Foreign Correspondent. Especially with hindisght on the Master of Suspense's career, it's a title that promises international intrigue. As a British director, Alfred Hitchcock had already logged travelogue adventures The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, and The Lady Vanishes, and more would follow this first such picture for American producers (most notably North By Northwest). Part of what sets Foreign Correspondent apart is its timing: produced and released in 1940, the picture was a wartime thriller released amidst the throes of WWII and only about a year before the American declaration of war.
Though Foreign Correspondent never quite gets into full gear, it remains a fitfully crackerjack picture with astonishing mise-en-scène (fully constructed sets for a three-story windmill, Amsterdam's Rembrandt Square, an airplane interior, and a mock-up of London’s Waterloo Station), some memorable set pieces to take advantage of same, and flashes of Hitchockian wit—though the director himself later lamented, "It's not a Hitchcock picture...The story is lacking in humor." In fact, the picture was good enough to wind up competing with Hitchcock's own Rebecca for a Best Picture Oscar (Rebecca took the prize).
Joel McCrea plays the titular crime reporter for the New York Globe, all-American-man Johnny Jones (just like "The Yankee Doodle Boy" of George M. Cohan's horse-race musical Little Johnny Jones). Rechristened "Huntley Haverstock" and shipped to London, Johnny pursues scuttlebutt from Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), leader of the Universal Peace Party, and Dutch diplomat Van Meer (justly Oscar-nominated Albert Bassermann). The action shifts to Amsterdam, site for a thrilling action scene in that city square (which kicks off with a gunshot and a corker of an overhead shot involving a crowd of umbrellas) and an elegant suspense sequence involving the exterior and interior of that windmill.
These episodes bond "Haverstock" to Scott ffolliott, who gives the picture an injection of much needed dry-wit suavity in the form of the inimitable George Sanders (All About Eve). Sanders and the glowering Marshall stand out, but the picture also benefits strongly from supporting turns by Robert Benchley as the louche American reporter already on duty in London and Eddie Conrad as the bulging-eyed, indecipherable reception guest Johnny derides as "the laughing Latvian." The girl in the picture, Fisher's daughter Carol (Laraine Day), doesn't make much of an impression, and though McCrea makes goo-goo eyes at her, the two don't develop catalytic chemistry.
The real stars here, not surprisingly, are Hitchcock and his towering production designer, William Cameron Menzies. What you're likely to remember, most of all, from Foreign Correspondent are its breathtaking sets, including one involving a water tank at the film's climax. In the end, the picture was also, quite clearly, what Joseph Goebbels called it (and he would know): "A masterpiece of propaganda."
It's a joy to revisit Foreign Correspondent, thanks to the hi-def A/V care given to the picture for Criterion's Dual-Format Edition (Blu-ray and DVD). The picture's always looked pretty good on home video, but thanks to Criterion's digital restoration, the image is now free of print damage and dust and dirt, and the added resolution adds a very pleasing depth to the image as well as a wealth of newly visible detail. The transfer never gives reason to doubt its contrast, with a healthy black level serving as a solid base to a gorgeous chiaroscuro presentation. Sound also maximizes the source material: in Criterion's cleaned-up LPCM mono track, hiss and crackle have been minimized to an effectively unnoticeable level, and Alfred Newman's score is allowed to be as robust as possible. It's hard to imagine Hitchcock fans to be anything but pleased with this audio-visual treatment.
But wait, there's more: a great collection of new and vintage extras, replicated on both the Blu-ray disc and one of the two included DVDs. The new Criterion-produced featurette "Visual Effects in Foreign Correspondent" (18:57, HD) allows effects expert Craig Barron to talk us through the collaboration of Hitchcock and Menzies in designing highly effective special effects.
Likewise new and Criterion-exclusive, "Hollywood Propaganda and World War II" (25:19, HD) finds writer Mark Harris contextualizing Foreign Correspondent amongst other Hollywood propaganda films of the time.
Best in set goes to "Dick Cavett Interviews Hitchcock" (1:02:06, HD), a delightful 1972 episode of The Dick Cavett Show. In it, Cavett gently prods Hitch to tell many of his best known anecdotes, jokes, and cinematic tricks.
Also included are a 1946 "Radio Adaptation" (25:07, HD) of the film, starring Joseph Cotten, Hitchcock's 1942 Life magazine “photo-drama” "Have You Heard? The Story of Wartime Rumors" (:37, HD), and the film's "Trailer" (2:23, HD).
As with every Criterion release, there's a terrific booklet illustrated with production stills and including credits, tech specs, and liner notes, here by film scholar James Naremore.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer