In this Savant Blu-ray review of “Foreign Correspondent” (1940), Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller receives a stunning high-definition treatment.
The Blu-ray presentation enhances the film’s gripping narrative and masterful direction, allowing viewers to appreciate Hitchcock’s suspenseful storytelling in all its glory.
With pristine picture quality and immersive sound, this release is a must-have for cinephiles and fans of classic cinema.
Additionally, insightful bonus features provide valuable context and behind-the-scenes insights into the making of this iconic film.
Savant Blu-ray Review: “Foreign Correspondent” (1940)
We’ve seen plenty of revealing biographies about Alfred Hitchcock’s rumored sexual interests in his leading actresses, a trend that peaked a while ago with the highly fictionalized film Hitchcock.
In the 1940s, Hitchcock faced a different challenge dealing with David O. Selznick, a powerful producer and talent agent.
Selznick brought Hitchcock, England’s most entertaining director, to Hollywood, where the possibilities for creativity within the massive studio system seemed endless.
Hitchcock had previously succeeded with clever British spy thrillers featuring charming amateurs under challenging situations like battling assassins on trains and escaping enemy agents on the Scottish moors.
However, Selznick initially tasked Hitchcock with shaping a glamorous yet overly lengthy romantic thriller, Rebecca (1940).
Despite a dramatic conclusion, the characters had to engage in prolonged dialogue to tie up loose story ends.
Preoccupied with his other projects and promoting Jennifer Jones, Selznick frequently loaned Hitchcock out during his contract.
Shortly after, Hitchcock directed Foreign Correspondent (1940), a daring ‘spy’ chase imbued with real tension due to the international climate as England was already at war.
Independent producer Walter Wanger, motivated by his leftist beliefs, sought to strike a blow against Hitler’s regime.
Wanger had previously produced Fritz Lang’s critical crime film You Only Live Once and the somewhat convoluted anti-Franco drama Blockade starring Henry Fonda.
In one scene, Fonda’s character passionately questions the inaction of the Great Democracies in response to Fascist atrocities in Spain, crying out for the conscience of the world.
Hitchcock, a patriot, played a moderating role in Foreign Correspondent. While Wanger inserted dialogue reflecting Hitler’s advances across Europe, Hitchcock aimed to maintain the film’s light and entertaining tone.
The film only veered into overt propaganda at the end, notably in the iconic line, “The lights are going out all over Europe.”
Critics of Hitchcock are now much more knowledgeable.
Still, there was a time when they debated a relatively narrow issue: is Hitchcock’s best work represented by his clever ’30s spy thrillers like The Secret Agent, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes?
Or do his glossy, star-driven Hollywood thrillers, such as The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, and Topaz, demonstrate a maturity in his style?
I believe Foreign Correspondent stands out as Alfred Hitchcock’s finest spy thriller.
Despite lacking top-tier box office stars, its leads, Joel McCrea and Laraine Day, are immensely likable, and Hitchcock crafts for them a series of thrilling and original adventures that never strain credibility or resort to cheap humor.
Like his earlier British classics, Hitchcock employs silent movie visual techniques to immerse the audience in the action. Notably, the scene in Holland with a forest of umbrellas conceals the assassin and reveals his escape route.
Hitchcock also employs visual humor, such as a hotel sign that humorously comments on the anxious pre-war European atmosphere.
Some of these visual gags are so straightforward that they recall the hand-drawn cartoons Hitchcock reportedly added to silent movie cards when he started.
While filming in Los Angeles, Foreign Correspondent retains the fast-paced travelogue style that Hitchcock favored.
In some of his later VistaVision films, Hitchcock observes flower markets or admires the countryside. After World War II, reducing countries to simple stereotypes (such as Switzerland = chocolate) would have been seen as derogatory.
Hitchcock attempted a ruthlessly unsentimental spy story in Topaz but failed to engage audiences.
In contrast, the new lovers in Foreign Correspondent share intimate moments on a ship crossing the English Channel, with every line of dialogue being a witty gem thanks to the talent of writers like Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, James Hilton, and Robert Benchley.
In Hitchcock’s bigger, glossier 1950s films, name stars play a more prominent role. For instance, the marital relationship between James Stewart and Doris Day’s characters in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much feels dated.
Day’s traumatized mother is sedated before being informed of her son’s kidnapping, suggesting she cannot handle the pressure.
Additionally, the frightened couple breaks Hitchcock’s rule by involving the police early and frequently, leading to numerous scenes dominated by law enforcement.
In the end, Ernest Lehman, a skilled adapter of careers, transforms North by Northwest into a compilation of Hitchcock’s most thrilling chase sequences.
Alongside breathtaking set-piece scenes like the Corn Field Crossroads, Lehman shamelessly revisits scenarios from Hitchcock’s earlier works.
Despite this, the film remains excellent, boasting fantastic characters. Like most of Hitchcock’s 1950s productions, the villains are unmistakably marked from their introduction.
This is not a critique of Hitchcock’s films, nearly all of which are exceptional entertainment. Foreign Correspondent swiftly breaks away from thriller conventions.
Its protagonist, Johnny Jones, is not a rugged adventurer but a journalist who adores his mother, frequently loses his hat, and even resorts to assaulting police officers.
The film’s tone often resembles a screwball comedy, with Harry Davenport portraying Jones’ cheerful editor and co-writer, Robert Benchley, appearing as a lazy, alcoholic foreign correspondent who greets Jones upon his arrival.
Even as the spy plot thickens, the humor persists, evolving into proto-James Bond quips and biting remarks delivered by George Sanders’ heroic intelligence agent.
Sanders portrays his character with arrogance and boredom yet remains captivatingly cool, especially in adversity.
Furthermore, Foreign Correspondent boasts several remarkable set-piece scenes that surpass anything seen before or since in Hitchcock’s similar-themed films.
Walter Wanger provided the director with top-notch technical expertise, including the talents of William Cameron Menzies, whose distinctive designs rescued many a troubled production.
The Holland windmill sequence stands out as Menzies’ masterpiece, as Johnny Jones navigates the noisy, dusty environment while attempting to uncover the truth behind the apparent assassination of the beloved peace advocate Van Meer.
Hitchcock and Menzies employ every cinematic trick, creating a sequence of stunning complexity and beauty.
Dialogue takes a backseat as the visuals convey the gripping narrative, immersing the audience in Johnny’s dangerous predicament.
Before the widespread use of CGI, some of the films’ most impressive special effects relied on clever tricks and illusions.
In one scene, a hero escapes from a building under renovation by leaping from a high window, crashing through an awning, and landing gracefully on the sidewalk below.
Although it appears to be one seamless shot, closer inspection reveals that the stunt comprises two parts — a dummy is used for the initial fall, while the actor takes over for the descent through the awning.
This scene consistently garners applause during theatrical screenings.
Another standout sequence is the dramatic crash of a flying boat in the mid-Atlantic.
Here, Menzies employs various techniques to enhance the realism of the spectacle, including tilting ship interiors and handheld cameras to capture the passengers’ panic as the cabin fills with natural water.
The actual moment of impact involved an expensive stunt using large water tanks, adding to the scene’s authenticity.
When the survivors emerge onto the floating wreckage, a combination of natural water, rear-screen projected waves, and other effects create a mesmerizing visual experience that is difficult to dissect but incredibly engaging for audiences.
The plane crash scene in Foreign Correspondent remains one of the most influential and captivating disaster sequences ever filmed.
Alfred Hitchcock reportedly resisted turning Foreign Correspondent into a direct assault on Hitler and the Nazis.
One possible reason for this could be the cautious approach taken by patriotic filmmakers in England, who were wary of provoking the Germans for fear of reprisals against British prisoners of war.
Additionally, the isolationist sentiment in the United States, particularly among pro-Bund congress members, led to censorship of Hollywood’s propaganda efforts.
However, the film does mention Hitler by name, and the epilogue, set in a BBC radio room during an air raid, serves as a call to action for America to become actively involved in the war effort, portraying the country as the world’s last hope.
This stirring message, delivered with Hitchcock’s characteristic breezy style, remains one of cinematic history’s most memorable rallying cries.
The surprise The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray + DVD edition of Foreign Correspondent offers is remarkable.
Remastered from the source, Westchester Film, the black and white high-definition image is stunning, surpassing the quality of Warner’s previous DVD release and resembling the visual experience one might have had in 1940.
Alfred Newman’s exceptional score, featuring an infectious tune to represent the character Johnny Jones, resonates more powerfully than ever.
Previously obscured shots lost in darkness and making visual details challenging to discern are now crystal clear. A photo story from Life magazine, curated by Hitchcock, highlights the detrimental impact of idle rumors on the war effort.
Additionally, Joseph Cotten appears in a 1946 radio adaptation, and the accompanying booklet features an essay by James Naremore.
Craig Barron, an expert on special effects, extensively analyzes the film’s ingenious camera techniques, while Mark Harris contributes an engaging visual essay titled “Hollywood Propaganda and WWII.”
An episode of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Hitchcock as the esteemed guest is also included.
The Criterion’s Dual-Edition release ensures all extras are available in Blu-ray and DVD formats. Susan Arosteguy serves as the in-house producer for this edition.