Review by Michael Jacobson
McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders, Albert Basserman, Robert
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.37:1
Features: See Review
Length: 120 Minutes
Release Date: February 25, 2014
“You never hear of ‘circumstances beyond our control’ rushing us into peace, have you?”
1940 was a year of increasing unrest in the United States…war was beginning to break out all over Europe, with many eyes on us to see what we would do. Isolationism was losing ground as a movement, and we were only one year away from the event that would change the course of our history at Pearl Harbor.
It was also the year that British filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock finally came to America, where he would remain for the next 30 years of his career. In his native country, Hitchcock had already been directing motion pictures for a good 20 years, and earning a reputation not only as a superior craftsman, but the moniker that would come to define his entire body of work: “master of suspense”.
His first year stateside was highly productive, as he delivered not one, but TWO great movies. Both would receive Oscar nominations for Best Picture. His first film, Rebecca, would actually take home the honor.
The second was Foreign Correspondent, which was different from Rebecca in mood, style, and atmosphere, but still almost an equal achievement in every way. While one movie looked back in time, one looked forward, especially in regards to America’s place on the world stage with war looming.
There are some good plot turns here, so I will tread lightly on the plot: dissatisfied with his “professional” foreign correspondents and the cautious way they report on the activities in Europe, an American editor takes a chance on a novice but aggressive reporter in John Jones (McCrea).
Jones’ first job is to interview a Danish statesman named Van Meer (Basserman), who may just have the inside scoop on how close to war Europe actually stands. He is assisting to author a secret treaty that may be the deciding factor, one way or the other. But Van Meer is assassinated right in front of Jones’ eyes.
Jones chases the assassin to a windmill farm in the country, and discovers…well, I hate to leave you hanging, dear readers, but to tell more would be to deprive you of the mastery of deception and intrigue that Mr. Hitchcock designed for you. Suffice to say, all is not what it seems.
When this film was released in 1940, there might have been less attention paid to Hitchcock’s superb and suspenseful direction and ingenious story lines than to the overall message, delivered at the end over a radio microphone not unlike what Chaplin did in The Great Dictator. But in this movie, as England begins to endure the Nazi onslaught, Jones is there, broadcasting to America until “the lights go out”. Neutrality was ending as an option.
In retrospect, Hitchcock and Chaplin were both correct…imagine if we had entered the theatre of war five years earlier…how many lives might have been saved, and could the Holocaust have been prevented before it ever began? But history doesn’t bend to the wisdom of its Monday morning quarterbacks. Had we gone in, who knows what kind of “what if” scenarios we might be discussing today?
And really, now that 70 years have passed, it’s not about the message anymore…it’s about the medium. Foreign Correspondent holds up not as a snapshot of a pivotal moment in history, but as a great example of filmmaking from a man who did it better than almost anyone in the history of the art form.
I can’t find any fault with this stunning and crisp high definition black and white transfer from Criterion. As usual, they defy the conventional wisdom that a film of this age has to look its age. It does not. The contrast levels are striking, and every detail is rich, with a sparkling clean negative and print. Highest marks.
The uncompressed mono is nicely done as well…clean, with little to no noise evident, and some good bits of dynamic range during the bigger scenes.
The extras include a new piece on Hollywood propaganda during World War II (nice to remember a time when Hollywood was actually on our side), a look at some of the film’s visual effects with expert Craig Barron, and the original trailer.
There is also “Have You Heard?”, which was a Life magazine photo-drama by Hitchcock regarding how the telling of rumors during wartime could assist the enemy, plus a radio adaptation of the story from 1946 (starring Joseph Cotten). Best of all is a full hour-long interview with Hitchcock from 1972 by Dick Cavett, which is both entertaining and informative.
Foreign Correspondent was one of two films that heralded Hitchock’s arrival in America in 1940, and still stands as a masterpiece of direction, story, and suspense. This superior-quality Blu-ray from Criterion is an absolute gift to cinema fans. Recommended.