Almost two decades before 'North by Northwest' would thrill audiences with its intoxicating blend of espionage, pursuit, romance, violence, and clever quips, Alfred Hitchcock directed its prototype. 'Foreign Correspondent' may not have color, Cary Grant, or a crazed crop-duster combing a cornfield, but it oozes style, is packed with memorable set pieces, and takes viewers on a high-flying rollercoaster ride that's both deliriously entertaining and masterfully executed. It also stands as one of the first quintessential Hitchcock pictures, possessing a host of artistic and thematic elements bearing the director's fingerprints.
Though Hitchcock felt constrained by the micromanagement of producer David O. Selznick on his inaugural American movie, the Oscar-winning 'Rebecca,' the Master of Suspense was allowed to spread his wings and more fully flex his creative muscle on this sophomore effort, which showcases his technical prowess, vision, and imagination. 'Foreign Correspondent' may not be as recognizable a Hitchcock title as 'Psycho,' 'The Birds,' 'Rear Window,' and 'Vertigo,' but that doesn't mean it's not one of his best efforts. On the contrary, 'Foreign Correspondent' stands up well against any Hitchcock movie, and remains as taut and exciting today as it surely seemed upon its initial release more than seven decades ago.
Like the finest Hitchcock fare, 'Foreign Correspondent' starts with a crackling story and relatable main character, and everyman Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), a cub reporter with The New York Globe, is about as Main Street and clean cut as they come. Smart, handsome, eager, blissfully ignorant, with a hint of cockiness and a strong work ethic, Johnny is given the pseudonym Huntley Haverstock by his editor (Harry Davenport) and dispatched to London to interview Dutch dignitary Van Meer (Albert Basserman), one of a handful of officials seeking to stabilize Europe's deteriorating political situation. Englishman Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), head of the Universal Peace Party, acts as a liaison between the two men, but Van Meer's disappearance and subsequent assassination put Johnny in the center of a dangerous game of ruthless, high-stakes espionage, where the information hidden in a treaty's secret clause could alter the global tide if and when war is declared.
That closely guarded and highly coveted information is, of course, the proverbial MacGuffin, a Hitchcock staple that drives the plot yet remains maddeningly vague. Though the characters believe the fate of the free world hinges on the contents of Clause #27, what it all means doesn't matter a damn. The secrets merely spark a degree of greed and desperation in those who seek them, transform the previously detached and disinterested Johnny into an enlightened and passionate citizen, ramp up tension and mystery, and, most importantly, set the stage for a series of classic Hitchcock sequences that heighten audience involvement, inspire admiration for their technical intricacy and invention, and enhance our respect for one of cinema's most talented directors.
'North by Northwest' possesses a clever assassination scene, but the one in 'Foreign Correspondent' eclipses it, as the killer escapes in a driving rain storm amid a sea of black umbrellas that bob and jostle as he carves a path through them. Later, a tense standoff between Johnny and the bad guys transpires in a Dutch windmill, but the film's pièce de résistance is a dazzlingly photographed plane crash in the Atlantic Ocean and subsequent escape from the rapidly submerging fuselage. Throughout the film, Hitchcock's impeccable and often innovative composition keeps the eye engaged, and his liberal use of signature high and low angle shots, shadows, and special effects heighten the tale's impact.
'Foreign Correspondent' is also notable as a stirring piece of anti-war propaganda that - at the time - cemented America's prevailing isolationist point of view while still indirectly condemning the Nazis. (Censorship rules at the time forbid scripts to directly name Germany as a threat or advocate American involvement in European affairs.) The villains of the piece speak a kind of gibberish that resembles German, but the regime that claims their loyalty remains shrouded in mystery, as does the ideology that attracts them. Inference, however, can be stronger than overt statements, and the true identity of the foe the protagonists are fighting comes through loud and clear.
McCrea makes his mark as a Hitchcock hero, though Laraine Day, despite a sincere and natural performance, remains one of the least known and appreciated Hitchcock heroines. (A young contract player at MGM best known for her multiple appearances in the 'Dr. Kildare' series, Day landed the role of Johnny's love interest when such established stars as Claudette Colbert and Joan Fontaine proved unavailable.) The best work in 'Foreign Correspondent,' however, comes from the stellar and colorful supporting cast, which includes Marshall, Basserman (who received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his passionate portrayal), the always droll George Sanders, the acerbic Robert Benchley (who reportedly wrote all his own dialogue), and future Santa Claus Edmund Gwenn, cast against type as a cheerful yet ruthless hired killer. It's common knowledge Hitchcock harbored little fondness for actors, but most of the time they gave him their best, and here their excellent turns add welcome flair to an already exciting story.
'Foreign Correspondent' received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, and Special Effects. It didn't win any awards, but it gained the favor and respect of American audiences, who quickly embraced its portly helmsman, bestowing upon him an enviable degree of respect that would grow by leaps and bounds in the ensuing years. Though 'Rebecca' received more acclaim in 1940 and almost double the number of Oscar nominations, 'Foreign Correspondent' better defines the director and deserves to be rediscovered.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Foreign Correspondent' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a fold-out case inside a book-like sleeve with attractive cartoon illustrations. A 50GB dual-layer Blu-ray disc, as well as two standard-def DVDs (one of which houses the feature film, while the other contains the supplemental material) are tucked snugly inside. Also included is a 20-page booklet that features a number of rare photographs and an insightful and informative essay by author James Naremore that outlines the movie's production history, recaps its plot, and relates 'Foreign Correspondent' to other Hitchcock films. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is uncompressed mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with sound effects immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Absolute perfection is the best way to describe this stunningly clear, beautifully modulated, and meticulously restored transfer from Criterion. Most United Artists releases of the period quickly fell into disrepair because they were independent productions without a major studio affiliation, thus making proper care and storage of original negatives a more challenging prospect. Such an unfortunate history, however, makes this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering all the more thrilling. According to the Criterion liner notes, "this new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative" and "thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, and jitter were manually removed." The result is a sublime, breathtaking image with a natural but not overbearing grain structure, exquisite gray scale variance that provides striking depth and wonderful contrast, and crystal clarity. A smooth sheen instantly distinguishes the presentation and never wavers throughout the film's course, allowing Hitchcock's suspenseful spell to remain unbroken and increasing the visceral impact of the action sequences.
Black levels are lusciously inky, yet shadow detail remains strong even in low-lit scenes. Crush and noise are kept at bay, and fine details, such as a few errant wool fibers breaking free from a tweed jacket, are marvelously crisp. Matte paintings and rear projection shots are seamlessly integrated into the whole, so the windmill, plane crash, and hotel escape scenes adopt a far more realistic quality than similar sequences in other films of the period. Often, the increased clarity of high definition calls attention to and betrays the technical wizardry that directors so carefully employ, but not so here, and the excellent results inspire even more admiration for how Hitchcock engineered and executed these famous set pieces.
Close-ups highlight facial features well, and the texture of costumes and upholstery is evident, too. Any noise reduction has been judiciously applied so it doesn't disrupt the picture's integrity, and not a single mark or blemish mars this pristine presentation. 'Foreign Correspondent' is almost 75 years old, but Criterion has made sure this dynamite thriller will live forever. The year is still young, but I'd wager a tidy sum this superb effort will remain one of the finest classic movie transfers of 2014.
An uncompressed mono track provides top-quality audio, although a couple of instances of mild distortion keep this mix from earning a perfect rating. Sound, of course, is an essential aspect of almost every Hitchcock film, and it's the delicate nuances that really help ratchet up suspense. Lots of opportunities for fine aural shadings exist in 'Foreign Correspondent,' and this superior track, remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm optical soundtrack, exploits them to their best advantage. Whether it's the pouring rain that douses the Dutch ambassador's arrival, the creakiness of the windmill gears, the clickety-clack of typewriter keys striking a piece of paper, the combustion of neon gas, or the rough surf of the Atlantic Ocean buffeting the remains of a downed clipper, all the effects exude a crispness of tone that enhances the realism of each situation.
Alfred Newman's music score is nicely integrated into the proceedings and fills the room with ease, while dialogue is perfectly prioritized and always easy to comprehend, even when characters speak in thick European dialects. Not a hint of hiss can be heard, and only a couple of errant crackles pop up over the course of the two-hour film. Though not as dazzling as the video transfer, the audio presentation is still top-notch, and outclasses most productions from the same period.
A typically varied, interesting, and substantive Criterion supplemental package enhances this Hitchcock release. An audio commentary would have been nice, but you can't have everything.
Though often in the shadow of such iconic works as 'North by Northwest,' 'Notorious,' and 'The 39 Steps,' 'Foreign Correspondent' firmly stands as one of Alfred Hitchcock's most thrilling and perfectly executed films. The wartime tale contains some of the director's best suspense sequences and most recognizable imagery, and its breakneck pacing, absorbing plot, and breezy performances combine to create an impeccable production that perfectly reflects almost every aspect of Hitchcock's genius. Criterion's Blu-ray presentation is as special as the movie, thanks to a spectacular video transfer, first-rate audio, and a fine selection of insightful and informative supplemental material. You don't have to be a Hitchcock fan to appreciate 'Foreign Correspondent,' but for those who revere the Master of Suspense, this is a must own release that completely revitalizes an often underappreciated film and will certainly be regarded as one of the best classic movie releases of the year.