Of all of Alfred Hitchcock's first-rate adventure movies, Foreign Correspondent (1940) is arguably the least known and least appreciated, in part because the director was unable to secure a top-tier cast, and also because it has since been eclipsed by such Technicolor big-tickets as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and the director's own high-water mark in the genre, North by Northwest (1959). However, the high-priced spectacle was a hit upon theatrical release, eventually earning a Best Picture nomination, where it competed (and lost) against Hitchcock's other 1940 title, Rebecca. Joel McCrea stars as New York Globe crime reporter John Jones, a man who's so stubborn when it comes to getting a story that he once slugged a cop. Such an event hasn't led to too many job offers, but as storm clouds gather over Europe, the paper's editor decides he need a rough-around-the-edges gumshoe in London rather than the typical foreign correspondent socialite. Given the nom de guerre "Huntley Haverstock," Jones embarks for England, where he's met by the paper's tippling correspondent Stebbins (Robert Benchley). His first assignment involves a luncheon sponsored by Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), who is heading up a peace organization with the assistance of his idealistic daughter Carol (Laraine Day). Carol and Jones don't hit it off at first, but before long the reporter winds up in Amsterdam, where he witnesses the assassination of a Dutch diplomat, Van Meer (Albert Bassermann). Joined by British reporter Scott ffolliott (George Sanders), Jones and Carol track the assassins to a desolated group of windmills, where Jones soon discovers that Van Meer is alive, held by a group of fifth columnists hoping to torture a secret treaty clause out of him. Among the men is Krug (Eduardo Cianelli), who happens to be a colleague of Fisher's reporter ffolliott intends to play hardball with the traitors, while Jones, now in love with Carol Fisher, is less certain what his course of action will be.
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On loan from David O. Selznick to producer Walter Wanger, Foreign Correspondent was Alfred Hitchcock's second Hollywood project (shot just after Rebecca), but it can accurately be regarded as the first genuine American Hitchcock film. Sparing no expense, the picture was budgeted for a then-enormous $35,000-per-day shoot, and while it takes place almost entirely in Europe, only a second-unit crew was dispatched across the Atlantic. In California, the sets (overseen by production designer William Cameron Menzies and art director Alexander Golitzen) included a reconstruction of London's Waterloo Station with hundreds of extras in tailored clothes; a ten-acre replica of Amsterdam, including a town square (with "rain" provided thanks to a diversion of the Colorado River); full-scale windmills, one with complete internal gearing; and a transatlantic Clipper plane wrecked in a massive studio tank. In addition to the technical undertaking (which required nearly 600 additional crew members), Hitch assembled a dream-team of screenwriters, with Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison handling the initial script, while Ben Hecht, James Hilton, and Robert Benchley (who subsequently joined the cast) were added for polish. The quality of the dialogue shines through from scene to scene, particularly with the distinct sense of humor assigned to the American and British stars. Hitchcock initially approached Gary Cooper for the lead role of Jones/Haverstock, but after Cooper turned him down (and eventually regretted it), Joel McCrea was cast, utilizing a midwestern charm that often reminds the viewer of Joseph Cotten, and while Laraine Day was not (and would not become) a substantial film commodity, she's wonderfully charming as anti-war crusader Carol Fisher. However, George Sanders is the cast's standout as the unflappable ffolliott a man who exhibits humor as dry as a gin martini when we first meet him (as he explains his unusual surname whilst being shot at), but later proves to be the story's chief catalyst, and not a bad action hero to boot. Those who have seen The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes will enjoy Foreign Correspondent, which reveals the same playful Hitchcock elaborating on his favorite espionage motifs, albeit now in Hollywood and with real money to spend. And for those who enjoy watching North by Northwest now and then, it makes a splendid double-feature particularly when noting just how many elements Hitchcock pulled from his bag of tricks to use again. Warner's DVD release of Foreign Correspondent features a good full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a reasonable black-and-white source-print, which exhibits noticeable collateral wear but is still pleasant and watchable, while the monaural audio is clear on a DD 1.0 track. Supplements include the featurette "Personal History: Foreign Hitchcock" with comments from Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell, Peter Bogdanovich, and film critic Richard Schickel (33 min.) and the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.