Everyone has a favorite Hitchcock film. But when the votes are counted, Notorious always seems to be in the top three or four—and often number one. Considering how many films the master of suspense directed over several decades, this says a great deal.
Notorious is the 1946 Hitchcock classic that ingeniously combines a romantic story involving characters portrayed by Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, espionage and intrigue in Rio de Janeiro, mysterious wine bottles, lethal cups of coffee, and an all-important small key.
The incomparable Claude Rains is there too, and although portraying the villain, he is extremely charming, likable, and also in love with Ingrid Bergman. In fact, he marries Ingrid, and Cary stands by and does nothing. Why? Because of the unusual circumstances that brought Cary and Ingrid to South America. But let’s not reveal too much.
Notorious returned Hitchcock to the world of spies and counterspies. But the film primarily is a study of relationships rather than a straight thriller—which is not to say that there still isn’t a great deal of Hitchcockian suspense. The Bergman character is trying to forget, Grant is cynical, and Rains has a genuine, devoted love for our leading lady. Even when he discovers her treachery, it is his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) who makes the decision to, shall we say, do away with her.
Francois Truffaut said to Hitchcock in his interview book on the director that “It seems to me that of all your pictures this is the one in which one feels the most perfect correlation between what you are aiming at and what appears on the screen . . . Of all its qualities, the outstanding achievement is perhaps that in Notorious you have at once a maximum of stylization and a maximum of simplicity.”
The stylization is fascinating to watch. Some of Hitchcock’s most famous scenes are in this film: the justly acclaimed crane shot, taking the audience from a wide establishing view of the elaborate formal party into a tight closeup of the crucial key to the wine cellar in Ingrid Bergman’s hand; the brilliantly staged party scene itself, which alternates between thoughtfully conceived point of view shots and graceful, insinuating camera moves; and, of course, the wine cellar sequence, during which Cary and Ingrid discover the incriminating bottle containing not vintage nectar but . . .
Also, of more than routine interest is the famous 2-minute-and-40-second love scene filmed without a cut in a tight closeup of Grant and Bergman. And the finale—Hitchcock’s Odessa steps sequence—wherein the four principal players under incredible pressure descend the seemingly endless staircase while the sinister villains watch and wait for their prey to reveal the convoluted duplicity.
Notorious has aged well. Little if anything in this artfully and carefully conceived and executed romantic thriller has dated. It is without question one of Hitchcock’s best—from any period.
And for good measure, famed producer David O. Selznick (Gone with the Wind) was hovering in the background, having prepared Notorious with Hitchcock and writer Ben Hecht before selling the entire package to RKO just prior to shooting. But his hand is evident in various phases of the film—not the least of which is the script and the casting of the principals.
Fortunately, for this special Criterion laserdisc edition, a carefully preserved original negative was located at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and painstakingly transferred with shot-to-shot and scene-to-scene quality control. Thus, for the first time in decades we are able to see the film as it was originally intended. The velvety blacks, luminous whites, and a properly rendered grey scale give this gem its proper sheen (rather than the heretofore pale and lifeless reflection of the original rich black and white photography).
Here is Hitchcock with a top drawer Ben Hecht script, superb players, and a beautiful meld of all of the ingredients one associates with the master of suspense—plus something not always present in a Hitchcock classic, a moving and unusual love story.
Welcome Notorious to the Criterion Collection.