Saturday, November 7, 2009

Another Angry Expat: Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent

A few weeks back, I looked at Fritz Lang's film, Man Hunt, an anti-Nazi film Lang made after World War II started but before Pearl Harbor. Like Lang, Hitchcock was a European director who had come to the States; like Lang, he hadn't left his political convictions behind. Foreign Correspondent (1940) was Hitchcock's second American film; Rebecca came out just four months before. Hitchcock, it would seem, adjusted to Hollywood quickly.

Man Hunt is an anti-Nazi film, while Foreign Correspondent is a pro-British one. Lang's film, for all its praise of England, is at heart a denunciation of fascism. Hitchcock's is a celebration of England and a call to America. The penultimate scene pokes fun at American neutrality, while the final scene is a call to defend America. The bombs are falling on London and the protagonist, John Jones (Joel McCrea), knows the States, for all their isolation, are not safe.

Foreign Correspondent seems a sort of transition film for Hitchcock; though his stars are American, his scene is Europe. About a third of the film takes place in Holland; another half of the film is set in London. Hitchcock obviously couldn't shoot on location; one wonders what he thought as he recreated the streets of his beleaguered hometown on some California soundstage. Interestingly enough, Hitchcock finished shooting the film before the Blitz proper began – the final bombing raid address is a prediction of what London would be like... just five days after Hitchcock shot the scene.

Though a German directed the movie, Man Hunt's Germans seemed to lack all redeeming traits. They were vicious, cruel, treacherous, and sadistic. Foreign Correspondent, interestingly enough, attempts to humanize its villains. They use a peace organization as a front for espionage. They murder, they lie, and they torture. Yet the script also brings repeated attention to the head villain's patriotism – and to his conflicted feelings about his methods. In the end he even manages to redeem himself at the cost of his life.

I suppose I could talk about the movie's suspense set pieces, but it seems somehow redundant. Foreign Correspondent is a Hitchcock film, so of course the movie gets suspense right. And need I say that the film is extremely well-shot? There are no scenes quite so iconic as the crop duster sequence in North by Northwest or the shower in Psycho, but windmill, hotel, and plane crash sequences are all very fine. The last is especially impressive given 1940's technology – it's far less fake than similar scenes from the era. Even a rear-projection car chase somehow manages to look creditable. There's also a surprisingly bloody assassination; the censors must have been blinking, because there's quite a lot of blood about the victim's head.

I don't have too much to say about Foreign Correspondent's plot; it's twisty, it's good, and it's best experienced by watching the movie. The cast is also extremely good, and, as usual for Hitchcock's early work, very funny. There are far more innuendos than some might expect, though nothing quite so scandalously funny as North by Northwest's Freudian final shot. As in The Lady Vanishes, Hitchcock inserts a few stage Englishmen with funny accents and goofy names. One is a Cockney villain who meets a bad end, but the other, Scott ffolliott (sic!) manages to hide a stiff upper lip under his goofiness and "old boys." He's a fine counterpart to Caldicott and Charters, the cricket-obsessed comic relief of The Lady Vanishes – they too were far tougher than they looked. Ironically enough, George Sanders, who plays the most wicked of the Nazis in Man Hunt, here stars as a quintessentially English hero.

Though Foreign Correspondent is something of a propaganda film, it doesn't suffer from politics. The US wasn't in the war when the film came out, so there's less flag-waving than in some other Hitchcock films. Yes, America is great in Foreign Correspondent – "The Star-Spangled Banner" even plays over the credits – but most of the film is far more subtle than later Hitchcock productions like the tediously American Saboteur. Hitchcock trusts that his audience can figure out who the good guys are. Given the quality of the script, the direction, and the acting, it's not surprising to learn that Foreign Correspondent received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. It lost, but I doubt Hitchcock was too disappointed. The winning film, after all, was his own Rebecca.

Foreign Correspondent isn't my favorite Hitchcock film – that's North by Northwest – but it remains one of his best and has aged extremely well. Or, rather, it has hardly aged at all.

And now, review done, a technological digression.

I watched Foreign Correspondent through Netflix's new PS3 streaming feature. I was quite impressed with the Netflix program; the image quality, if not perfect, was never distractingly bad, and the film never hiccuped or stalled. The movie cut out before the end of the credits, however, which was a bit odd. My main problem with the Netflix PS3 disc is the interface. You can view your "instant queue," watch movies from it, and even take movies off of it, but you can't search for the films to add to it. Besides your instant queue, Netflix offers a list of "Movies You'll Love" and a whole set of genre categories. The "Movies You'll Love" section is nice, but the genre categories are a mess. They're not organized alphabetically, or, as far as I can tell, by expected interest. You will find gems (Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes!), but there are literally hundreds of bad movies that get just as much ad space. Do we really need to stream Chained Heat 2? Despite my quibbles, however, the Netflix PS3 disc is pretty wonderful. I look forward to spending a lot of time with it.

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