Wednesday, February 5, 2014

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Blu-ray (Walter Wanger 1940) Criterion Home Video

It goes without saying that the American movie owes an immeasurable debt to Alfred Hitchcock. It isn’t often an artist’s name becomes synonymous with a particular genre or even a specific style; but Hitchcock’s is worthy of both associations and for innumerable reasons. How often have contemporary film makers casually suggested in an interview that their next project is going to be a Hitchcockian thriller? Hitchcock may not have invented the actual words ‘thriller’, ‘suspense’ or ‘mystery’ but he trademarked all three with his inimitable branding of visual bravura; so seamless and perfectly timed that it has arguably come to symbolize the conventions of the genre. His contributions are likely never to be equaled, though many have tried to duplicate the formula.
Perhaps it is even insulting to suggest the conventions of a Hitchcock thriller as formulaic. For although Hitchcock unquestioningly repeated certain elements again and again, never do they appear as mere mimic to work committed elsewhere and to better effect within his body of work. Hitchcock was, of course, working with extraordinary collaborators during his long and distinguished career. He didn’t create this timeless template alone; and herein we gratefully acknowledge the stars who repeatedly graced his most memorable outings (Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, James Stewart, et al), and the behind-the-scenes artisans (Lynn Murray, Bernard Herrmann, Ernest Lehman, Joseph Stephano, John Michael Hayes, et al) who more concretely realized Hitchcock’s descriptive notations in visual/musical terms.
Hitchcock’s meticulous attention to detail and consistency over four decades of solid film-making deserves one more nod; to Alma Reville; the master’s wife, confident, story consultant and script advisor. When Reville died in 1980, noted film critic Charles Champlin poignantly paid homage, saying “…the Hitchcock touch had four hands and two of them were Alma’s.” Hitchcock’s American tenure began in 1939 – or rather, 1940 with Selznick’s Rebecca (1940), the Oscar-winning debut that took Hollywood by storm.  Selznick’s contract with Hitchcock afforded him the right to loan outs for a high-priced retainer; the residuals Hitchcock never saw. Hitchcock detested this clause in his contract, always considering his tenure with Selznick as indentured servitude. Hitch’ had, of course, trained at UFA in Germany before embarking on his lucrative career in Britain; both business models respecting the autonomy of the director. However, in America this system was producer-driven, and no producer was more driven to success (at his own detriment) than David O. Selznick.
Selznick’s loan out of Hitchcock to producer Walter Wanger in 1940 yielded another early masterpiece; one that would set the benchmark very high and exercise Hitchcock’s verve for the espionage thriller: Foreign Correspondent (1940). In point of fact, Hitchcock was heart sore after Britain officially entered WWII – worrying about family and colleagues he had left behind to pursue his career in Hollywood. When principle photography wrapped, Hitchcock was on the first plane back to London to make his inquiries in person. Foreign Correspondent is therefore something of Hitchcock’s patriotic response to the war; his blushing nod to that looming implosion of Europe and one of his best movie thrillers. Indeed, Foreign Correspondent competed for the Best Picture Oscar won by Rebecca, even though Hitchcock was not even nominated for either movie as Best Director by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – for shame!
Foreign Correspondent is actually based on Vincent Sheean’s 1935 memoir ‘Personal History’, set during the First World War. Initially, Wanger had purchased the rights for a then staggering $10,000, intent on retaining the period and premise for the movie version. But after several failed attempts to adapt the book into a screenplay, Wanger tentatively gave up the idea. The delay proved fortuitous, the advent of WWII necessitating a revamp of Sheean’s prose to make a more prescient comment about the war.  It took ten writers to bring Foreign Correspondent to the screen: Robert Benchley, Charles Bennett, Harold Clurman, Joan Harrison, Ben Hecht, James Hilton, John Howard Lawson, John Lee Mahin, Richard Maibaum, and Budd Schulberg. Due to contractual obligations as outlined by the screenwriter’s guild, only Benchley and Bennett would get official screen credit.
In preparing to cast the movie, Hitchcock pursued Gary Cooper who was then at the height of his popularity. In one of his worst career decisions, Coop’ turned Hitch’ down flat, saying he did not want to do a thriller. Hitchcock also made several overtures to his employer, Selznick, pleading for the loan out of Joan Fontaine who had risen to leading lady status via the aforementioned Rebecca. Interestingly, Hitchcock was disappointed when Selznick assigned Fontaine to him for Rebecca. But she had proven herself the consummate professional, completely winning over her director. Not that Hitchcock ever let Fontaine know it. Such were his working methods.  Instead, Wanger gave Hitchcock Joel McCrea and Laraine Day; a winsome pair that proved rather effective, despite Hitchcock’s initial misgivings.
McCrea had been a rising star in the late 1930’s – cut from the same cloth as Cooper and James Stewart. But McCrea was more of a he-man than either, at least physically, and this seems to have prevented him from rising through the ranks as quickly as the competition. Selznick had, in fact, attempted to turn McCrea’s image into something of a vintage beefcake with Bird of Paradise (1932); an erotic potboiler wrapped in a South Sea’s adventure and costarring the exotic Dolores Del Rio, and where McCrea spent a good portion of the movie’s runtime shirtless and in a fairly skimpy sarong. The movie was a dud – financially – and McCrea went back to bit parts in forgettable movies that cast him as the non-descript, good-looking all-American stud. Foreign Correspondent would demand more of McCrea – cast as insolent cub reporter Johnny Jones (rechristened as foreign correspondent, Huntley Haverstock by his editor and sent on the assignment of his life into Europe). In hindsight, McCrea proves mostly up to the challenge; at 6ft. 2inches, towering over his costars but also able to carry the movie on his acting chops alone.
As for Larainne Day, like Joel McCrea, Foreign Correspondent would prove a definite ‘step up’ from her usual fare. She had appeared to modest affect in films of dubious distinction since 1937, then steadily worked in features until the early 1950’s, segueing into television for another three decades before effectively capping off her career with a series of TV cameos in 1986. It’s rather fascinating to watch her work as Carol Fisher in Hitchcock’s movie; an infectious blend of sass and smarts married to the more congenial good girl persona. 
In retrospect, Foreign Correspondent is also a potpourri for some of Hollywood’s most dedicated and endearing alumni; Herbert Marshall (who lost a leg in WWI) as the double agent and wily Nazi sympathizer, Stephen Fisher; George Sanders, taking a break from playing unscrupulous cads, with the rather noble, Scott ffolliott;  Albert Bassermann – utterly superb as the ill-fated diplomat, Van Meer – kidnapped from his hotel in England by Fisher and his cronies;  comedian Robert Benchley as reformed alcoholic and womanizing foreign correspondent, Stebbins; Edmund Gwenn (everybody’s favorite Santa Claus) herein cast against type as the murderous assassin, Rowley; Eduardo Ciannelli as a terrifying hired hit man, Mr. Krug, and, beloved Harry Davenport as Mr. Powers – the frazzled editor of a newspaper. Walter Wanger’s clout in Hollywood afforded him unusual access to these phenomenal talents – most under contract to other studios and borrowed expressly for Foreign Correspondent. The movie immensely benefits from their immediately identifiable presences.
The magic of making movies is incontrovertibly a collaborative effort and Foreign Correspondent also benefits from Alexander Golitzen’s stellar art direction; an exquisite evocation of fanciful European landscapes about to be transformed by the ravages of another war. Alfred Newman, already well-established as one of the most gifted composers in Hollywood, and whose guiding presence would set the musical tone for features over at 2oth Century-Fox for nearly three decades to follow, delivers an exemplary score herein; earthy, adventurous, but with a whiff of danger and sadness interpolated throughout. Finally, we tip our hats to cinematographer, Rudolph Maté whose work in B&W on Foreign Correspondent typifies the essential European joie de vivre of the piece, despite the fact the whole movie was shot on sets and locations in Southern California. It really is a masterful accomplishment; one for which cameramen and art directors of their generation were rarely given the appropriate credit each so richly deserved. 
Foreign Correspondent opens in the front offices of the New York Globe with harried editor-in-chief, Mr. Powers frustrated by the lack of communiqués coming from his assigned foreign correspondents stationed all over Europe. There’s a war brewing. Powers is certain of it. But no one’s putting their name to a story about the potential outbreak. What the Globe needs is a fresh mind and perspective. Powers gets both when he decides to promote insolent staff writer, Johnny Jones to the exalted position of foreign correspondent; assigned to get to the bottom of things over there. Knowing that Jones knows absolutely nothing about being a foreign correspondent, Powers also calls leading industrialist, Stephen Fisher into his office; a man of importance who will serve as something of a guide for Jones during a scheduled conference in London. Unbeknownst to Powers, Fisher is actually working to ensure the fall of democracy by feeding information to the Nazi high command in code.
Upon his arrival in London, Johnny – rechristened by Powers as Huntley Haverstock – meets Stebbins; the laconic, if playful foreign correspondent who informs Haverstock that his job is to appease the papers back home by writing squibs that neither confirm nor deny any news about the European situation. Dissatisfied with this assignment, Haverstock decides to intercept the Dutch diplomat, Van Meer en route to the London conference at the Savoy, believing it will be as easy as making his sincere inquiries to Van Meer to gain insight and his thoughts on the looming prospects of war. But Van Meer is a politico. Moreover, he carries with him trade secrets he isn’t about to share with anyone – let alone an overzealous reporter working for an American newspaper.  Thus, the conversation between Van Meer and Haverstock is short-lived and relegated to passive commentary about the weather and the pigeons in the park. Once at the Savoy, Haverstock attempts to get to know Van Meer better; suddenly realizing he has disappeared into thin air inside the crowded lobby.
Fisher introduces Haverstock to his daughter, Carol at the cocktail party preceding a round of speeches. There’s an immediate spark of attraction on Haverstock’s part. But he blunders his way into one social faux pas after the next; inadvertently insulting her father and coming off as something of a hard case only interested in one thing. Herein, Hitchcock peppers Carol and
Haverstock’s ‘cute meet’ with delicious comedy inspired by a language barrier between Haverstock and the Hungarian ambassador. Unable to locate Van Meer, Fisher substitutes Carol to take over the presentations at the conference before making the announcement that Van Meer was unexpectedly called away at the last moment, but will attend a subsequent conference in Amsterdam. 
We fast track to Holland; a gray, windswept and rainy afternoon, with Haverstock awaiting Van Meer’s arrival on the crowded steps of the municipal building. A man who bears an uncanny likeness to Van Meer approaches. But he is puzzlingly unresponsive to Haverstock’s inquiries. What happens next is, of course, the shocker. Van Meer is rather graphically shot in the face by an assailant impersonating a reporter with a camera. In the ensuing chaos and panic, the assassin gets away by escaping through the crowded streets under the cover of patrons holding their umbrellas.
Haverstock makes chase, getting into the passing automobile of fellow reporter, Scott ffolliott. Carol is already a passenger. Informing the pair of the assassin’s escape, Haverstock points out a car driving away from the scene. Ffolliott makes chase, driving beyond the city to a stark agrarian landscape dotted by windmills. Haverstock is the first to notice one of the windmills is not spinning in the same direction, telling Carol and Scott to hurry back for the police while he stays behind to investigate this anomaly. 
In his search of the windmill, Haverstock witnesses the assassin and Krug exchange cryptic messages, before sneaking up to the windmill’s loft, where he also discovers a heavily sedated Van Meer bound to a chair. Attempting to gain insight into what’s going on, Haverstock narrowly escapes being found out by Krug and his henchman. By the time Carol and Scott return with the police, Krug and Van Meer have once again vanished.
Back at his suite in the Hotel Europe, Haverstock is preparing for a bath when he is confronted by a pair of spies pretending to be policemen. They suggest that he come down to the station for a chat. But when Haverstock notices his phone line has been cut, he realizes he is in grave danger and lies to the men about going into the next room to change into his clothes. Instead, Haverstock lets the tap run, his tub overflowing while he dramatically scales the balconies outside his window, still in his skivvies, and leaping into Carol’s bedroom.  Attempting to explain the situation to Carol, but once again not believed for his efforts - at first - Haverstock proves what he says and Carol telephones several of the hotel’s staff to create a diversion by coming to Haverstock’s suite for his clothes and to clean up – discovering the overflowing bathtub in the process – thereby alerting hotel security that something is remiss. The spies leave in a hurry and Haverstock gets dressed so that he and Carol can make their escape.
On a ship bound for England during a harrowing storm at sea, Haverstock works up the nerve to propose to Carol. Having surrendered her inhibitions and her skepticism once and for all, Carol accepts Haverstock’s proposal. The pair hurries home to tell Fisher the good news. Regrettably, there Haverstock witnesses Fisher casually chatting up Mr. Krug. Recognizing him from the windmill, Haverstock plays it cagey until after Krug leaves, informing Fisher that he is a Nazi spy; all the while not realizing he has just made his own position known to the leader of the movement against him.
Fisher feigns surprise to maintain his autonomy, pretending to hire a bodyguard to protect Haverstock. The bodyguard, Rowley, turns out to be another assassin hired by Fisher to take care of Haverstock once and for all. Rowley’s first attempt on Haverstock’s life, pushing him into oncoming traffic during a walkabout London’s crowded streets, is thwarted when Haverstock survives and Rowley pretends he was protecting Haverstock from being hit by a nearby bus. Rowley’s next attempt is more obvious. Taking Haverstock to the open observation deck of Westminster Cathedral, Rowley waits for the tourist crowds to dissipate before charging Haverstock, who is looking over the edge. At the last possible moment, Haverstock jumps out of the way and Rowley plummets to his death. 
Haverstock now confides in ffolliott who concurs that Fisher is their adversary.  They concoct a plan of action; Haverstock luring Carol to the countryside on the pretext of an outing while ffolliott pretends she has been kidnapped, to blackmail Fisher divulging the whereabouts of Van Meer. But Haverstock and Carol quarrel prematurely and she returns to London just as Fisher is about to fall for ffolliott's bluff. Ffolliott tails Fisher to a nearby seedy hotel where Van Meer is being held against his will. 
In one of Foreign Correspondent’s best remembered scenes, ffolliott is captured by Krug and taken to Van Meer’s room; Fisher already pleading with a badly depleted Van Meer to tell his accomplices the secrets his organization needs to know. Instead, Van Meer chides these defectors of democracy for the evil doers that they are, affording, ffolliott the opportunity to create a diversion that transforms the confessional moment into utter and complete chaos.  Police invade the hotel with Haverstock bringing up the rear. But it’s too late. Fisher and his henchmen have escaped, leaving Van Meer in a coma.
Armed with the reality that the conflict against them has already begun in espionage, England and France declare war on Germany. Haverstock, Stebbin and ffolliott board a plane back to America; Fisher and Carol on the same plane, but in first class, where Fisher, realizing he has no chance for escape once the plane has landed, at long last confides his dastardly deeds to his daughter. Wounded by his revelation, Carol blames Haverstock, claiming he used her to get close to her father. Just then the plane is shelled by a German destroyer, nose-diving into the sea. This iconic moment was a clever combination of rear projection and special effects; the cockpit windows of the plane thinly veiled in rice paper to project an image of the advancing sea, and large chutes triggering water tanks to dump their load at precisely the moment of supposed impact, the water breaking through the paper and flooding the compartment with its terrified extras.  
In their harrowing escape from the sinking plane, the survivors cling to life atop some floating wreckage and Fisher sacrifices himself to the raging waters rather than face incarceration. Jones and ffolliot make a valiant attempt to rescue Fisher, but it is ultimately pointless. A nearby American cruiser rescues the survivors and a short while later Haverstock – reverting back to his real name, Jones - prepares to make a live radio broadcast from London to the United States; the moment interrupted by a bombing raid overhead, but with Jones’ defiantly refusing to cease his patriot pleas for America’s involvement in the war effort. 
“Hello, America. I've been watching a part of the world being blown to pieces. A part of the world as nice as Vermont, and Ohio and Virginia, and California, and Illinois lies ripped up and bleeding like a steer in a slaughterhouse, and I've seen things that make the history of the savages read like Pollyanna legends…I can't read the rest of the speech I had, because the lights have gone out. So, I'll just have to talk off the cuff. All that noise you hear isn't static . It's death coming to London. Yes, they're coming here now. You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes. Don't tune me out. Hang on a while - this is a big story, and you're part of it. It's too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come... as if the lights were all out everywhere - except in America. Keep those lights burning. Cover them with steel. Ring them with guns. Build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them. Hello, America, hang on to your lights: they're the only lights left in the world!”
This gallant epilogue was scripted by Ben Hecht after Hitchcock had already ended his association with the picture, and, it incurred the director’s considerable dismay when he discovered his original ending had been supplanted by what Hitch’ considered a clichéd diatribe. Viewed today, this tacked on ending still works as a time capsule and/or monologue to a particular type of propagandized film making Hollywood embraced en masse throughout the duration of the war. Its’ unabashed flag-waving sentiment is greatly tempered by McCrea’s sincere delivery of the lines; the lights dramatically flickering from behind, then slowly fading to black as the music swells and ‘The End’ flashes across the screen.
Foreign Correspondent is quite possibly Hitchcock’s finest ‘espionage’ thriller. Hitchcock would revisit its central ‘hemisphere in flames’ scenario twice more; first in Saboteur (1942), then again in 1944 with Lifeboat. But Saboteur is a rather turgid and episodic affair, lacking the direction and causal linkage of events fleshed out in Foreign Correspondent; its impact further blunted by the somewhat tepid pairing of congenial Priscilla Lane and Robert Cummings as its winsome – though largely forgettable - romantic pair. On the other end of the spectrum is Lifeboat, a single set ensemble piece quite unlike anything Hitchcock had ever attempted before and dealing almost exclusively with the aftermath of a terrible wreck at sea. After Lifeboat was rather unceremoniously yanked from general release by Fox, Hitchcock would try for this single-scene formula again with Rope (1948) before ultimately perfecting it in Rear Window (1954).
Foreign Correspondent is an exceptional thriller with few equals, most belonging in Hitchcock’s own illustrious canon of films. Despite his misgivings about Joel McCrea and Laraine Day, each gives a superb performance that sustains the action from start to finish. They really are a marvelous pair, believable as the sparring singles, and equally as engaging once they’ve become a romantic couple. The supporting cast is as memorable; Herbert Marshall’s unscrupulous plotter given the ‘honorable man’s exit’; thoroughly in keeping with his trademarked persona established in other movies.   
If there is a weakness in casting, then it arguably remains Robert Benchley’s Stebbins; befuddled, though not all that amusing, his rather callous commentary on the duties of a foreign correspondent and skirt-chasing antics on the side, better suited to a frothy romantic comedy than a Hitchcock thriller. Thankfully, his is a characterization that doesn’t intrude – much – on the more pressing plot developments. It’s as though Hitchcock has intuitively realized the miscalculation and done his utmost to minimize its distractions.  In the final analysis, Foreign Correspondent endures as Hitchcock’s most intricately woven wartime thriller; far and above most any of his masterworks, which is saying quite a lot considering we’re talking about the master of suspense.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray marginally improves on the old DVD from Warner Home Video. First off, I am staunchly opposed to Criterion still doing 2K transfers of vintage B&W movies when 4K has fast become the new norm. Be that as it may, the image significantly tightens up; sharpness improving overall and fine details in hair and clothing coming to the forefront as they should in 1080p.  The grayscale continues to look as though its contrast is boosted – just a trifle. It’s not a deal breaker, in my opinion, but black levels seem a tad weaker than I would have preferred. The big plus for this release is the removal of virtually all of the dirt and scratches that plagued the Warner Home Video release.  We get another PCM mono audio track from Criterion, consistent, clean and with good solid bass tonality.  
Extras are the other reason to rejoice. Warner’s DVD gave us a scant featurette on the making of the film. Criterion replaces this with a brand new 20 minute visual effects piece by Craig Barron. Writer Mark Harris adds his views in a 25 min. video piece that comments exclusively on Hollywood’s role in helping to propagandize WWII and ‘sell it’ to the American public.  
From June 8th, 1972, comes the complete 1 hr. broadcast of Dick Cavett's interview with Hitchcock. Cavett’s questions are rather bland to say the least, but Hitchcock makes the most of them and replies with his usual superb drollness to help ease the pain. 1946’s radio adaptation of Foreign Correspondent and 1942’s Life Magazine ‘photo drama’ by Hitchcock round out the extras. The film’s original theatrical trailer is also included. As with all Criterion offerings, this one comes with extended liner notes; an essay written by scholar James Naremore. Again, Criterion gives us one Blu-ray and two DVD’s – their new combo-pack philosophy escaping yours truly.  Either you own a Blu-ray player or don’t, and, if you do you won’t be using the DVD’s for anything – except, maybe, glorified coasters. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS

4

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