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Underrated Hitchcock

by Leonard Maltin
February 26, 2014 12:00 AM
  • |
Criterion Collection

Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar as Best Director, but the first year he worked in Hollywood he made a pair of memorable films. Rebecca was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (including Best Director) and won two, for George Barnes’ cinematography and for Best Picture. The second release, which appeared in theaters just four months later, also earned a handful of nominations—including Best Picture—but isn’t cited as often as it should among the director’s finest work. Foreign Correspondent is one of my all-time favorites and it’s been given deluxe treatment in a terrific new Blu-ray/DVD release from The Criterion Collection.

In a video essay called “Hollywood Propaganda and World War II,” author and historian Mark Harris provides a clear-eyed, compelling treatise on how the movie fit into America’s arm’s-length involvement with the war in Europe in 1940. (His new book about prominent directors’ experiences during and following World War II, Five Came Back, has just been published.) Visual effects specialist Craig Barron explores the many and varied techniques employed throughout the film to create tour-de-force moments—from a field of windmills to an escape on the ledge of a multi-story hotel, and of course the spectacular seagoing climax involving a clipper plane. (The effects earned an Oscar nomination for Paul Eagler and Thomas T. Moulton.)

Here’s the establishing matte shot for the famous windmill scene.

Criterion also supplies a beautiful new 2K transfer, the original trailer, a radio adaptation starring Joseph Cotten, an enjoyable 1972 interview with Hitchcock by Dick Cavett, a cogent new essay by James Naremore, and a rarely-seen 1942 photo essay for Life magazine by Eliot Elisofon, “directed” by Hitchcock, on the perils of spreading rumors. (The director even makes a cameo appearance in one of the photographs.)

Foreign Correspondent has everything one could want: topicality, suspense, romance, wit, several standout Hitchcock set pieces, stylish cinematography by Rudolph Maté, and “special production effects” by the great William Cameron Menzies (working with art director Alexander Golitzen). The screenplay is credited to Hitchcock veteran Charles Bennett (who paraphrases a bedroom conversation from The 39 Steps) and longtime collaborator Joan Harrison, with contributions from Alma Reville (Mrs. H.), James Hilton, and the great Robert Benchley, who also plays an amusing supporting role spiked with non-sequiturs.

The director wasn’t thrilled with his leading man, Joel McCrea, and it may be that his unjust lack of recognition in recent years has kept the film from enjoying the prominence it deserves. (Neither he nor leading lady Laraine Day were A-listers, and posterity has been kinder to Hitchcock films with such enduring stars as Cary Grant and James Stewart.)

Joel McCrea encounters his director onscreen in "Foreign Correspondent."

Even so, the movie is brimming with clever ideas and a point of view, driven by producer Walter Wanger, that flew in the face of America’s isolationist stance at the time of its release in 1940. To learn more, dive into this new DVD, and revisit an imaginative and wildly entertaining Hitchcock gem.

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  • Terry Bigham | February 27, 2014 11:09 AMReply

    "Correspondent" would make a neat double feature with "One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing", made two years later by Hitch's former still photographer, the great Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. There, an RAF bomber crew is forced to parachute in the Nazi-held Netherlands and try to escapre with the aid of Dutch patriots. One of the male leads dresses as a Dutchwoman (!) , female lead Googie Withers is part Dutch and poweel gives himself a speaking cameo.

  • Barry Traylor | February 27, 2014 9:29 AMReply

    I think Joel McCrea himself is underrated. He could do it all, from thrillers (like this film) to comedy "Sullivan's Travels" to late in his career some pretty good westerns.

  • Gary Meyer | February 27, 2014 2:54 AMReply

    My favorite Hitchcock too. It has everything...thrills, romance, humor and lots of surprises.
    I will be getting this to watch instead of my laserdisc (yep...some of us still have them).

  • David L. | February 27, 2014 12:09 AMReply

    This movies is one of the best rewarders of discovery. One stumbles upon what looks like an ordinary WWII picture then finds one's self watching umbrellas rattle, the gears of a misbehaving windmill, a charming colleague with two small f's starting his name, two charming villains - one a future Santa, the other hiding in plain sight. The latter also hides a limp as well as he can, and I always wonder whether it is just the actor, or the character as well, and I wonder if he made viewers think about their president at the time, and whether something like that should even matter. Then just when the film seems to be wrapped up we get a spectacular ending. It starts good, then keeps giving. Excellent movie, top five from Hitch easy.

  • Giorgio | March 27, 2014 9:52 AM

    Herbert Marshall lost a leg during World War 1...

  • Norm | February 26, 2014 6:59 PMReply

    Joel McCrea a very versatile Actor but usually understated performances. The passage of time confirms his staying power. Had they used more jump cuts and special fx, I'm sure he would have been even more popular. Sometimes the sauce is more important than the goose, but hopefully the blend is synergistic...

  • Carl LaFong | February 26, 2014 4:28 PMReply

    Great film but it contains one of the all-time worst movie mistakes. During the plane crash sequence, the "shaking" camera momentarily - but unmistakably - reveals the limits of the movie set, complete with backdrop and klieg lights!

  • Laura | February 26, 2014 1:45 PMReply

    My favorite Hitchcock! Thank you for calling attention to it. It's definitely a gem, as you describe!

    Although it's known Hitchcock initially wanted Gary Cooper for the lead, I've never read anything indicating Hitchcock "wasn't thrilled" with the actor ultimately cast, Joel McCrea, and would be interested if you have anything further to share regarding that. Indeed, Hitchcock and McCrea were friendly and Hitchcock was a visitor to the McCrea Ranch, where legend has it he loved the homemade butter! The ranch is periodically open for tours and a visit is highly recommended.

    Best wishes,

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