter much whether the credit belongs to the casting or to Grant himself - the fact is that the performance was captured and that it's perfectly-tailored.
Then there's Rains, who invites us to despise him and yet also allows us to pity him - after all, we know what his character doesn't: As much as he truly loves Alicia, her love for him is almost (almost - yet more depth for the story) a complete fabrication.
As for the more technical aspects of the film's production, Notorious is a far more straightforward film than Spellbound or Psycho or any of Hitchcock's more visually-ambitious films, and yet it's this no-nonsense approach that so befits the telling of the story that has been immortalized so beautifully in the editing and the camera work.
The famous shot that begins on the second floor balcony and tracks all the way down to the key in Bergman's hand is proof enough that Hitchcock can take a seemingly simple shot and tell a rich and complex story with it.
The man was an absolute genius with a camera, and, like Bergman, he belongs to a breed that simply no longer exists; an absolute shame.
Then again, I could go on for days lamenting the lack of filmmakers who can match Hitchcock's skill for storytelling. The fact remains that films like Notorious will exist forever - eternally waiting for a modern-day equivalent to answer its challenge to aspire to match its greatness.
Like Spellbound, MGM/Fox has brought Notorious to Blu-ray with a 1080 AVC-encoding that produces a superior, if not striking, picture transfer. Obviously, the film isn't going to be completely full of grain, nor is it going to be immune to visual nitpicking - it is, after all, over five decades old.
However, it looks about as crisp and clean as is humanly possible.
In terms of the audio, the 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track might be a mono soundtrack, but that by no means marks it as inferior. While I can't speak from experience, it seems as though this Blu-ray transfer conveys every sound that Hitchcock and company intended it to.
The highlight of the audio presentation as the way the music blends seamlessly with the visuals and very nearly becomes a character in its own right - an essential tool to make the story come to life.
Beyond the Feature
The Blu-ray release features a wide array of special features, and while none of them particularly stand out above the rest, they carry their share of interest.
As a complete nerd for audio commentaries, I found myself most intrigued by the disc's two commentary tracks: One from film professor Rick Jewell and the other from film professor Drew Casper. Both professors come across as somewhat dry, but their insights prove valuable to a layman's understanding of the film and of Hitchcock's skill in particular.
The film's other bonus features include:
All bonus features are presented in standard definition.
While Spellbound's release seemed to be lacking in a handful of departments, MGM/Fox has more than made up for it with the release of Notorious.
While today's films try desperately to tell more than one tale and tend to wind up with mashed-up, cobbled-together messes.
Notorious tells a number of different stories while never straying from its direct path. It's an absolute masterpiece of a film - a breed of film that just doesn't exist anymore.
- Jason Jarman
Shop for Notorious on Blu-ray for a discounted price at Amazon.com (January 24, 2012 release date).
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