Thursday, January 19, 2012

NOTORIOUS: Blu-ray (RKO 1946) MGM/Fox Home Video

Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) ranks among a handful of truly superior espionage thrillers; adult and sophisticated in its spy subplot; sincere and frank in its’ understanding of the mechanics behind male/female relationships. At this point there had been a severe rupture in the Anglo/American alliance between Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick. Neither particularly wanted to work together after Spellbound, but Selznick still wanted the revenues he could derive from another Hitchcock smash hit. So, Selznick put together a 'package' deal that included Cary Grant, Claude Rains, Ingrid Bergman and Hitchcock before farming out the property lock stock and barrel to RKO to produce and distribute.
For the first time since his arrival in America, Hitchcock was free to make the sort of movie he wanted to without Selznick's meddling...well, almost. Selznick did keep a watchful eye from afar on the film as it developed. But by then Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht had concocted a silken caper that could stand on its own. The film stars Cary Grant as T.R. Devlin, a suave FBI man who employs the daughter of an executed Nazi, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), to infiltrate her late father’s organization of spies in South America. Alicia’s past as a fast and loose party girl precedes her arrival in town. Devlin pretends to be repulsed by her, but secretly harbors a growing sexual frustration to possess Alicia for his own. Devlin's boss, Capt. Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern) observes Devlin's looming obsession and pulls the plug on their burgeoning romance. After all, Alicia's 'talents' for seduction are needed elsewhere.
Alicia is employed to pursue one of her father's old friends, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains); the head of a Nazi spy ring. Devlin sets up their first cute meet at a horse track by startling Alicia's horse, thus forcing Sebastian to play the part of her gallant rescuer. Sebastian takes the bait. Soon he and Alicia are inseparable. But their faux romance is frequently interrupted by Devlin's need to be near. Alicia confides in Paul and Devlin that Sebastian has proposed marriage. After some consternation, mostly on Devlin's part, Alicia agrees to marry Sebastian to get even closer to uncovering the truth behind the Nazis' plans for espionage.
At first, Sebastian does not suspect a thing. But during a lavish reception given at their home, Sebastian is led to believe that Devlin and Alicia have become romantically involved. Yet, the passionate kiss between Alicia and Devlin that he is privy to has actually been staged to throw Sebastian off Devlin's discovery of uranium found inside one of the vintage bottles inside Sebastian's wine cellar. This rouse works only temporarily. Sebastian learns the truth about Alicia after investigating the wine cellar for himself early the next morning. Together with his mother, Anna (Leopoldine Konstantin), Sebastian decides that the only way to save face within the organization is to slowly poison his wife and make her resulting death look like an accident.
Notorious is slickly packaged entertainment, sinfully adroit and compelling. It is arguably the quintessential example of the master indulging in his craft with all pistons firing simultaneously. Ted Tetzlaff's moody cinematography creates a taut atmosphere throughout the film that gradually constricts the world around Devlin and Alicia into a claustrophobic and inescapable prison of their own design.
For arguably the first time in his career Cary Grant reveals a bitter alter ego to his usual devil-may-care charm. His Devlin is a courtly spy seething with a perverse need to command the woman he believes has betrayed his affections. Ingrid Bergman is tragic as the self-destructive plaything who suddenly realizes she has every reason to live. Claude Rains positively oozes menace from every pore. Notorious is a film of so many unique and engaging qualities that it's difficult to assess its greatest strength. Watching the film today is like indulging in a luscious pastry. All of the necessary ingredients are present. Yet, each combines with the others to produce a sublime soufflé; a delectable nourishment that completely satisfies the heart and the mind. In the final analysis, Notorious is a high-class thriller with few - if any - equals.
No! No! NO! Not again! When MGM/Fox Home Video issued its box set of Hitchcock thrillers encompassing a few of his British films as well as all of his Selznick tenure, Notorious received short shrift; its transfer softly focused, poorly contrasted and with a discernible amount of edge enhancement and pixelization. Hardly the way to treat a film as great as this.
But now we get the Blu-ray. Things should be different, right? Wrong! Notorious has obviously been sourced from the same flawed elements used in the DVD mastering effort. The results speak for themselves. Contrast levels marginally improve. The image is ever so slightly darker than before but still relatively thick and unrefined. Clarity is still lacking. Grain is thick but unnaturally reproduced and fine details are lacking throughout. Edge effects from the DVD are still present and more obviously observed. Disappointing, actually!
Hitchcock films in general deserve nothing but the best mastering efforts. But Notorious is not just any Hitchcock film. Arguably, it represents the very best of his early American works. It is, without question his greatest Selznick picture! Regrettably, the Blu-ray does not do the film justice. The DTS audio is mono and adequate. All of the extras, including several featurettes, and an audio commentary, stills gallery and theatrical trailers are imports from the aforementioned, and much maligned DVD release. For shame! MGM/Fox has taken a silk purse and made a sow's ear from it. Not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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