This taut romantic thriller is one of Hitchcock's masterpieces.
It is so tightly scripted (by Ben Hecht) and so consummately directed that every scene is essential to the story's progress. It moves on with such fine pacing that, amongst the suspense aspects, the fact that we're also watching one of the finest screen romances of all catches us almost unawares. And then, before we know it, we've become totally engaged in the strange, tortured and quite cruel love affair that is developing between the two key protagonists.
The story is set in South America immediately after the Second World War. Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is the daughter of a well-known American Nazi. And precisely because of that dodgy background, she is recruited by the American secret service to check out a possible nest of Nazis plotting away in Brazil.
Her recruiter, and the secret service officer controlling her, is T. R Devlin (Cary Grant). He asks Alicia that she make the ultimate espionage sacrifice - to get as close as possible to the chief suspect, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), by marrying him. A perfect premise for Hitchcock's layers of love and loathing, trust and deception.
In lesser hands, a poorer director and inferior actors, this could have become a melodramatic pot-boiler. But Hitchcock for the most part plays it cool as ice. The interplay between characters becomes as suspenseful as the plot itself. And while the directorial style is cool, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman make up one of the hottest combinations ever committed to the screen.
Cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff lets the camera bathe Ingrid Bergman in luminosity. This most radiant of Hollywood actresses rarely looked more beautiful than in this movie. And Cary Grant has a slightly sadistic edge to give a special tint to his always suave, slightly cynical screen persona.
As Alex Sebastian, the key Nazi agent, Hitchcock scored a casting coup by recruiting Claude Rains. This fine English actor manifests a strange, fallible villainy. He is dominated by his mother, is alternately resolute and weak and, while we're hating him, we're at the same time rather drawn to him. It's a subtle, fully-dimensional portrait which adds hugely to the gravitas of the movie.
As with The 39 Steps and North by Northwest, this is one of the Hitchcock movies which improves dramatically with each viewing. More details are revealed; the dense plotting and character interplay are more apparent. It is, in short, a cinematic masterpiece.
The transfer at first appears to have been struck from the same print-source as used for the acclaimed Region 1 Criterion edition.
There are some slight differences which show it is a separate transfer, such as different chapter numbering. Both the Region 1 and Region 4 discs commence with the opening credits presented in a letterbox format. The Region 4 pulls back to full-screen as soon as the credits finish; the Criterion carries on a few more seconds to move more gradually to full-frame.
But overall, the quality is very similar. The Region 4 transfer is in fact slightly better overall, making this the definitive transfer in terms of its excellent tonal gradations and shadow detail.
Like the Criterion edition, this presents the complete movie, without the accidental slight cuts preserved in some other transfers (as in the Region 1 Anchor Bay edition). This is the finest presentation of Notorious we're likely to see this side of HDTV.
This is a tough call. The slight improvement in picture quality would probably not make this a required purchase for people already owning the Criterion edition.
But if it came to a choice, I think I would forego the extras for the sake of the extra clarity of this PAL presentation. However, it is a shame that, given this is a different market, the DVD producers weren't able to negotiate with Criterion to adapt their swag of special features for use in Region 4.