While there is no such thing as a truly bad Hitchcock picture (even Topaz has its charms), there is a certainly a question of value and how some of the Master’s films are undoubtedly more important than others. While no one can deny that Psycho changed the face of motion pictures and critics and scholars swoon over the hidden symbols and Freudian richness of Vertigo, very little attention is ever put on Hitchcock’s earliest Hollywood pictures and when they are discussed, the conversation more often than not fixes itself on Spellbound, Notorious and Rebecca.
The latter is especially significant when discussing the film at the center of this review, because they both were shot within the very same year, both often fight for the official title of “first of Hitchcock’s American films” (more for their plot than their production) and both competed for the 1940 Best Picture Oscar. The film is of course Foreign Correspondent, which is now presented in Blu-ray edition by The Criterion Collection. And it’s popular wisdom that whenever this boutique distributor selects a film to join its canon, then it must mean it’s truly special. Right?
Yet what exactly makes Foreign Correspondent so special? Watching it for the first time, nothing too extraordinary comes to mind. Yes, it’s perhaps one of the most efficient entries in the Hitchcockian subgenre of “every-man trapped in an extraordinary situation”, but he would go on to direct much better ones in years to come (some might even argue that he’d already mastered this kind of film in the iconic The 39 Steps), the same can be said for the film’s combination of thrills with a perverse sense of humor; if anything Hitchcock might have just been one of the greatest comedians who ever lived, for all his films contain a dark, acidic sense of humor that survives throughout the decades in ways some of his most “serious” touches don’t. Yet even within this group, Foreign Correspondent holds no candle against Rear Window and To Catch a Thief.
Perhaps then, what makes Foreign Correspondent worthy of the Criterion treatment, and as such worthy of a more serious reevaluation, is that within its apparent simplicity and ordinariness, the Master embedded every single valuable lesson he had to transmit to future generations about the art of filmmaking. If anything, Foreign Correspondent is a guideline in how to direct — and how to create — a flawless motion picture. There is nary a sequence in this film that doesn’t feel completely planned, rehearsed and tweaked to perfection.
Hitchcock, one of cinema’s most notorious perfectionists, would never leave anything to chance and in a dazzling featurette included among the supplements, we learn that he worked together with production designer William Cameron Menzies, to create complex storyboards that detailed everything from where the actors would stand, to specific camera angles and movements.
It makes more sense then, watching protagonist Joel McCrea fight villainous Nazi collaborators (although their party is never truly specified) in complicated set pieces, that Hitchcock was more interested in developing a stronger visual style than he was in delivering a good old fashioned “story”. The plot itself leaves much to be desired in terms of layers (we can see who the villain is and it’s pretty easy to guess whether the leading man will survive or not) but every single frame in the film is worthy of study because of the richness in its seemingly superfluous detailing.
In the same featurette dedicated to the film’s special effects, we learn how Hitchcock composed dreamlike moments combining location shoots, specially designed sets and matte paintings and how he was able to make us believe we were in the Netherlands when all along the camera had never left a pretty California beach. Watching older films, we always think we can detect what’s “real” and what’s not, and usually this seems to be the case, but Hitchcock’s combination of special photographic effects and regular scenes is so fluid that it’s only when we revisit the film that we even notice something wasn’t what we thought it was.
The film’s plot is essentially well oiled propaganda aimed to inspire Europe to fight the Nazis (America wouldn’t go to war for more than a year after the film was released as it’s explained by Mark Harris in another featurette) and if you concentrate too much on the story (which inarguably has its moments) the film will look like nothing special, even when it has a lot to say about the way in which politics were handled during the studios’ Golden Age. With repeated viewings, however, Foreign Correspondent reveals its true colors. While it might not be instantly considered as canonical Hitchcock, its charms and achievements had never been as clear as they are in this Blu-ray edition, which proves that there’s no point in ever doubting Criterion.