Judge Jim Thomas filed this review from Acapulco.
Our review of Foreign Correspondent, published October 11th, 2004, is also available.
"A masterpiece of propaganda, a first-class production which no doubt will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of the people in enemy countries."—Joseph Goebbels
While technically Rebecca was Hitchcock's first American movie, he never quite felt it was his picture. Producer David O. Selznick kept a close eye on the proceedings, and the result is more his vision of the story than Hitchcock's. Follow-up Foreign Correspondent, in sharp contrast, is quintessential Hitchcock—with an average guy thrust into a volatile situation, along with a number of stunning set pieces. There's also a slightly subversive theme at work in the movie, as Hitchcock, along with producer Walter Wanger, serve notice to America that remaining on the sidelines won't be a viable option when war inevitably breaks out.
Criterion brings before us Foreign Correspondent (Blu-ray).
Facts of the Case
With Europe on the brink of war, the editors at the New York Globe are fed up with their regular foreign correspondents, who simply transmit government press releases without any research or analysis. So they pluck upstart crime reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea, Sullivan's Travels) from the city beat, give him the unlikely pen name "Huntley Haverstock," and ship him off to Europe. His first assignment is to interview Stephen Fisher (Herbert Fisher, The Little Foxes), the leader of the Universal Peace Party. En route, Jones shares a cab with the Dutch diplomat van Meer (Albert Basserman, The Red Shoes), the guest of honor at a UPP banquet.
Jones gets a couple of words with Fisher, but is quickly distracted by Fisher's daughter Carol (Laraine Day, Calling Dr. Kildare). To make matters worse, van Meer disappears from the banquet, piquing Jones' curiosity. Learning that van Meer is scheduled to appear at a political conference in Amsterdam. Jones catches up to van Meer on the steps leading into the conference. Van Meer acts as though he's never seen Jones before, but before Jones can investigate, a photographer suddenly guns van Meer down in front of a large crowd. Racing after the gunman, Jones commandeers a car—which turns out to contain Carol and another reporter, Scott Ffolliott (George Sanders, The Lady Eve). When the gunman's car seemingly disappears amidst a group of windmills, Jones sends the others to get the police, while he pokes around. Finding the getaway car in one of the windmills, Jones investigates, sneaking through the windmill, past the gunman and several others, he ducks into a room—only to be confronted with a very live, albeit heavily drugged, van Meer.
Jones quickly discovers that he is in over his head, dodging assassins at every turn, and all the evidence points towards an emerging spy network that has been betraying both Britain and the Netherlands to Germany. With Carol, he flees to England, hoping to get assistance from Carol's father. Romance blossoms as they cross the Channel, but as tensions boil over in Europe, Jones races to get to the bottom of the story.
As good as the movie is as a straight thriller, Joseph Goebbels knew what he was talking about when he praised the film as "a masterpiece of propaganda." It's through the lens of history that you can better appreciate what Hitchcock pulls off here. Filming took place in early 1940. World War II had begun, but at that point Hitler was focused on the European mainland; the movie's August release date came only weeks after bombs began falling on London. Back in America, there was still a strong isolationist movement that wanted nothing to do with the war—the film industry was toeing the same line. The movie even goes so far as to use a U.S. neutrality law as a plot point towards the end of the film.
The result is a thriller that plays as an allegory of American foreign policy. Initially, Johnny Jones (an American name if ever there was one), isn't that interested in the impending war; he's more interested in his expense account and is easily distracted by a pretty face. However, the European conflict inexorably drags him in, and when the dust settles, there's nothing left but all out commitment, as only an American can. The final scene—added at the last minute—is as rousing a call to action as you're likely to see.
Foreign Correspondent has a number of classic Hitchcock scenes—chief of which has to be Jones' journey through the windmill, ducking in and out of the shadows, in and around the mill gears. It's not only wonderfully blocked, but also wonderfully filmed. Easily the most impressive technical accomplishment is the plane crash at the end of the movie; I won't do into details, but even twenty-first-century viewers are likely to be impressed.
Trivia: Hitchcock initially wanted Gary Cooper as the lead, but Cooper refused. In later years Cooper said that he always regretted turning down the part.
More Trivia: Stebbins, the foreign correspondent who welcomes Jones to Britain, is played by Robert Benchley, noted humorist, one of the film's screenwriters, and father of author Peter Benchley (Jaws).
Technically, Foreign Correspondent (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection is a marvel. While the restoration is far from perfect—there are a still some occasional blips and scratches—the video is a marvel, with excellent depth and contrast, and almost no back crush. Grain is prevalent—a lot of grain, actually—but it does not detract. You can even make out the finer details in the costumes. The LPCM Mono uncompressed audio track is clear, if occasionally a bit tinny at times.
There's a solid set of extras, some created specifically for this release:
• A 20-minute interview with effects expert Craig Barron—nothing earth-shattering here, but it's a fairly detailed discussion of some of the tricks used in the film.
• "Hollywood Propaganda and World War II," a 30-minute-plus interview with writer Mark Harris, this piece provides good background for the film.
• Dick Cavett interview with Alfred Hitchcock from a 1972 episode of The Dick Cavett Show; actually, it's pretty much the entire episode, close to an hour long. The two discuss various aspects of Hitchcock's career; only a small amount of time is devoted to Foreign Correspondent.
• A radio adaptation of the film from 1946, starring Joseph Cotton, about 25 minutes long
• "Have You Heard? The Story of Wartime Rumors," a 1942 Life magazine "photo-drama" by Hitchcock. Basically a story told with photos and captions, it's a great example of Hitchcock's skill in manipulating the audience.
• A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar James Naremore
• A full-length commentary track would have been a welcome addition, particularly given the historic context of the movie, but that's a fairly petty quibble. Still apart from the visual effects, there's not a lot of information on the production itself.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The plot is perhaps too complicated for its own good, with twists, turns, and nominal star Joel McCrea disappearing for an extended stretch. While McCrea and Laraine Day have good chemistry, their romance is one of the more contrived, rushed scenes in the film (supposedly, it was based on Hitchock's own proposal to his wife Alma). The tonal shifts in the movie can be somewhat jarring, particularly the patriotic ending—but damned if the ending isn't effective.
It's hard to properly place Foreign Correspondent in the Hitchcock pantheon, as it's the closest thing to a "message" film that Hitch ever made. While all Hitchcock films have the odd narrative hiccup or two, here they're more pronounced. At the same time, though, the timing of the picture, and the deftness with which Hitchcock weaves the message, is pretty impressive.
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