Monday, February 24, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Alfred Hitchock's Foreign Correspondent (1940)


Alfred Hitchcock's transition to Hollywood was an inevitability for a director of his growing stature, caliber, and accessibility. After all, many lesser filmmakers had made similar transatlantic leaps as the industry began to boom, first following the introduction of sound and later as large-scale studio productions became the norm—and in the face of Britain's ever-escalating involvement in the war, the move seemed preordained. However, that Hitchcock made the transition so seamlessly, at once refining and accentuating his storytelling prowess and stylistic precision in the process remains one of cinema's foremost examples of artistic evolution. His first two projects, Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent, each released in 1940, were in both style and content diametrically opposing entertainments, though they provide a convenient shorthand for Hitchcock's potential future avenues. The former, a sumptuous seaside melodrama made under contract with David O. Selznick and very much in the producer's tradition of grandiose tragedies, brought a doomed elegance and heretofore absent sense of psychological romance to the director's established aesthetic, while the latter tapped the trademark genre elements by which he had made a name for himself in his home country. Rebecca may have, in its own way, perfected a certain lavish, literary psychodrama, but it stands as something of an anomaly in Hitchcock's filmography. Foreign Correspondent, meanwhile, all but predicted where the director would head in the coming decades.

Originally conceived by producer Walter Wanger as a political thriller to be based on Vincent Sheenan's novel Personal History, the film would soon take on a new shape, first with the addition of Hitchcock to direct, and later with the outbreak of World War II across Europe, where the film was to be set. On assignment in London to cover the escalating tensions, American reporter John Jones (Joel McCrea), as many unwitting Hitchcock protagonists tend to do, quickly and unwittingly fall into the crosshairs. When he and his new love interest, Carol Fisher (Laraine Day), daughter of the leader of the Universal Peace Party, follow a curious Dutch diplomat (Albert Bassermann) to Amsterdam where they witness a public assassination, the two are thrown into a deadly investigative pursuit across Nazi-occupied Europe. Double-crosses, doppelgangers, and diversions litter the narrative throughout, and the film at times feels like it's following every tangent possible in an effort at arriving at a predetermined series of show-stopping set pieces.

Part of the plot's strained ambiguity is a byproduct of the era. Though on one level the film was designed as a piece of propaganda, Nazis are never specifically named (though Hitler is briefly mentioned), nor, for the most part, is the nascent wartime inhumanity of the time. Besides a coda, which was added after principal production, wherein Jones addresses an American audience via radio transmission warning of an impending war, there isn't much differentiating Foreign Correspondent, at least in narrative terms, from Hitchcock's other murder mystery and espionage films; these enemy "Borovians," as they're called, could just as easily be underworld criminals, corrupt bureaucrats, or any number of shadowy figures.

Where the film separates itself from the director's other early studio work and, indeed, many films of the period, is in its ambition and scope of its production. The aforementioned set pieces are not only memorable, they're among the most impressively mounted action sequences to that point—and it's in these moments where the film really foreshadows the work Hitchcock would do in the coming decades, particularly with cross-continental VistaVision adventures such as 1956's The Man Who Knew Too Much and 1959's North By Northwest. Justly lauded sequences such as the assassination atop the administrative steps, the countryside car chase amid an expanse of windmills, the escape along the hotel rooftop ledge, and the climatic plane crash are situational suspense setups taken to heights of pure cinematic spectacle via Hitchcock and production designer/effects coordinator (and sometimes director himself) William Cameron Menzies's expert attention to detail and use of analogue technical tools. The airliner scene, in which Jones and Fisher's flight across the Atlantic is under siege and eventually taken down by an enemy fighter, is particularly impressive, with unbroken tracking shots, carefully modulated sound-stage turbulence, and in-camera effects all combining in a gripping display of practical filmmaking and persuasive thrills.

Following his decade-turning twofer, Hitchcock would spend a majority of the 1940s on smaller scale projects (Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious), occasionally in different genres (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), with increasingly bigger stars—or on logistically constraining experiments (Lifeboat) that nonetheless hint at the grandeur he would soon make good on the following decade. At the time of his crossover, however, he was something of foreign correspondent in an unfamiliar land himself, one that we immediately adopted as our own and without second thought as he brought his uniquely British humor and sensibility to our shores at a time when escapist entertainment was at a premium. It's thus appropriate that Hitchcock's first two Hollywood films would be so different in conception and yet so successful in execution, as they not only ably illustrate his increasing ambition, but, just as importantly, prove his universal appeal.

Image/Sound:
Debuting on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent is predictably impressive, meeting all modern A/V standards. The 1080p transfer is crisp and cleaned up, with well-balanced contrast and a hint of texture coating the picture, never betraying the special-effects work along the way. Blacks are thick and whites are bright, neither showing hints of manipulation. There a very few artifacts and overall this transfer looks great for a film now over 70 years old. Audio, meanwhile, is kept to an authentic PCM mono track. Sounds are sharp, but intrusive noise is minimal, if not completely absent. Dialogue is clear and upfront while the action effects are forthright—as is Alfred Newman's rousing score.

Extras:
Supplements are a diverse and informative gathering of video, audio, and print materials. Along with two new interview pieces, one on the film's influential special effects by visual effects expert Craig Barron and one on the film's propaganda elements by writer Mark Harris, there's also a vintage, hour-long interview segment between Alfred Hitchcock and Dick Cavett from 1972 covering many different aspects and periods of the director's career. Elsewhere there's the Joseph Cotten-starring radio adaptation of the film, as well as a 1942 Life magazine "photodrama" put together by Hitchcock himself. The package is rounded out with an original theatrical trailer and a booklet featuring an informative essay by film scholar James Naremore.

Overall:
Alfred Hitchcock's second Hollywood feature, which all but predicted where the director would head in both style and scale in the coming decades, arrives on Blu-ray in a strong package from Criterion. [Slant]

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