Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Warners' exciting new set of Alfred Hitchcock releases starts with one of his most entertaining spy-chase movies,
a war-themed thriller done on loan-out to independent Walter Wanger while under his stifling contract to David O.
Selznick, the 40's shrewdest barterer of Hollywood talent. Foreign Correspondent expands his The
Thirty-Nine Steps and The Lady Vanishes to an international scale. The then-unfunny subject of
impending war is deftly combined with winning romantic adventure and sophisticated, snappy wit.
Crime reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) takes the name Huntley Haverstock to seem more dignified
while serving as a new foreign correspondent in Europe. Once there, he fails in getting a story from the
dedicated leader of the Peace League, Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) but falls in love with his pacifist
daughter Carol (Laraine Day). But the apparent murder of the last hope for peace, a prominent diplomat named
Van Meer (Albert Basserman) pitches Jones, Carol, their Welsh adventurer-helper Scott ffolliott (George Sanders)
all on a thrilling spy chase to find out who is trying to jump-start World War II.
Modern thrillers have nothing on Foreign Correspondent; it keeps its intrepid hero on the run in England
and Holland and juggles intrigue, romance and humor better than any of them. There are chases, murders, assassinations
and last-minute rescues galore, and a grandiose special effects climax that still impresses. It's unusually long
for a 1940 film, but I'll bet that when Wanger and United Artists looked for things
to cut, they were too entertained to touch a frame.
Along with the glossy mystery soap
Rebecca, this was Hitchcock's first film out of the
box in America, and it surely was a home run. There were few limits to the talent and technical expertise at his
command in Hollywood, and the script was overrun with top writers. The erratic Robert Benchley wrote himself a
choice screen character, a dyspeptic London reporter who avoids work while spouting a steady stream of great
one-liners. Lover-heroes Joel McCrea and Laraine Day have terrific dialogue too, and get away with a joke or
two that comment on the action from the outside, as in a Tex Avery cartoon. He: "I love you and want to marry you."
She: "I love you and want to marry you too." He: "Gee, I guess that cuts our love scene pretty short, doesn't it?"
The rest of the acting talent is perfectly distributed. Herbert Marshall isn't missing a finger, but he's still the
deep-cover mastermind with an evil agenda that doesn't jibe with his role as a loving father. George Sanders has
his best light part as a devil-may care adventurer who meets peril with a consistent jaunty attitude. Edmund
Gwenn, forever the sentimental Santa Claus or absent-minded scientist, here plays a hired killer, while
Eduardo Cianelli and Nazi specialist Martin Kosleck do the heavy lifting in the villain department. Finally,
renowned German actor Albert Basserman carries the conscience of the world into his pivotal role. The script
wisely uses his frail protest to symbolize the resistance of the 'little people' to fascism, and his scenes always get
applause. Many other well-meaning movies about the onset of war fumbled their way through bad taste, but
Foreign Correspondent always gets it right. The tacked-on air-raid finale may have been a last-minute
addition to keep the film topical, but it survives as a stirring evocation of defiance in the face of global
disaster. With its talent, smarts and good luck, Foreign Correspondent is a classic.
Hitchcock brought a lightness to his adventure thrillers, a willingness to throw away what in
other hands would be drawn out and serious. Fritz Lang's
Hangmen Also Die! is powerful, but is also as
heavy as a ton of bricks by comparison. George Sanders and Robert Benchley trade quips even while trying to
thwart the plans of criminal masterminds. Joel McCrea leaps onto a building ledge; before we realize that the
filmmakers would never let him fall to his death, he shocks himself on a big neon sign, humorously transforming
the words "Hotel Europe" into the ironically appropriate "Hot Europe."
But with the seriousness of the film's subject matter, the levity is all carried by the leads' infectious
high spirits. When George Sanders is finally caught in a hopeless trap where his smart mouth can no longer
save him, he looks forlorn indeed ... there are unpleasant consequences to fighting evil. Thankfully, another
deft plot twist quickly puts Sanders back into action. When James Bond lost the possibility of real
jeopardy for its hero, that series stopped having any real emotional impact. Foreign Correspondent
has style and depth.
Design ace William Cameron Menzies is given the extravagant credit of 'special production effects by.' He may
have limited his work to the film's impressive special effects episodes, but his influence is seen throughout
the film. The interior of the windmill in particular is a dead ringer for expressive visuals in
Things to Come. But the film's 'wowee' scene is
Menzies' frighteningly real plane crash into the mid-Atlantic. It starts with a bravura track into an airplane's
passenger window and continues
to deliver unique visuals even when the survivors are hanging onto the wreckage in a stormy sea. Some of
the details are chilling; we share the panic of victims as their cabin fills with water.
Foreign Correspondent has the class and high style of the best of 30s filmmaking, along with the new
awareness of political reality that came with the war years. I like it a lot more than Hitchcock's later masterpiece
North by NorthWest, simply because it has
more human feeling.
Warners' DVD Foreign Correspondent is shared by Castle Hill productions, but the master on view is
flawless, from the stylized stagebound Holland countryside to the clarity of the jaunty main theme. It just
looks great and will provide any viewer (or better, group of viewers) with a great time.
Laurent Bouzereau's docus for this series aren't as elaborate as his offerings for the Universal discs of a
few years back, but they're extremely well done. Besides Hitchcock's daughter and a sweet-looking Laraine Day,
most of the commentary has to come from critics, as few makers of 1940s films have survived. Bouzereau points out
many peculiarities in the script and shows us details like the use of a paper ceiling in the airplane to allow extras
to be drowned without undue risk. Much of the film footage is re-scored with Bernard Herrmann cues from
North by NorthWest, which are cut exceedingly well but are too firmly associated with the later picture
not to be a distraction. An original trailer rounds out the extras nicely.
Warners' seems to have found a nice balance in its extras for its new flood of great library titles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Foreign Correspondent rates:
Supplements: Docu, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 4, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson