Jul 12, 2007

DVD Review: Foreign Correspondent (1940)

While I’m a big admirer of the director, I had never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent before. I’m not as familiar with his earlier work, and I wasn’t sure what to expect of this 1940 espionage thriller. What I should have expected was a Hitchcock movie, through and through–and a very good one, at that! Foreign Correspondent delivers all of the thrills and signature humor of his later genre classics like Notorious and North By Northwest (to which Foreign Correspondent is a direct antecedent), and more importantly, just as many spectacular setpieces.

After a forgivable slow first fifteen minutes or so in which New York crime reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is assigned to be his paper’s new correspondent in Europe and give a fresh perspective on the gathering storm of war, the movie moves speedily from one of these impressive setpieces to another. The first highlight is an expertly-staged assassination on a rain-drenched Amsterdam square (a huge set that could easily be the real thing). The assassin flees the scene of his crime through a sea of black umbrellas, and we watch him push through them from above. The sequence is just as iconic as some of Hitchcock’s more famous ones, like the shower scene in Psycho, the crop duster attack in North By Northwest or the gas station sequence in The Birds, and I’m surprised it’s not mentioned in the same breath as those more often.

McCrea pursues the assassin, leading directly into an exciting car chase. The chase features a bit of Hitchcock-ian humor that would later be echoed in countless other car chases, including The Pink Panther and For Your Eyes Only. An old man ambles out of a pub on a quiet Old European street only to jump back as a car speeds by. He tries again to cross the street, but another careening automobile forces him back. This goes on until he gives up and heads back into the bar.

Jones somehow loses his quarry and ends up alone in a field full of windmills where the fleeing car disappeared. There is no music, and the only sound we hear is that of the sails slowly turning on the mills. It’s very similar to the build-up to the crop duster sequence in North By Northwest, and the first of several scenes that prefigure that classic.

The eerie image of a single windmill spinning against the wind signals a Nazi plane to land and a meeting of German spies. Jones sneaks in and observes this. He’s forced to find a new hiding spot every time the spies move, and the camera moves with him all over the impressive interior windmill set, the constant movement building tension. Eventually Jones is cornered, perched in a window just behind the gears of the mill as the enemy confers below. His raincoat gets caught in the gears, and he has to take it off one arm at a time as it’s pulled through. Will the giant apparatus dump the coat right on top of the Germans? It’s an excellent device to build suspense, almost as good as the brilliant champagne scene in Notorious.

Even though Foreign Correspondent is of the old, pre-Bond school of spy movies (in which the actual spies aren’t usually the heroes, but the villains) and the protagonist is a reporter, not an agent, it might as well be a blueprint for the Bond-Age spy film. It’s got exotic locations around Europe, luxurious hotels and beautiful women, and every imaginable sort of setpiece: car chases, foot chases, fist fights, hand-to-hand combat high above the ground (resulting in a bad guy’s deadly plunge off a cathedral), assassination, torture, and even plane crash. And true to the formula, each one tops the last, culminating in the biggest one of all.

Along the way, Johnny Jones demonstrates some clever tricks of the trade. When two fake policemen arrive in his hotel room to kill him, he escapes out the window, along a ledge and into the room of the woman he loves, all in a state of undress. This awkward social situation results in some of the same humor generated by Cary Grant’s similar predicament in North By Northwest, and also leads to a humorous resolution. Jones telephones for room service, bellboys, shoe shiners, maid service and anything else he can think of to come to his own room, trapping the phony cops in a sea of people as he makes his escape. It’s easy to imagine James Bond doing the same thing.

Providing even more Bondian moments is George Sanders as Jones’s very Bulldog Drummond-ish British counterpart, Scott ffolliott ("two small f’s"). ffolliott gets into–and out of–his own scrapes with great aplomb (exiting one close-quarters brush-up by jumping out of a third story window onto a awning way back when that gag was still fresh!), and proves far more ruthless than Jones in his efforts to trap the spies. Robert Benchley provides a lot of comic relief and Laraine Day makes a plucky heroine who’s not afraid to think for herself.

Foreign Correspondent also contains what the trailer boasts as "the most thrilling scene ever filmed!" and in 1940 it probably came close. It still comes surprisingly close today! The sequence in question is a spectacular plane crash. Shot out of the sky by a German destroyer, a passenger airliner plunges into the sea. And it’s not just one wide shot of a miniature, either. It’s an incredibly elaborate sequence, seen from many angles both inside and outside the plane. Chaos erupts inside the cabin as panicked passengers scramble toward the tail section in hopes of avoiding impact. Heroic pilots try their best to keep the craft in one piece, and we’re inside the cockpit with them as it hits the water head-on! Glass shatters, and the ocean pours in, all in one amazing shot. Suspense continues to build as the whole plane rapidly fills up with water and survivors struggle to get out. It’s a scary, harrowing sequence, whose effects still hold up today, and one that will stay with you long after the movie has ended.

Warner Bros.’ DVD contains a good half-hour making of featurette produced by Laurent Bouzereau packed with interviews (Day, Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia and of course the ubiquitous Peter Bogdanovich) stills, and rare footage. The documentary spends a long time on the plane crash, giving excellent details on how it was accomplished. It also offers some fantastic shots of Hitch clowning around on set! The DVD also includes the original trailer, which, as with most trailers of the era, is best viewed after the movie as it gives a lot away. One serious drawback to the disc (or to mine, anyway) is that for some reason it automatically skips to the second chapter when you select "Play Movie," which may leave viewers puzzled by the very abrupt opening and missing the main titles altogether. The only way to see the movie from the beginning is to backtrack on play. That serious flaw aside, this is a wonderful spy film on a well-produced DVD. If you’ve seen all the "A list" Hitchcock titles and want to venture into some deeper cuts, you could do a lot worse than Foreign Correspon-dent, which really belongs on that A list.

3 comments:

Cinebeats said...

Very nice review of one of my Fvaorite Hitchcock films! It's amazing how effective that plane crash scene is even today.

David Foster said...

I have never seen this. But from your great review, I think I have to track this one down.

Cheers

dnoakes said...

I've always thought of this one as "A" Hitchcock--a stellar esionage yarn and not a bad propaganda piece for America needing to fight the Nazis. Today, it'sa fun movie and a good indicator of where Mr. Hitchcock would be going in later years with films like "North By Northwest" and the rather flat "Torn Curtain". I have this on VHS and it loooks like I need to see the updated DVD extras.
Thanks for your site. It really is comprehensive.