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The West of Fritz Lang

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“I love westerns [because] they are based on a simple and essential ethical code,” Fritz Lang said in a 1959 Cahiers du Cinema interview.  “The struggle of good against evil is as old as the world.”

Lang’s westerns are unique in cinema history.  The Return of Frank James (1940), Western Union (1941) and Rancho Notorious (1952) offer rugged individualism that differs from the epic grandeur of John Ford and Howard Hawks, thereby paving the way for the 1950s psychological westerns of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher.  The Austrian-German director utilizes the genre to study the nature of revenge, corruption, redemption and loss — recurring themes throughout his 41-year career.

How did an influential filmmaker find a niche in westerns?  First of all, Lang was fascinated by the American West and understood its mythology. “The western is not only the history of this country, it is what the Saga of Nibelungen is for the European,” he explained in Peter Bogdanovich’s critical study Fritz Lang in America (1967). “The development of this country is unimaginable without the days of the Wild West.”

Lang also was intrigued by the American Indian culture and lived on a Navajo reservation for several weeks in 1935 while MGM kept him on hold and waited for his one-year contract with the studio to expire.  However, the director fought back and soon made Fury (1936), a disturbing study of mob rule and obsessive vengeance — social themes that would be explored in his westerns.

In 1940, Darryl Zanuck gave Lang the opportunity to make his first western for 20th Century-Fox, a sequel to director Henry King’s Jesse James (1939).  When asked why he allowed Lang to make a western, the producer responded, “Because he’ll see things we don’t.”

Western noir in The Return of Frank James.

Western noir in The Return of Frank James.

Zanuck was correct in his assessment.  The Return of Frank James can be considered one of the first noir westerns. Lang’s attention to detail and atmosphere dominates this unusual tale of revenge.  The film has a look and feel unlike any western of the period as he elevates the genre to a higher visual and moral plane.

The Return of Frank James also marked a cinematic advance for Lang with its use of Technicolor and location photography, resulting in some magnificent shots of the High Sierras.  For a largely studio-bound filmmaker, this was literally a breath of fresh air.

Lang liked the Frank James script and had the freedom to make what few changes he deemed necessary.  However, due to the restrictive Production Code, the character of Frank James (reprised by Henry Fonda) was unable to seek retribution for his brother’s murder and, in fact, did not kill a single individual.  Instead, the men who killed Jesse — Bob and Charlie Ford — die by other means.

At its core, The Return of Frank James examines the struggle of the individual (Frank) versus the system (the railroad company).  Lang opens his film with the last scene from Jesse James (an interesting parallel to the director’s two-part Die Nibelungen saga) as the traitorous Ford brothers shoot Jesse in the back.  After a noirish montage of newspaper headlines trumpeting Jesse’s death, Frank is found enjoying a farmer’s life of peace and anonymity.  He is a man reluctant to seek revenge.  “There ain’t gonna be no trouble,” he assures his youthful friend Clem (Jackie Cooper).

Frank (Henry Fonda) watches the re-enactment of his brother’s murder.

However, this relative calm proves short-lived when Frank learns that the governor of Missouri has pardoned the Fords.  Twisting the blade further, the brothers receive the reward money.  Since it was the railroad’s money that “put Jesse in his grave,” Frank (in a subtle form of revenge) decides to rob the company in order to finance his Ford expedition, which takes him to Denver.

In one of the film’s best scenes, Frank attends a theatrical production in which the “heroic” Ford brothers re-enact Jesse’s murder.  Sitting in a darkened balcony, Frank watches the melodrama unfold and rises to let his presence be known.  When the cowardly Fords see Frank, they run in terror.

What follows is a picturesque chase through the Sierras — a spectacular action sequence that reveals Germanic atmosphere in Lang’s architectural rock formations and his use of dead trees in the foreground. The chase ends in a gunfight between Frank and Charlie Ford (Charles Tannen), which results in Charlie falling to his death.  Lang’s omission of background music and dialogue strengthens the tension and excitement of this scene — nothing is heard but the sound of gunfire.

At the halfway mark, the story takes an unexpected turn when Frank abruptly ends his quest for Bob Ford (John Carradine) and returns to Liberty, Missouri, in order to save his servant Pinky (Ernest Whitman) who was framed for murder by the railroad company.  The film unexpectedly evolves into a bitter and sometimes comical courtroom battle which ends in Frank’s exoneration by Southern sympathizers.  The Civil War resentments between the Northern prosecution and the Southern defense are startling; at one point, Frank’s attorney (who works as a newspaper editor) calls the railroad detective “Yankee scum.”

French poster.

French poster.

Once Frank is acquitted, he is free to track down Bob Ford.  However, an off-camera gunfight occurs in which Clem dies after shooting Ford.  What follows is the film’s most noirish scene as Frank confronts the mortally-wounded Ford in a darkened barn.  From a psychological perspective, Lang’s ominous and foreboding interior settings reveal Ford’s dying moments as those of a trapped animal.  When Frank finds Ford’s body, he has the satisfaction of seeing his brother avenged:  “That’s the other one, Jesse.”

The Return of Frank James ends optimistically with Frank returning to his Missouri farm, though Lang offers a provocative image in the final shot.  Riding out of town, Frank passes a tattered “wanted” poster of the James brothers; the wind strips away the names of Frank and Jesse as the film fades out.

Lang’s attention to historic and human details also play an integral role in Western Union — a fictitious account of the telegraph line’s evolution in the 1860s. Generally acknowledged as the first epic-scale western in Technicolor, the 1941 Fox production is the most conventional of Lang’s Hollywood endeavors.  Regrettably, producer Zanuck decided that Lang should film Robert Carson’s exposition-heavy screenplay as written.  Had the director been allowed to make his proposed script changes, Western Union might have emerged as a darker, less formulaic western.

Despite the excessive comic relief and overemphasis on romance, Lang was able to incorporate some of his fatalistic vision into the proceedings, embodied by the character of Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott) — a reformed outlaw hired as a scout for the telegraph company. Lang’s individual shadings add moments of realism to what could have been an overblown Cecil B. DeMille-type spectacle.

Robert Young, Fritz Lang and Randolph Scott during the filming of Western Union.

Fritz Lang directs Robert Young and Randolph Scott.

Once again, Lang shot on location — utilizing portions of Kanab, Utah, and Arizona’s House Rock Canyon.  Compared to The Return of Frank James, the landscape of Western Union is more expansive with its canyon ranges and jagged desert rocks.  However, the interiors remain appropriately Langian.

Western Union is a standout among Lang’s westerns for its emphasis on technological progress and the coming of civilization.  In one scene, Shaw tells outlaw leader Jack Slade (Barton MacLane), “You can’t fight a thing as big and important as the Western Union.”  Symbolically, the telegraph’s arrival marks the beginning of the West’s demise.

Lang depicts Indian culture in a mostly sympathetic light.  Shaw takes a more pacifist approach towards the Indians than his romantic rival, Richard Blake (Robert Young), a naive Easterner who prefers killing the “savages.”  There is a great moment when Shaw knocks out Blake after the city slicker unnecessarily shoots an inebriated Indian.

Later in the film, Shaw and telegraph boss Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger) receive the tribal chief’s permission to extend their wire through Indian territory. However, in Lang’s work, nothing is what it seems. After “Indians” attack the telegraph crew, it turns out they are members of Slade’s gang in disguise.  The outlaws call themselves “guerrillas for the Confederacy” — opportunists who exploit the Civil War by justifying their criminal acts.

Foreboding darkness in epic-scale Technicolor.

In the film’s most impressive action scene, Slade and his gang ignite a devastating forest fire that encircles the company camp.  It is an elaborate, studio-created blaze that rivals the flood in Metropolis (1927).  Lang’s use of color provides a brilliant fusion of flames and shadow, which makes for a terrifying sequence.

For all its epic grandeur, the narrative force of Western Union lies in Shaw’s moral struggle. Predictably, Shaw finds himself in the middle of the Slade/Western Union conflict and, because of his past, does not fully side with the telegraph company.  Only after Creighton fires Shaw does the reformed outlaw reveal that Slade is his brother, thereby leading to the obligatory showdown between Shaw and Slade — a Cain and Abel parallel that leads to Shaw’s death and redemption.

As in The Return of Frank James, Lang’s directorial touches lend a naturalistic quality to the Shaw/Slade shootout. “There is one scene in which [Shaw] — who has had his hands burned in a forest fire and has them bandaged — goes to the traditional last fight,” Lang told Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang in America. “[Shaw] takes the bandages off his right hand, and stretches his fingers to see if they are usable for the draw. This is the kind of touch that makes people believe in things.”

Randolph Scott as reformed outlaw Vance Shaw.

Randolph Scott’s breakthrough role as reformed outlaw Vance Shaw.

Ironically, Western Union features the most expressionistic shot in Lang’s westerns.  In a stark composition, the viewer sees Shaw’s grave with telegraph poles standing sentinel in the background.  The inscription on the grave reveals that Shaw was buried as an employee of Western Union.  It is a tragic yet fitting conclusion.

Western Union was an influential film in its breakthrough casting of Randolph Scott.  As Vance Shaw, the actor revealed a darker edge that later would be explored in his collaborations with director Budd Boetticher.  Lang was the first filmmaker to recognize these brooding qualities in Scott (just as Alfred Hitchcock later would discover the same undertones in Cary Grant).

The commercial success of Western Union enabled Lang to return to the psychological thrillers that best suited him.  Another decade passed before he again directed a western — this time for RKO.  Rancho Notorious was Lang’s last western and, in many ways, his finest.  One of his bleakest works, the film also served as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich, whose inimitable screen presence almost verged on self-parody.

Rancho Notorious is a perverse, stylized B-movie that distorts reality in its use of artificial backdrops and shadowy interiors.  Though largely a set-bound film, Lang reveals a painter’s eye in his moody, ominous shots of the sky and landscape.  (The exteriors may have been second-unit work, but the look is distinctively Langian.)  There also are expressionistic camera angles and grim close-ups that depict a claustrophobic, emotionally repressed environment.

A Langian dissolve.

Film scholar Jim Kitses observed in his influential 1969 book Horizons West that “strange and powerful works such as Rancho Notorious have been refused entry [into the genre] because they are somehow ‘not westerns.’  This impulse may well be informed by a fear that unless the form is defined precisely . . . it will disappear, wraith-like, from under our eyes.”

It is ironic that critical limitations were placed on the most expansive of film genres. With the exception of Western Union, none of Lang’s westerns are considered “traditional” works. Rancho Notorious defies rigid generalization and compares favorably to the artistry of director Anthony Mann. In Lang’s films, as well as those of Mann, fate deals the hero a nasty blow; however, with Lang, there is less emphasis on the hero’s struggle to resolve his own psychological malaise.

As in Mann’s work, there is a sense of loss that pervades Rancho Notorious, beginning with the murder of Vern Haskell’s (Arthur Kennedy) fiancée and his endless, obsessive quest for her killers.  The film’s flashback sequence emphasizes Altar Keane’s (Dietrich) faded glamour and social standing, though her mystique remains intact.  Finally, there is outlaw Frenchy Fairmont’s (Mel Ferrer) loss when Altar takes the bullet meant for him.

The criminal hideout of Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich).

Rancho Notorious incorporates elements of sadism and sexuality that became more prevalent in 1950s westerns.  There is the symbolic inference of rape when Vern’s fiancée reluctantly opens the safe while Kinch menaces her; after her murder, the doctor tells Vern that “she wasn’t spared anything.”  During the flashback sequence, we see Altar and the other dance-hall girls participating in a “horse race” with the saloon customers.  Later in the film, Frenchy and Vern engage in a shooting competition that suggests phallic symbolism.   When Vern equates Altar’s bedroom to a morgue before the final gunfight, the sexual expressiveness is complete.

Lang also wreaks vengeance on Hollywood’s Production Code by making revenge an integral part of the story, even though Vern does not kill the men responsible for his fiancée’s murder. “The revenge theme was so dominant that it could not be diverted, and was allowable because virtually everybody wound up dead,” film historian William K. Everson wrote in his 1992 book The Hollywood Western. “It was surely no coincidence that a ballad sung during the credits concluded with the emphasized words ‘hate, murder and revenge’ just as the credit ‘Directed by Fritz Lang’ flashed on screen.”

Social status plays an ironic role in this film.  At one point, it is noted that Altar prefers cowpunchers to cattle barons.  In fact, she forms a community of outlaws at the “Chuck-a-Luck” ranch not unlike the criminal organization in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse series.  Along with her dominance and self-assurance, Altar speaks the film’s most philosophical line: “Time is stronger than a rope.”

Spanish herald.

Spanish herald.

There are two communities in Rancho Notorious: “Chuck-a-Luck” and the corrupt town of “Gunsight.”  Despite the town’s emphasis on upholding the law, the sheriff is in cahoots with the disgraced politicians (“Give me an outlaw to these thieves anytime,” Vern says) and later is voted out of office in the “Citizens vs. Law and Order” election.  Nevertheless, evil dominates, especially when the law is not carried out to its full extent.

What makes Rancho Notorious a pessimistic western is Lang’s belief that man remains a lost individual resigned to his own fate.  In the final analysis, the West of Fritz Lang represents an emotional wasteland as Vern and Frenchy ride off in mourning to face an uncertain future. “We all get taken sooner or later.”

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DVD Review: “The Strange Woman” (1946)

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One of the main reasons that truly dedicated cinema aficionados have particular respect and admiration for ‘B’ filmmakers is that not only could they achieve a level of visual style on low budgets that put the work of more respectable (and overrated) directors working with infinitely larger budgets to shame, but also do so with greater speed and efficiency. (This explains why many ‘B’ directors like John Brahm, Robert Florey, Ida Lupino, William Witney, Norman Foster, and William “One-Shot” Beaudine thrived in the television medium; the budgets and schedules required for TV were downright luxurious compared with the conditions they’d made theatrical films under.) One director who epitomized this concept of doing more with less was Edgar G. Ulmer. As part of their series of remastered DVD releases of public domain movies previously available only in cheap, multi-generational knock-offs, Film Chest has just issued a high-definition restored version of Ulmer’s 1946 costume melodrama The Strange Woman.

Coincidentally, as with Hollow Triumph, another 40s ‘B’ film recently remastered and released on DVD by Film Chest, The Strange Woman was a project that was initiated by its star, in this case, Hedy Lamarr. (For years, Lamarr was written off as yet another attractive starlet with a limited acting range, but it’s now well known that she had a genius I.Q. and, with composer George Antheil, invented a frequency-hopping spread-spectrum device that was patented in their names in 1942. The device not only prevented the jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes, but laid the groundwork for today’s Internet as well.)

Lamarr was dissatisfied with her time under contract to MGM, where she was wasted in glamorous but unsubstantial roles. It also didn’t help that MGM refused to loan Lamarr to Warner Bros. when she was the first choice for what would’ve been the most notable role of her career, Ilsa Lund in Casablanca. (Lamarr’s loss, however, was film history’s gain when David O. Selznick gladly loaned out Warners’ second choice, Ingrid Bergman, since Bergman was, frankly, a far more talented and nuanced actress. MGM did loan Lamarr to Warners two years later for The Conspirators, however.)

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After leaving MGM in 1945, Lamarr tried freelancing, an option becoming increasingly popular at the time among film stars whose studio contracts had run out and wanted to exercise more control over their careers. Lamarr purchased the film rights to Ben Ames Williams’ novel The Strange Woman, a steamy tale in which Jenny Hager, a young temptress from the wrong side of town (said town being Bangor, Maine, circa the early 1800s), sleeps her way to riches and respectability. Lamarr then teamed with fellow MGM alumni Jack Chertock and Hunt Stromberg to produce. She also selected Ulmer, a childhood friend in her native Vienna, to direct.

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Ulmer directing Lamarr and Sanders

Being an independent production, The Strange Woman was made on a limited budget, but it must have seemed have seemed lavish compared to the miniscule budgets Ulmer was used to working with when he was under contract to Producers Releasing Company (or PRC, as it was commonly known), the cheapest of Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” studios. The Strange Woman is what was known as a “bodice ripper” (i.e., “lusty” costume romantic-melodramas populated by male scoundrels and promiscuous female protagonists), a subgenre that proved to be especially popular with movie audiences in the post-war years in such films as Gainsborough Pictures’ The Wicked Lady (UK, 1945), 20th Century Fox’s Forever Amber (1947), and MGM’s That Forsythe Woman (1949). Although The Strange Woman’s budget was a fraction of the ones these movies were made on, Ulmer’s visual creativity belied its modest resources.

Still, the movie’s sense of visual style was not enough for it to transcend its soap opera story and script. (The screenplay is credited to radio writer Herb Meadow, but supposedly Ulmer and Stromberg also did uncredited work on it.) I’d say that The Strange Woman’s story is like a bad Harlequin romance, except that “bad Harlequin romance” is a redundancy. With exceptional directing, writing, and acting, it’s possible to make a quality film out of this type of material as proven by William Wyler’s Jezebel (1938) with its Academy Award-winning star performance by Bette Davis. But, at any rate, Lamarr was no Davis, not by a long shot, and even admitted in her autobiography that she didn’t have the range to pull the role off: “I just wasn’t a tigress. All the talent at my disposal couldn’t make me one.”

A cliché that was overused in that period was showing the main characters as children and how their psychological makeup was already apparent in their personalities. In the opening scene of The Strange Woman (supposedly directed by an uncredited Douglas Sirk), we are introduced to the main characters as adolescents as they play by a river stream. Even at an early age, young Jenny (played by Jo Ann Marlowe), daughter of town drunk Tim Hager (Dennis Hoey), is obviously a bad seed, as evidenced by her bouncing a rock off the head of one boy in a swimming race with another boy (she was rooting for the other boy) and then taunting Ephraim (Christopher Severn), the son of wealthy merchant Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart), who owns the local general store in addition to a lumber camp outside the town. Just to show what a hellcat Jenny is, when Ephraim reveals that he can’t swim, she promptly pushes him into the water. And just to add insult to injury, after another lad pulls Ephraim out of the stream before he drowns, Jenny takes credit for the rescue.

Fast-forward to about a decade later. Jenny (Lamarr) has grown to be an attractive young woman who’s got definite ideas of what she wants and how to get it. While Jenny shows off her new dress to gal pal Lena Tempest (June Storey), a barmaid at the local dive down by the docks, her friend offers her some encouragement.

Lena: “Listen, honey, with your looks, you don’t have to worry. Why, you can get the youngest and best-looking man on the river.”
Jenny: “I don’t want the youngest; I want the richest!”
Lena: “Jenny, that’s a recipe for trouble!”
Jenny: (coquettishly) “Don’t worry about me. I can handle trouble.”
Lena: “I know you can.”

The richest man in the area being the aforementioned Isaiah Poster (conveniently, a widower), Jenny’s already got him in her sights. She gets her chance to reel him in when her father drops dead of a fatal heart attack due to his exertions while taking a whip to her for her wantonness. (Sounds kinky, huh? Well, we’ll get to that later.) Jenny shows up on Isaiah’s doorstep, acting as distraught as her thespian talents will allow. Sure enough, Isaiah offers Jenny protection and a roof over her head in the form of a marriage proposal, which she “gratefully” accepts.

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The next step to achieving her goals is provided by Isaiah’s son Ephraim, due back from boarding school. The adult Ephraim is played by Louis Hayward with the usual combination of callowness and moral ambiguity he usually brought to his roles whether he was playing a hero or a heavy. Ephraim turns out to be a spineless weakling, which makes him ideal for the manipulations Jenny has in mind. (Indeed, Ephraim’s such an obvious patsy that he calls to mind the great line that Preston Sturges gave Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve when she’s sizing up Henry Fonda as her mark: “I need him like the ax needs the turkey.”)

Jenny puts the moves on Ephraim and, as they go into a clinch, Isaiah shows up right on cue to witness them in the act and suffers a stroke there on the spot. (Jenny would seem to be the Typhoid Mary of heart disease.) Unexpectedly, and much to Jenny’s disappointment, Isaiah recovers. Time for Plan B. Borrowing a page from the film noir femme fatales’ book, Jenny convinces Ephraim to bump his old man off.

The opportunity presents itself when there’s trouble at the lumber camp and both Posters will be required to make the journey to the camp via canoe in the rapid waters of the river. (Guess who else can’t swim?) As it turns out, before he can commit cold-blooded fratricide, Ephraim has a panic attack as they travel downstream, resulting in the canoe capsizing. It may be an accident, but it achieves the effect desired by Jenny: Isaiah’s demise. Now that Ephraim’s fulfilled his usefulness, Jenny takes chutzpah to a whole new level, denouncing him for killing her husband and barring him from the family home. She needs to get Ephraim out of the picture because she’s already got her next boytoy lined up: John Evered (George Sanders), the fiancé of her childhood friend Meg Saladine (Hillary Brooke).
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On the plus side, in addition to Sanders, Hoey, Lockhart, and Hayward, The Strange Woman’s supporting cast also includes such first-rate character actors as Alan Napier, Rhys Williams, and Moroni Olsen. On the debit side of the ledger is the fact that the weak material the cast has to work with doesn’t make much use of their talents. Sanders is particularly wasted in a standard leading man role, rather than playing one of his patented cads who might’ve given Jenny a suitable antagonist to provide her with a well-deserved comeuppance, much like his Addison DeWitt did so satisfyingly with Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington in All About Eve.

There are some fleeting moments when The Strange Woman threatens to become a perverse kitsch classic, such as Jenny’s wicked smile as her father starts whipping her or her seduction of John Evered during a raging thunderstorm where, at the height of their passion, a bolt of lightning causes a tree to burst into flames. But such moments are few and far between, buried under tons of tedious dialogue as the characters talk endlessly about their desires and aspirations. The one interesting aspect of the story is how Jenny uses her newfound wealth to help those townspeople in need, but even this isn’t enough to make up for the screenplay’s defects.

As with Film Chest’s other recent remastered DVD releases, despite some obvious scratching in the first reel, The Strange Woman is consistently good to look at. Whether the film itself is actually worth watching is another matter altogether.

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Savant Blu-ray Review: “Foreign Correspondent” (1940)

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We’ve had our fill of tell-all biographies about Alfred Hitchcock’s alleged sexual obsessions with his leading actresses, a trend that came to a head a couple of seasons back with the shockingly fictitious movie Hitchcock. In the 1940s Hitch was being driven batty in a different way, putting up with David O. Selznick, the powerful producer and talent broker. Selznick brought England’s most entertaining director to Hollywood, where the creative possibilities within the massive studio factories seemed unlimited. Hitch had been on a roll with witty U.K. spy thrillers that put attractive amateurs into high jeopardy, fighting assassins on moving trains and fleeing enemy agents on the Scottish moors.

Selznick instead first assigned Hitchcock to help fashion a glamorous but overlong romantic thriller, Rebecca (1940). After a flaming finale the characters must continue talking for several minutes to clear away the story deadwood.

Selznick was so busy with his other films and with promoting Jennifer Jones that he loaned Hitchcock out several times during the run of his contract. Almost immediately came Foreign Correspondent (1940), a gutsy ‘spy’ chase given real bite by the international situation. England was already at war, and independent producer Walter Wanger was eager to strike a propaganda blow against Hitler. A committed leftist, Wanger had produced Fritz Lang’s critical crime picture You Only Live Once as well as the somewhat muddled anti-Franco drama Blockade, both starring Henry Fonda. In perhaps the most direct bit of revolutionary theater transferred to the screen, Fonda wails that the Great Democracies are doing nothing to stem the Fascist atrocities in Spain: “Where is the conscience of the World?!”

As it turned out, patriot Hitchcock was the tempering influence behind Foreign Correspondent. Wanger salted in dialogue lines referring to Hitler’s progress across Europe, but Hitch worked to keep the film’s tone as light and entertaining as possible. The movie turns to overt propaganda only at the end, in the brief but famous “The lights are going out all over Europe”.

Hitchcock critics are much better informed today, but there was a time when they debated the same rather narrow issue: is Hitch’s best work his clever ’30s spy chases The Secret Agent, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes? Or do his glossy, star-driven Hollywood thrillers show a maturity in his style: The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, Topaz?

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I’m of the opinion that Foreign Correspondent is the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s spy chase thrillers. While not blessed with top box office stars, its leading actors Joel McCrea and Laraine Day are intensely likeable, and Hitchcock puts them through a series of exciting, fresh adventures that never strain credibility, or go for cheap jokes. As with the earlier English classics, Hitchcock makes use of silent movie visual gags to involve the viewer in the action. The easiest of these is the bobbing forest of umbrellas in Holland, which both hide the assassin and reveal his escape path. Hitch also uses visual shorthand to add droll visual jokes, like the hotel sign that suddenly makes its own comment on anxious pre-war Europe. Some of these visual gags are so simple they remind us of the hand-drawn cartoons Hitch reportedly added to silent movie cards when he was just starting out.

Although filmed in Los Angeles, Foreign Correspondent is also the kind of fast moving travelogue that Hitchcock preferred. A few of his later VistaVision pictures take time out to observe flower markets, or just admire the countryside. After WW2, breaking countries down into simple references (like Switzerland = chocolate) would have been insulting. Hitch tried a ruthlessly unsentimental spy story in Topaz and nobody felt engaged in the story. The new lovers in Correspondent cuddle and kiss on the deck of a ship crossing the English Channel. He: “You see, I love you and I want to marry you.” She: “I love you and I want to marry you.” He: “Well, that cuts our love scene down quite a bit, doesn’t it?” For once every line of dialogue is a witty gem; there are no clunkers. That’s how it should be when talent like Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, James Hilton and Robert Benchley are properly applied to a script.

With the bigger, glossier ’50s films name stars take a much bigger role. James Stewart and Doris Day’s marital relationship in the Man Who Knew Too Much remake is terribly dated. Day’s traumatized mother is sedated before being told that her son has been kidnapped; it’s assumed she can’t handle the pressure. The frightened couple also break Hitchcock’s rule by going to the police early and often. So we have to listen to the cops in scene after scene.

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Finally, career adapter Ernest Lehman turns North by NorthWest into a ‘best-of’ collection of Hitch’s Greatest Chase Hits. When not wowing us with extraordinary set-piece scenes like the Corn Field Crossroads, Lehman baldly repeats situations from earlier films. It’s a great movie with marvelous characters. As in most of the ’50s Hitchcocks, the bad guys are identified from the moment they’re introduced.

This by no means is a criticism of any of these Hitchcock pictures, almost all of which are superb entertainments. Foreign Correspondent quickly breaks free of thriller conventions. Its hero Johnny Jones is not a two-fisted adventurer but a crime reporter who loves his Mom, keeps losing his hat and punches out policemen. Half the time the tone is of a screwball comedy. Harry Davenport is Jones’ grinning, mischievous editor, and co-writer Robert Benchley is on hand as an alcoholic, slacker foreign correspondent that greets Johnny’s boat.

When the spy threat becomes more intense, the humor doesn’t depart, but instead morphs into proto- James Bond witticisms and caustic observations by George Sanders’ good-guy intelligence agent. Haughty and bored-looking in all but the most unpleasant situations, Sanders’ unflappable cool is highly entertaining — and impressively original.

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Finally, Foreign Correspondent has several bravura set piece scenes that for my money top anything before or since in similarly themed Hitchcock pictures. Walter Wanger secured for his director the best technical wizardry in Hollywood, starting with William Cameron Menzies, whose distinctive designs gave shape to many a shaky production. Johnny Jones’ escape out a high hotel window is only a refinement on standard matte painting techniques. But Menzies’ genius is fully realized in the Holland windmill scene. When he enters the noisy, dust-filled windmill Johnny Jones is trying to determine if the shooting of the beloved Peace advocate Van Meer (Albert Basserman) has been faked. The noise and the turning gears allow Johnny to hide, even when it seems certain that his presence will be discovered. Hitchcock and Menzies use every trick they can think of — a villain changing his sweaters give Johnny a chance to shift position, for instance. But then Johnny’s raincoat gets caught in the gears and is dangled practically in the faces of the bad guys. Every shot in this swift sequence is a complex beauty. What dialogue we do hear is irrelevant – the pictures tell the story, compelling us to share Johnny’s experience at a gut level.

Before CGI was used for everything, some of the best special film effects were little more than clever slight-of-hand-gags. To escape from the fourth or fifth floor of building under renovation, one of the heroes leaps from a window, rips through an awning and gently alights at sidewalk level. The shot looks like one take, an amazing feat. But closer examination shows the stunt to be constructed in two halves — the man making the big drop is a dummy, and the actor takes over for the drop through the awning. It always gets applause in theatrical showings.

The sequence that really wows ‘em is the crash of a flying boat in mid-Atlantic. Here Menzies uses everything he knows to inject realism (1940-style) into the spectacle of a passenger plane shot down by a warship. The ship interior tilts and hand-held cameras reflect the passengers’ panic as the cabin floods with real water. The actual moment of crash impact was an expensive “this better work” gag involving large water dump tanks — it’s better seen than explained. When the survivors climb out on the few pieces of the plane still floating, we see real water, rear-screen projected waves and other effects working that are much harder to analyze. The important thing is that the Foreign Correspondent plane crash is still one of the most effective, audience-engaging disaster scenes ever filmed.

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We’re told that Alfred Hitchcock resisted letting Foreign Correspondent become an outright attack on Hitler and the Nazis. One factor might have been that patriotic films being made in England were careful not to provoke the Germans too much, for fear of reprisals against Brits already in prison camps. Our Isolationist (read: pro- Bund) congress was censuring Hollywood to curb all propaganda movies. But Correspondent does mention Hitler by name. The epilogue in the BBC radio room as the air raid begins is a message for America to get active, now. It might be too late for England, leaving America as the world’s only hope. I think it’s one of the most stirring calls to battle ever made by a movie, and all the more effective because of Hitchcock’s breezy treatment.

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray + DVD of Foreign Correspondent is quite a surprise. Remastered from its owner Westchester Film, the B&W HD image is gorgeous, far surpassing Warners’ earlier DVD and looking like something one might see on a screen in 1940. Alfred Newman’s great score (with an infectious little tune to represent the inexperienced Johnny Jones) comes through more strongly than ever. Shots that before were lost in darkness, leaving visual details difficult to assess, are now sharp as a tack. A photo-story Life magazine article arranged by Hitchcock shows how idle rumors hurt the war effort. Joseph Cotten appears in a 1946 radio adaptation, and the insert booklet carries an essay by James Naremore.

Effects spokesman Craig Barron provides a lengthy breakdown of the film’s wizardly camera tricks, while Mark Harris provides an absorbing visual opinion essay called Hollywood Propaganda and WWII. An episode of the Dick Cavett Show has Hitchcock as its coddled guest.

Criterion’s Dual-Edition release contains all extras on both Blu-ray and DVD. The In-House producer is Susan Arosteguy.

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