For what seems like no reason in particular (no centennial birthday to celebrate, no special anniversaries of landmark films), 2012 is shaping up to be a banner year for Alfred Hitchcock. The master’s nine surviving silent films have all been restored by the British Film Institute and will soon be re-released to the public with newly commissioned musical scores. A large quantity of Hitchcock’s sound films have also been released this year on hi-def Blu-ray for the very first time. These include Rebecca, Spellbound and Notorious from MGM, Lifeboat, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache from Eureka!/Masters of Cinema, and To Catch a Thief from Paramount. (Additionally, The 39 Steps will drop from Criterion next month and it has been strongly rumored that The Birds and Strangers on a Train will also be released before the year is over.) Finally, The National Film Preservation Foundation will soon be streaming online, free of charge, the recently discovered, previously thought lost 1924 film The White Shadow, which Hitchcock wrote, assistant directed, edited and designed the sets for, an important stepping stone on his path to becoming a director himself. In order to raise funds to record a new score and to host the film on its website, the annual “For the Love of Film” blogathon is being hosted by the essential movie blogs Ferdy on Films, Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod. White City Cinema is proud to be participating in this blogathon for the first time. My contribution is a review of my favorite of the new Hitchcock blu-rays.
Being a film studies instructor has afforded me the invaluable opportunity of watching and re-watching classic movies with students, mostly in the 18 – 20 year old range, who are seeing these films for the very first time. This has led me to realize that a widespread misconception most of these students have about black and white film stock is that they think of it as something like a deficiency, as if “black and white” is nothing but the absence of color, rather than a style choice in its own right with its own aesthetic properties. It is particularly gratifying to teach students to appreciate black and white cinematography by showing them films like Citizen Kane or Casablanca and hearing them discuss afterwards how they can’t imagine these same films being made in color. For this reason, I plan on screening MGM’s new Blu-ray of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious for the first time in a class this summer. Not only is it one of Hitchcock’s most amazingly photographed films, I cannot imagine a better home video release to introduce the sheer glamorousness of black and white movies to students.
Blu-ray is an ideal format for Notorious, a masterpiece of suspense that is chock-full of the trademark bravura set pieces for which Hitchcock has become so renowned. In Notorious, Hitchcock, with the aid of the great cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, executed the most complex and elaborate camera choreography of his career up to that point. One example is the famous kissing scene between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman where their characters talk to and passionately kiss each other while walking from one room to another in a single unedited take lasting several minutes. Another is the famous crane shot that begins as an overhead long shot of dozens of guests at a party and that ends as an extreme close-up on a key in Bergman’s hand. Finally, there is Hitchcock’s unique penchant for composing memorable shots that don’t feature actor’s faces, a rarity in Hollywood’s studio system era. One of the best tributes to the master of suspense can be found in an episode of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema titled The Control of the Universe; in a montage of shots from Hitchcock films in which actors are not featured but that are nonetheless instantly identifiable, Notorious is represented by a shot where a wine bottle full of uranium falls and breaks on a cellar floor. It is an impressive testament to Hitchcock’s genius that Godard could use a shot of an object like this to succinctly conjure up, in one deft stroke, a film that also prominently features two of the most attractive stars to ever work in Hollywood.
Yet Notorious is also the first Hitchcock film to which I would point to indicate that Hitchcock is not just a technical virtuoso or a mere manipulator of audience emotion (as is often claimed), but a profound moral thinker as well. The story involves a love triangle between government agents set against a backdrop of WWII intrigue. Cary Grant, in one of his best and most subtle dramatic roles, plays Max Devlin, a U.S. government agent who is tasked with enlisting Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman, playing against type as a bad girl), the daughter of a Nazi spy, into becoming a double agent. Her assignment is to ingratiate herself with her father’s old pals in Rio de Janeiro in order to retrieve top secret information from them. Devlin and Huberman embark on a love affair, which is immediately complicated by the fact that she finds herself also being romanced by Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a wealthy Nazi businessman. The moral complexity of this scenario, written by the peerless Ben Hecht, marks Notorious as the first true grown up spy thriller; Devlin, for political reasons, acts cold and indifferent to Alicia, the woman he is falling in love with, who, in turn, feels compelled to marry Alexander, a man she abhors, for her duty to her country. The film asks how far should one be willing to go in defiling oneself personally for the greater good of humanity, and then refuses to offer any comforting or clear-cut answers.
The other important character in this chamber drama/thriller is Madame Sebastian, Alexander’s mother, the first in a series of domineering mother figures in Hitchcock’s American films (which would of course reach its apex in Psycho). Madame Sebastian disapproves of Alicia as a mate for her son from the get-go and, after her daughter-in-law’s identity as a double agent is discovered, she and Alexander conspire to make the young bride die slowly by poisoning her coffee every day. At the end of the film, when Devlin does come belatedly to Alicia’s rescue, he carries the sickly woman down a flight of stairs in the Sebastians’ palatial mansion and out of the home for good. He does this in full view of Alexander’s Nazi cohorts who, realizing Alexander’s error in judgement, will certainly kill him just at the point where Hitchcock ends the film. This final scene, although a “happy ending” because Devlin and Alicia are reunited, is also tragic, ironic and infinitely complex because Hitchcock and Claude Rains have courageously made the “villain” Alexander such a sympathetic and even pitiable figure.
MGM’s high-definition transfer of Notorious is a significant improvement in terms of image and sound over all previous releases, including the standard def Criterion DVD and MGM’s own previous DVD, the copious extras of which are carried over here intact. Among these features are two informative commentary tracks (by scholars Rick Jewell and Drew Casper) and several documentaries about Hitchcock and the making of the film. But the real reason to pick up this Blu-ray, ahead of all of the other Hitchcock Blu-rays that have recently flooded the market, is the superior image quality. Notorious is a perfect representation of the romantic magnificence of what could be achieved in a black and white film from Hollywood’s golden age and this blu-ray brings us very close to the thick, film-like textures of a real 35mm print. Notorious can be a dark film at times, literally and figuratively, and MGM’s transfer gives us a very contrasty look, with rich, velvety blacks that discerning cinephiles should find very appealing. If some shots look less sharp than one might expect, that is likely only a result of the large number of process shots Hitchcock used in the film (i.e., what we are frequently looking at are portions of shots that have been “re-photographed”) and this is probably the best they can possibly look.
For the past several years I’ve been holding my breath that Universal will bring out Blu-rays of the most wanted Hitchcock titles, Rear Window and Vertigo . . . but with so much hi-def Hitch to go around right now, perhaps they would best be saved for another year.
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