by Alexander Huls Wednesday February 8, 2012

Considering the depth of Alfred Hitchcock’s canon and the desire to see his work in high definition, the progress of the auteur’s films onto Blu-Ray has been a somewhat slow one. Psycho, North by Northwest, and The Lady Vanishes are the only ones to have made the transition so far, with MGM’s releases of Rebecca and Notorious now joining the fold.

Rebecca has remained a notable film in Hitchcock’s canon, largely because it marks his first American film and all the awkward growing pains that came along with that (mostly thanks to clashes with David O. Selznik as the special features on the Blu-Ray reveal). Rebecca is an interesting timepiece in the overall development of Hitchcock’s style and talent. The filmmaking confidence is certainly there, but the flair and tangible results aren’t quite as accomplished as they would be later.  This is a Hitchcock still very much honing his craft within the Hollywood studio system.

Rebecca is good still, it’s just not perfect. It takes a while to truly get going as early on its more DeMaurier (and probably Selznik) than Hitchcock and so many scenes don’t have the efficiency and purpose of his later works. Plus, the performances aren’t as rich as those Hitchcock would get out of future collaborators. There are moments of note early on, but there’s tension lacking, and it isn’t truly till Laurence Olivier delivers a powerhouse over-five-minute long revelatory and exposition heavy monologue that things to settle into the quality everyone remembers Rebecca for. It’s the moment true stakes and drama and tension settles in, as do the actors into their performances (George Sanders in particular is amazing), and the film becomes quintessentially Hitchcockian and highly entertaining.

It’s hard to ultimately fault Hitchcock for Rebecca’s shortcoming since many of them seem to be influenced by Selznik, and it’s still very much watchable as both a marginally successful gothic film, but especially as a milestone in the development of Hitchcock in Hollywood.

About the Disc: Considering the age of the film, Rebecca’s transfer is sharp, clean and remarkable, in particular during the film’s grander and more gothic moments. The special features on the disc do a good job on introducing old and new Hitchcock fans to the problematic elements of the production, and the conflicts with Selznick.

Released six years and seven movies after Rebecca, Hitchcock’s Notorious represents a significant leap for the auteur. Directed and produced by Hitch, this film is uniquely the vision and product of the master we know him to be. Unlike Rebecca, there’s no fat here. It’s lean and thrilling, with a compelling morally grey spy story and remarkable performances from Bergman, Rains, and especially Grant. Anyone who thinks he can offer little more than abundant charm and gentle quips should watch this and prove themselves wrong .

What makes Notorious so remarkable – and perhaps one of Hitchcock’s best – is not just his mastery of efficient storytelling and tension here, but how surprisingly mature, complicated and grey it is. Even despite its censor mandated innuendos, it’s difficult to still not be acutely aware how Bergman is an alcoholic daughter of a Nazi war criminal whose past sexual promiscuity is used to literally pimp her out (via the man who loves her no less) to get undercover information from another Nazi. On top of that there’s the moral ambiguity of spy work that John Le Carre would evoke later, a general menacing indifference to life and individuals from both the war criminal and the official government, a dominant Oedipus Complex storyline, and a deeply complex and unsettling relationship between Bergman and Grant.

It all adds up to Notorious being fascinating viewing not just because it’s almost note-perfect, but because of the moral grayness Hitchcock probes and manages to get away with. This is the second time I’ve seen Notorious and where once it was a minor work in his canon in my mind, it’s now ascended to easily be one of his greatest accomplishments. In particular for a director who is often credited for his technical magic, it’s one of his most successful narratives.

About the Disc: Though Notorious has more blemishes in its transfer than Rebecca, it is nevertheless complimentary to Hitchcock’s efficient camera and lighting work, and does a great job highlighting the film’s visual virtues. The “Ultimate Romance: The Making of Notorious” is a solid making-of-feature, whereas the “Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Spymaster” feature is a fun examination of how Hitch was one of the earliest filmmakers to establish the spy film genre.  

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