David Reviews Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious [Blu-ray Review]

Back in 2009, when I set out in earnest to fill in the gaps of my DVD collection and become a Criterion Completistâ„¢, among the most daunting obstacles (or at least, most expensive) that I had to conquer was acquisition of one of their earliest and hardest-to-find box sets, “Wrong Men and Notorious Women,” a lavish ensemble of five notable films by Alfred Hitchcock. Building on a foundation of two British (The Lady Vanishes, spine #3 and The 39 Steps, #56) released in Criterion’s early years, back in 2003 they combined those two with the first three American films directed by the Master of Suspense (Rebecca, Spellbound and Notorious, #’s 135-137) to round out the package. And what a package it was, as it really set the standard for its time of how to cram as many well-produced supplements and bonus features as possible into a comprehensive DVD presentation of great films from the past. The films were originally offered for sale as individual titles, unlike for example the earlier Orphic Trilogy, and so the box itself never got its own number. By the end of 2003, “Wrong Men and Notorious Women” went out of print, as MGM snapped up those three American films and swiftly reclaimed its rights to issue their own Hitchcock DVDs, thus depriving the retail marketplace and budget-minded Hitchcock fans of the splendid Criterion versions of these great movies.

In the ensuing years, adequate DVD versions of Notorious and its OOP companions have been fairly easy and cheap to acquire, whether as an individual disc with comparable but not identical supplements or as part of some decent box set editions that didn’t quite rival Criterion’s crown jewel for extras but offered a lot of variety in the film selection. Unless price was one’s primary consideration, an agreeable consensus emerged that Criterion’s version of Notorious was the way to go if one wanted the best take-home copy of that film. But with this past January’s release of Notorious (along with Rebecca and Spellbound) on blu-ray, and at a very reasonable price, Criterion fans are faced with a dilemma: is it preferable to pony up a few extra bucks to get the spine number, the booklet and that glamorous inky black cover of Ingrid Bergman delicately hoisting her poisoned cup of tea, or should one go with state-of-the-art technology, a more affordable price point and the convenience of buying it new from a favorite vendor?

I’m here to help you answer that question.

But first, let’s just talk for a minute about what makes Notorious worth adding to the home video library in the first place. For more of my extended thoughts on the film, here’s my review from the summer of 2009, a half-year into my Criterion Reflections project. Among Alfred Hitchcock’s long and celebrated catalog of bona fide classics, Notorious stands out as a uniquely pivotal juncture in his career. In some ways, it can be seen as the culmination of the work he’d done up to that point; its position as the last film in the “Wrong Men and Notorious Women” box attests to that. But in the subtly twisted psychological complexity of its lead romantic characters, Devlin and Alicia (played of course by the breathtakingly attractive pair of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman), Hitchcock was marking off new territory that he would continue to explore over the next fifteen to twenty years or so in his main feature films like Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest and others. Beside the immortal duo of Grant and Bergman, Hitch also assembled equally noteworthy villains in Claude Rains and Leopoldine Konstantin as a fugitive Nazi and his overbearing mother, whose warped enmeshment can be seen as a slight forerunner of Norman Bates and his own mother-issues in Psycho. And even though Hitchcock had been executing some killer camera moves and other innovative cinematic tricks in the decade or two that preceded Notorious, two of his most famously audacious shots are featured here: the monumental crane shot down from second story ceiling level into a perfectly framed close-up of a purloined key in Alicia’s nervous palm:

…and the “longest kiss in cinematic history” that’s more impressive for its joyfully infatuated eroticism (that seems so sincere on Ingy’s part) than for its sheer bulk of screen time.

On top of all that, we’re treated to ripped from the headlines intrigue in the immediate aftermath of World War II that still delivers a great sense of immediacy regarding the apprehension and dread that many in the West felt, not knowing if the Nazi menace would somehow regather its strength after Hitler’s defeat and erupt in some other part of the world. Notorious may not be everyone’s favorite Hitchcock film (I know that Catherine still prefers Rebecca over this one, so I’m glad she got that review copy!), nor is it as full of eye-popping razzle dazzle visuals as his later classics. But I’ve watched it several times, both for the purpose of researching this article, and just because I greatly enjoy practically every scene. If you’re at all interested in acquiring and studying the benchmark films of the 1940s, there’s no need to debate it: Notorious belongs in your collection.

Still, the question remains: which one should you get? The pricey-but-prestigious Criterion or the hi-def and conveniently affordable MGM/20th Century Fox? Perhaps a comparison of the sound and image quality, along with a summary of the supplemental features, will help you decide.

The honest truth is that, as I sit on my upstairs sofa watching the Criterion DVD on a 32″ monitor using my blu-ray player, the picture quality is not noticeably inferior to that of the blu-ray. And seeing how I don’t have a snazzy sound system to plug into, just going off the TV speakers, I don’t think I’m suffering any audio deficiencies either. The DVD and blu-ray are roughly equivalent. A/V snobs may cringe at my blurring of the boundaries between the old and new media, but the fact remains, for those who watch their films on computer monitors or modest (by today’s standards) TVs, say anything smaller than my 46″ downstairs set-up, I just don’t see much improvement from the blu-ray unless one is sitting very close to the screen. Once we make the jump past the mid-40s in screen size, the limitations of 480p become more apparent. This may be a short sighted view – even today’s computer-monitor movie watchers may aspire to some day enjoying their home videos on a mammoth wall-mounted unit – so it’s not such a simple thing to conclude that “the DVD is good enough.” But I have to give credit to Criterion for producing a very impressive DVD that still holds up over a decade later, in what are clearly the waning days of that format.

The real key to a decision then is, which set of supplements do you prefer? Both versions offer a plethora of goodies, with just a bit of overlap, mainly an original theatrical trailer and a 1948 radio play version of Notorious that replaces Cary Grant with Joseph Cotten but keeps Ingrid Bergman in her role. Both discs also feature an interesting “music and effects only” track that I really enjoyed, after becoming thoroughly familiar with the film itself. It makes a nice ambient background soundtrack for doing other things while occasionally looking up to admire whatever scene happens to be on at the moment. I wish more home releases offered this option.

The variations between the special feature packages are substantial. MGM’s Notorious first of all comes in a no-frills blue plastic case, standard blu-ray issue, no booklet included, all presumably aimed at keeping the price to a minimum. All in all, that’s a good thing, I guess, but the release sure pales in comparison to the sumptuous North By Northwest blu-ray, my only other Hitchcock in blu (so far.) Criterion’s insert is of the old four-panel foldout variety, with an insightful, brief essay by Hitchcock scholar William Rothman (oddly not credited on the back cover) and the usual detailed credits, scene index and aesthetically pleasing sense of style – no great shakes, but I always prefer having something in print to refer to rather than nothing.

Both discs also feature two distinct commentary tracks, none of them repeating across the sets. Of the four perspectives offered on Notorious, I prefer Marian Keane’s from the Criterion edition, perhaps just because I enjoy hearing a woman’s take on this film, and because she veers away from the commonplace historical observations about the making of the film and deeper into its more abstract psychological aspects. I actually found the two commentaries on the MGM version to be a bit repetitious of each other – flipping from one audio track to the next, I noticed each film professor telling the same anecdotes a few times, calling into question the necessity of all that commentating if they can’t come up with more individualized observations.

And without going into great detail on the numerous additional unique supplements found in one or the other of these discs, I think its fair to characterize the Criterion bonuses as having more to do with the finer points that went into the making and publicizing of Notorious (e.g. literary source materials, deleted scenes, studio correspondence, publicity stills, rear projection demonstrations, posters and lobby cards, newsreel footage from its production, etc.) It’s a veritable geek-fest for Hitchcock obsessives. Whereas the MGM blu-ray offers several short featurettes that put Notorious in more of a historical context, focusing on the relationship between producer David O. Selznick and Hitchcock, and the influence that Notorious had on subsequent thrillers and spy films, including a fascinating sequence laying out the parallels between this film and the early installments of the James Bond series (for which Hitchcock was novelist Ian Fleming’s first choice as director, before he declined the offer.)

At this point, if I seem a bit equivocal, after spelling out the virtues of both editions and not pointing out any profound defects in either one, just a slight preference for Criterion’s grace notes while acknowledging the obvious superiority of the blu-ray’s higher resolution, well, that’s because I simply am. When it comes down to an either/or, I will go with the both/and. I can’t bring myself to make a final declaration. And in this case, I’m pretty happy that I don’t have to. I already own ’em both! And if you’re anywhere near as beguiled as I am by the textures, depths and insinuations to be found in Notorious, you should too.

Buy the Blu-ray on Amazon.com

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