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Foreign Correspondent

Foreign Correspondent
Warner DVD
1940 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 130 min. / Street Date September 7, 2004 / 19.97
Starring Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders, Albert Bassermann, Robert Benchley, Edmund Gwenn, Eduardo Ciannelli, Harry Davenport
Cinematography Rudolph Maté
Art Direction Alexander Golitzen
Special Production Effects William Cameron Menzies
Film Editor Dorothy Spencer
Original Music Alfred Newman
Written by Charles Bennett,Alfred Newman Joan Harrison, Ben Hecht, Robert Benchley and James Hilton
Produced by Walter Wanger
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Docu, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 4, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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