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Underrated Hitchcock

Underrated Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar as Best Director, but
the first year he worked in Hollywood he made a pair of memorable films. Rebecca was nominated for 11 Academy
Awards (including Best Director) and won two, for George Barnes’ cinematography
and for Best Picture. The second release, which appeared in theaters just four
months later, also earned a handful of nominations—including Best Picture—but
isn’t cited as often as it should among the director’s finest work. Foreign Correspondent is one of my
all-time favorites and it’s been given deluxe treatment in a terrific new
Blu-ray/DVD release from The Criterion Collection.

In a video essay called “Hollywood Propaganda and World War
II,” author and historian Mark Harris provides a clear-eyed, compelling
treatise on how the movie fit into America’s arm’s-length involvement with the
war in Europe in 1940. (His new book about prominent directors’ experiences
during and following World War II, Five
Came Back,
has just been published.) Visual effects specialist Craig Barron
explores the many and varied techniques employed throughout the film to create
tour-de-force moments—from a field of windmills to an escape on the ledge of a
multi-story hotel, and of course the spectacular seagoing climax involving a
clipper plane. (The effects earned an Oscar nomination for Paul Eagler and
Thomas T. Moulton.)

Criterion also supplies a beautiful new 2K transfer, the
original trailer, a radio adaptation starring Joseph Cotten, an enjoyable 1972
interview with Hitchcock by Dick Cavett, a cogent new essay by James Naremore,
and a rarely-seen 1942 photo essay for Life
magazine by Eliot Elisofon, “directed” by Hitchcock, on the perils of spreading
rumors. (The director even makes a cameo appearance in one of the photographs.)

Foreign Correspondent
has everything one could want: topicality, suspense, romance, wit, several
standout Hitchcock set pieces, stylish cinematography by Rudolph Maté, and “special
production effects” by the great William Cameron Menzies (working with art
director Alexander Golitzen). The screenplay is credited to Hitchcock veteran
Charles Bennett (who paraphrases a bedroom conversation from The 39 Steps) and longtime collaborator Joan Harrison, with contributions
from Alma Reville (Mrs. H.), James Hilton, and the great Robert Benchley, who also
plays an amusing supporting role spiked with non-sequiturs.

The director wasn’t thrilled with his leading man, Joel
McCrea, and it may be that his unjust lack of recognition in recent years has kept
the film from enjoying the prominence it deserves. (Neither he nor leading lady
Laraine Day were A-listers, and posterity has been kinder to Hitchcock films
with such enduring stars as Cary Grant and James Stewart.)

Even so, the movie is brimming with clever ideas and a point
of view, driven by producer Walter Wanger, that flew in the face of America’s
isolationist stance at the time of its release in 1940. To learn more, dive
into this new DVD, and revisit an imaginative and wildly entertaining Hitchcock
gem.

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