Color, 1940, 120m.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders, Edmund Gwenn, Albert Bassermann, Robert Benchley
Criterion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Warner (DVD) (US R0 NTSC, PAL)
Though most people don't remember it now, when Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca won a Best Picture Oscar in 1941, he had another film in contention against it: Foreign Correspondent, a far more typical thriller from the Master of Suspense. Recently relocated to America and anxious about his native country's vulnerability to the German forces stamping across Europe, Hitchcock found a way to make a statement about the need for America to join the fight while also offering the first American version of his beloved man on the run scenario, already perfected in its British form in The 39 Steps. The film would also prove to be a harbinger of things to come from the director, who dabbled in war-themed short films and chronicled the evolution of the conflict in Saboteur and Lifeboat, followed by a perverse look at its aftermath in Notorious.
Though under contract to Rebecca producer David O. Selznick (for whom he also made such glossy thrillers as Spellbound and The Paradine Case), Hitch was loaned out for this film to producer Walter Wanger and handed a solid leading man in Joel McCrea, a pre-Code veteran who would shortly embark on a long career in westerns. Here McCrea plays crime reporter John Jones, whose impulsive slugging of a police officer gets the attention of his editor seeking a reporter to cover the unstable situation in Europe without the biased tone of a regular foreign correspondent. Slapped with the new name of "Huntley Haverstock," Jones flies off to London where he tries to snag an interview by hopping in a cab with a Dutch diplomat, Van Meer (Bassemann), and attending a luncheon where he flirts with Carol Fisher (Day), daughter of a famous pacifist. However, things take a very sinister turn when he follows Van Meer to Holland, only to see the man shot in the face by a photographer. The assassin takes off into the rain surrounded by a crowd of umbrellas, but Jones tails him to the countryside where, along with Fisher and a British correspondent named ffolliott (Sanders), he uncovers a startling twist and becomes embroiled in a deadly plot to undermine the stability of the Western world.
Expertly paced, Foreign Correspondent finds Hitchcock continuing to hone the formula of a breathless chase across multiple locations, even sketching out ideas that would appear much later in North by Northwest. What's impressive here is the precise escalation of set pieces with a colorful cast of characters, including a great turn by Edmund Gwenn (later in Hitch's The Trouble with Harry) as a jovial assassin and a crackling climax on an airplane with a brilliant special effects flourish that still makes audiences gasp. It's also fascinating how the film divvies out its heroic moments among the three leads, with Sanders offering a welcome counterpoint to his oily role in Rebecca and making a suitable foil to McCrea's all-American personality. Apart from a fairly anonymous music score by the normally great Alfred Newman, it's still a flawless example of how to make a classic Hollywood thriller with a perfect balance of comedy, tension, and visual ingenuity.
Released theatrically by United Artists, Foreign Correspondent drifted out of circulation for a while but resurfaced on VHS from Warner in conjunction with Castle Hill during the big Hitchcock renaissance in the 1980s. This led to a DVD release in 2004 as part of Warner's Hitchcock Signature Collection, packaged along with Stage Fright, The Wrong Man, I Confess, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and the more readily available Dial M for Murder, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest. A standalone release was also offered very briefly, complete with a reproduction of the drab original poster art. It was a reasonably good transfer for the time with visible damage throughout but good contrast levels, not to mention a modest but enjoyable featurette with Day, Pat Hitchcock, and a handful of critics weighing in on the film's significance.
That said, there was plenty of room left for improvement as proven by the 2014 dual-format Blu-ray and DVD package from Criterion. The packaging touts an HD transfer in 2K from the original camera negative, and indeed, it's quite a beauty. Damage is essentially nonexistent, detail is perfect, and the rich, deep blacks add immeasurably to the fim's impact, especially a nifty rooftop escape scene that would later get tweaked in Hitch's To Catch a Thief. The PCM mono track also sounds great, with the formerly muffled and tinny moments in the dialogue now coming through far more clearly. The trailer reappears here, and the new extras kick off with "Hollywood Propaganda and World War II," in which Mark Harris dissects the role of propaganda in the more progressive mode of the U.S. government at the time and the attempts by United Artists and Wanger to make films with more topical urgency. The film's final scene was famously added to urge viewers and nations to action, but Harris is understandably ambivalent about sticking the entire film under that label. In the 19-minute "Visual Effects in Foreign Correspondent," visual effects expert Craig Barron (a familiar face from many Los Angeles events) walks through Hitchcock's collaboration on this film with the inventive William Cameron Menzies, the man behind such films as Things to Come and Invaders from Mars. Rear projection, matte paintings, and other tricks of the trade are dissected here, including a nifty look at that amazing plane crash. A 1972 interview with Hitchcock from The Dick Cavett Show runs a full hour (including a newer video intro with the host), with the director talking about his methods more generally including such familiar topics as the MacGuffin, difficulties with actors, the infamous bomb outrage in Sabotage, and his utter lack of interest in making westerns or costume movies. A very hurried 25-minute radio production from 1946's Academy Award Theater features Joseph Cotten zipping through the highlights of the story, while "Have You Heard? The Story of Wartime Rumors" is an unusual Life magazine drama Hitchcock conceived with stills showing how idle American chatter can undermine national security. Finally the set rounds out with "The Windmills of War," a liner notes essay by James Naremore covering the film's genesis with a real reporter's memoir, the involvement of other writers in script including Robert Benchley (who has a significant supporting role in the film), and the ambitious production of the film itself, which remains a model lesson in how to keep your audience tightly coiled for two solid hours.
Reviewed on February 4, 2014.