Foreign Correspondent

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Charles Bennett & Joan Harrison / dialogue by James Hilton & Robert Benchley
Stars: Joel McCrea (John Jones), Laraine Day (Carol Fisher), Herbert Marshall (Stephen Fisher), George Sanders (ffolliott), Albert Bassermann (Van Meer), Robert Benchley (Stebbins), Edmund Gwenn (Rowley), Eduardo Ciannelli (Mr. Krug), Harry Davenport (Mr. Powers), Martin Kosleck (Tramp), Frances Carson (Mrs. Sprague), Ian Wolfe (Stiles), Charles Wagenheim (Assassin)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1940
Country: U.S.
Foreign Correspondent: Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD Combo
Foreign CorrespondentThe second of Alfred Hitchcock’s American films, but the first to be quintessentially Hitchcockian in its droll mixture of action, suspense, and comedy, Foreign Correspondent was a daring film for its era. At a time when the official U.S. policy was one of isolationism and the Hollywood studios were dissuading producers from making films that might cast any aspersions on Nazi Germany, Hitchcock’s film depicts the Nazis as scheming war mongers and explicitly argues for American intervention into the war in Europe (which is probably why it caught the attention of German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who both enjoyed it and viewed it as dangerous). Granted, the words “Nazi” or “Germany” are never uttered once in the film, although anyone could easily decode the villains as nefarious Nazi stand-ins and recognize that their gibberish language was decidedly Germanic.

Hitchcock’s comic espionage thriller wasn’t the only Hollywood film that year to venture into these uncharted geopolitical waters—other films include Mervyn LeRoy’s Escape, Archie Mayo’s Four Sons, and Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm—but it is the one that is best remembered and for good reason: In the spirit of his most enjoyable British films of the ’30s, particularly The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), Foreign Correspondent mixes often wildly divergent tones, moving from the screwball banter of romantic comedy, to the vertiginous suspense of a crackling good thriller, to the unapologetic transparency of an urgent propaganda film. It doesn’t always proceed as smoothly as some of his best films, but it is never anything less than grandly entertaining.

Joel McCrea, Hitchcock’s distant second choice after Gary Cooper passed on the role because he felt a thriller was beneath him, stars as Johnny Jones, a tough-acting, but politically disengaged beat reporter who is assigned by his New York newspaper to be the new foreign correspondent in Europe. Johnny, rechristened Huntley Haverstock for added byline impact, soon finds himself in the thick of a conspiracy when a Dutch diplomat named Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) who has in his possession a treaty with a secret clause that the Nazis desperately want, is apparently assassinated right in front of him. Doggedly pursuing the story with little interest in its geopolitical ramifications, Johnny becomes involved with Carol Fisher (Laraine Day), the determined and idealistic daughter of Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), an English aristocrat who runs an international peace organization. As is true in all of Hitchcock’s best films, not everyone is who he or she at first seems, and part of the film’s pleasure is the way the plot unfolds in unexpected ways, revealing a new twist or turn with each reel change.

The screenplay by longtime Hitchcock collaborators Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison (the dialogue was penned by James Hilton and Robert Benchley, the latter of whom plays the alcoholic foreign correspondent Johnny is replacing) plays like a greatest hits parade of Hitchcock scenarios, many of which presage memorable moments in films to come (comparisons to 1959’s North by Northwest are frequently noted). Some of the standout sequences include Johnny sneaking in and around the creaking innards of a Dutch windmill while Nazi agents go about their business, Van Meer’s public assassination on a broad staircase followed by the assassin disappearing into a crowd of bowler hats and black umbrellas, and the climactic crashing into the ocean of a transatlantic passenger plane, which we view over the shoulders of the pilots in a single unbroken shot. The film is a visual tour de force, with Hitchcock taking advantage of all the special effects and production value afforded him by a Hollywood studio (the producer, Walter Wanger, was a socially conscious independent who borrowed Hitchcock from the much more controlling David O. Selznick and gave him great freedom to do what he did best).

Not everything in Foreign Correspondent works with the well-oiled precision associated with Hitchcock’s true masterpieces. The romance between Johnny and Carol isn’t terribly interesting or convincing, perhaps because Joel McCrea, who would go on to do his best work with Preston Sturges, and Laraine Day, a contract actress who never quite achieved stardom don’t have much on-screen chemistry (although Hitchcock was disappointed he couldn’t get Cooper, McCrea makes for an amiable everyman in over his head). As noted earlier, the narrative moves in fits and starts, although it’s always smooth sailing within the individual sequences.

At its best, the film merges suspense and comedy in ways that are both surprising and delightful, particularly when Johnny finds himself climbing out a hotel window and walking precariously around the building’s ledge while the wind blows back his bathrobe to reveal his sock garters. Hitchcock is always sure that we don’t take the film too seriously, although the final tacked on coda in which Johnny delivers a desperate message from London as bombs are beginning to fall has an air of in-the-moment intensity. It was a daring move, and one we have to respect if only because it represents a rare moment in which Hitchcock allowed himself to be fully political for all the right reasons.

Foreign Correspondent Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Featurette on the visual effects in the film with effects expert Craig Barron
  • “Hollywood Propaganda and World War II,” a new interview with writer Mark Harris
  • Interview with director Alfred Hitchcock from a 1972 episode of The Dick Cavett Show
  • Radio adaptation of the film from 1946, starring Joseph Cotten
  • Have You Heard? The Story of Wartime Rumors, a 1942 Life magazine “photo-drama” by Hitchcock
  • TrailerEssay by film scholar James Naremore
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.98
    Release DateFebruary 18, 2014

    VIDEO
    Criterion’s new 2K restoration of Foreign Correspondent offers an excellent replacement for Warners’ 2004 DVD. The new transfer was made from the original 35mm camera negative, which was found to be in excellent condition in the Library of Congress, and digitally restored to great effect, leaving the film looking virtually spotless and new (for an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at the transfer and restoration, Gizmodo has a short 6-minute video featuring technical director Lee Kline and other Criterion digital wizards working their magic). The image is beautifully filmlike, with a nice presence of grain, dark blacks, and great detail. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack and digitally restored, sounds fine for its age. Alfred Newman’s score has a definite richness and depth, and the film’s sounds effects, especially during the climactic plane crash, have real density and presence.

    SUPPLEMENTS
    There are two new featurettes included: an 18-minute interview with effects expert Craig Barron about the film’s various visual effects (with particular attention paid to the plane crash) and “Hollywood Propaganda and World War II,” a 26-minute interview with writer Mark Harris about the film’s historical role as an early propaganda film. From the archives Criterion brings us a couple of gems: an interview with Hitchcock from a 1972 episode of The Dick Cavett Show; the complete 1946 radio adaptation of the film starring Joseph Cotton; Have You Heard? The Story of Wartime Rumors, a 1942 Life magazine “photo-drama” by Hitchcock; and the original theatrical trailer.

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection



    Overall Rating: (3.5)




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