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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Notorious is a classic. It’s classic Alfred Hitchcock. Classic Ingrid Bergman. Classic Cary Grant. It’s a romance and a thriller as its storyline weaves together a tale of seduction and intrigue in a world of spies, betrayal, and patriotism.

Emotional Terrorism

Notorious gets the Criterion treatmentT.R. Devlin (Cary Grant, North by Northwest) is an American spy on assignment in Brazil. Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman, Spellbound) is the daughter of a Nazi recently convicted of war crimes. Devlin enlists Alicia in a scheme to smoke out other Nazis hiding from justice in Latin America.

What follows is a passionate tale of romance and love, a spy/counterspy story that presents the art of love at war. The mystery revolves around Devlin – does he really love Alicia or is she just another pawn in the spy game? It’s a tale told back when Hollywood knew how to captivate an audience and tell a love story without gratuitous sex.

This is a classy production, with all the glamour of the post-war 1940s. Notorious falls solidly in the center of Hitchcock’s canon of classic romantic thrillers, like Rebecca and The 39 Steps. These were the movies he made before Psycho and The Birds made “Hitch” synonymous with the macabre.

Naturally, some of the technical aspects behind this production are now dated. Most notable is the use of rear projection, wherein the actors are filmed on a studio set while location footage is shown on a screen behind them. The trick lacks realism now. However, the storytelling and the film’s ability to convey a mood are timeless.

A Higher Criterion

Thanks to The Criterion Collection, Notorious has been faithfully restored and presented in a jam-packed DVD. For the most part, the picture is pristine, but there are some blemishes, which is not surprising considering the film’s age (it was originally released in 1946).

Notorious is packaged with a label proclaiming it a Special Edition, but the label seems unnecessary since this is a Criterion DVD and virtually every title in their catalog gets very special treatment. Criterion set the benchmark for today’s DVD “deluxe editions” or “platinum editions” or whatever other catchy moniker the studios want to use, back with their often-pricey laser discs. They’re the folks who pioneered the running commentary and supplemental materials and their knowledge of film history is apparent on this disc.

Among the key supplements on the DVD are two running commentaries. One is by Marian Keane, a Hitchcock film scholar, and the other by film historian Rudy Behlmer.

Keane’s commentary was newly recorded for the DVD, but it is a rather dry shot-by-shot interpretation, rather than analysis, of the film. Keane has her own slant on the film and after a while her overuse of the word “misogynist” leads one to mull the possibilities of a drinking game. After listening to her observations, viewers are left to wonder if that much thought was ever again put into the content of a movie after 1946.

Far more easygoing and enlightening is Behlmer’s commentary recorded in 1990. He puts the film and its makers in historical context in a knowledgeable and friendly conversation that includes references to Gone With the Wind, Hitchcock’s television projects, and even Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.

The Dossier

The rest of the features are all presented in easy-to-navigate and classy menus.

The contents of the Notorious “Dossier” are a barrage of supplemental materials that should delight fans of Hitch and his stars.

The disc’s collection of behind-the-scenes supplements actually do a better job of conveying the feeling on the set than most fluffy modern-day “making of” documentaries tacked on as bonus material for more current releases.

Providing an interesting glimpse into the atmosphere of post-war Hollywood are excerpts from production correspondence between producer David O. Selznick, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph I. Breen (Director of the Production Code Administration), and J. Edgar Hoover (Director of the F.B.I.). The latter two exhibited concern over the immorality found in the original screenplay, especially in regard to Alicia’s immoral character and the lack of “compensating moral values.” It’s a great historical record documenting just how drastically the times have changed.

Also going behind the scenes are a collection of production and publicity stills. The black-and-white photos, with Hitch, Grant, and Bergman either posing for the camera or hard at work, manage to convey all the glamour and fun Hollywood was “notorious” for in its Golden Years. Also, the disc’s inclusion of a sweet and sentimental segment on “The Fate of the Unica Key,” one of the film’s key props, shores up the sense that this was a special project for the film’s main contributors.

There is also a section on the rear projection technique used to bring Rio de Janeiro to the back lots of Hollywood for this production. It could be considered a case of overkill, though, as deconstructing this part of the film’s production takes away a certain sense of old-fashioned Hollywood magic.

Providing exceptional value to the disc is the inclusion of the complete 1948 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation with Ingrid Berman and Joseph Cotten. This is complete with original intermissions that include a report from Hollywood and contemporary commercials – a treat for nostalgia buffs.

Also in the files are script excerpts of deleted scenes and alternate endings, the usual inclusion of trailers and teasers, and excerpts from The Song of the Dragon by John Taintor Foote, which provided the inspiration for what became Notorious.

On the fluffier side of things, there’s also newsreel footage of Hitch and Bergman arriving at Heathrow and meeting with the press. It’s most notable for Hitch’s obvious admiration and appreciation of Bergman.

Rounding out the package are an isolated music and effects audio track and a booklet with an essay by Hitchcock scholar William Rothman.

In all, it’s a classic disc of a classic movie.