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Foreign Correspondent (Blu-ray Review)

3 Mar, 2014 By: Mike Clark

$39.95 Blu-ray/DVD combo
Not rated.
Stars Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, Albert Basserman.

It’s probably auteurist folly to say that the David O. Selznick-produced/Oscar-winning Rebecca (April 1940) isn’t “really” a Hitchcock picture while the following August’s Foreign Correspondent is. But you know what I mean. The latter feels like Hitchcock the way that The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes had back in England before the director made the move to Hollywood and Selznick and (I bet before long) a table or booth at Chasen’s Restaurant. Here’s the familiar Hitchcock Ordinary Joe (Joel McCrea, a lot more populist than North by Northwest’s Cary Grant would later be) getting tossed and turned by unexpected intrigue and a polished smoothie (Herbert Marshall) who’s perpetrating it. And here’s the Joe going back to a place where some of the intrigue took place only to find different people there exhibiting a great deal of who-the-hell-are-you? puzzlement, a screen situation so bedrock reliable that even American Hustle just did it.

Produced by the great Walter Wanger and released through United Artists, Correspondent was among the classier American features to get an early TV release, and (in my experience) was frequently exhibited via worn prints. Warner put out a decent one on DVD a few years back, but Criterion’s has a new 2K restoration, and the movie looks better than I’ve ever seen it, including when I programmed it at the American Film Institute Theater back in my other life. This is no small deal because the great William Cameron Menzies did the production design, shortly before he helped create the “look” of Gone With the Wind (we are definitely hitting in the majors here).

It is said that Gary Cooper much regretted turning down the lead role, robbing him of the opportunity to work with Hitch. McCrea, though, is fine, even if Laraine Day as his love interest is one of the director’s chilliest leading ladies — and I don’t mean chilly in the way that, say, Grace Kelly’s cool disguised flaming embers. On the other hand, I do kind of like Day opposite Cary Grant in 1943’s Mr. Lucky, and given that she was married to baseball bad boy Leo “The Lip” Durocher in real life, she couldn’t have been that much of a chill pill (did they have Eddie Stanky over for backyard cookouts?).

The supporting cast is tops: Marshall as Day’s up-to-no-good father (though polite to the core in most familiar Hitchcock fashion); Oscar-nominated Albert Basserman as a victim of politically motivated abduction; and, of all people, Santa Claus (oh, all right, Miracle on 34th Street’s Edmund Gwenn) in a rare role as a homicidal villain, though I suppose we’re veering toward spoiler territory with his aside. And there’s good old Harry Davenport as newspaper reporter McCrea’s cantankerous editor, a few years before the actor played the kindly gramps who dances with Judy Garland at the big dance late in Meet Me in St. Louis.

Released during that fascinating period when Hollywood was recognizing a war that America would almost certainly have to join (little did it know), the picture has a call-to-arms speech at the end that’s a lot less subtle than the rest. To this end, one of the typically bountiful Criterion extras is an interview with writer/film historian Mark Harris — author of the more than essential Pictures at a Revolution — about the ways in which Hollywood contributed to the wartime propaganda effort, which continued through 1945 up to the release of John Ford’s They Were Expendable, the greatest World War II movie filmed at the time and (not by coincidence) the most downbeat and restrained.

There’s a written essay by film scholar James Naremore, a 1942 Life war-related “photo essay” by Hitchcock and a 1946 radio adaptation of this yarn with Joseph Cotten. But the other main bonus extra beyond the Harris feature is a new piece on the film’s special effects — including an explanation of the classic windmill scene (lots of stuff going on at once here) and a spectacularly delineated how-they-did-it of the climactic ocean plane crash sequence, where the water seems to be rushing into our laps. The capper is Hitchcock’s 1972 appearance (promoting Frenzy) on “The Dick Cavett Show,” though without the film clips that Cavett originally showed (rights clearances cost money). Fortunately, Correspondent is one of the Hitchcock films Cavett makes a big deal about, so this is a very nice fit. Plus a nice fit on your Hitchcock shelf as well.

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