High atop my list of favorite Hitchcocks is "Foreign Correspondent" [Criterion]. This was Hitchcock in his transitional period, just after he made his Hollywood debut in 1940 with "Rebecca." (Both were nominated for that year's Best Picture Oscar, with "Rebecca" taking the prize.) But "Rebecca" is somewhat dry, for Hitchcock, with little of the ingenuity — and little of the humor — that marked 1930s British delights like "The 39 Steps," "The Lady Vanishes" and "The Man Who Knew Too Much." "Foreign Correspondent" is a crackerjack thriller that offers high entertainment and — as things worked out — turned out to be a timely, up-to-the-minute propaganda piece.
The foreign correspondent of the title is Joel McCrea, a beat reporter for the New York Globe who is sent to Europe to report on what's really happening (in place of the traditional correspondents who simply recycled news releases). He is shown the ropes by Robert Benchley, the Globe's man in London, who is on the wagon and visibly shaky; a fair amount of the film's humor comes directly from drama critic-turned-humorist-turned-actor Benchley, who gets co-screenwriter credit for providing his own material. McCrea is put on the trail of an elderly Dutch diplomat, in an exceptional performance from German exile Albert Basserman. Herbert Marshall, head of a do-gooder Peace Party, is tied up with the bad guys; Laraine Day, as his unsuspecting daughter, is the heroine; George Sanders, direct from "Rebecca," is a good-guy cooperating journalist; and the sinister Eduardo Ciannelli — a Broadway veteran, who starred as the villain in the stage and screen versions of Maxwell Anderson's Winterset — is the head Nazi.
"Foreign Correspondent" contains some of Hitchcock's most splendid moments, including an assassination on a rainy Amsterdam square punctuated by the use of a sea of black umbrellas. This is also the film with the windmills — if you've seen it, you know what I mean. We also have Edmund Gwenn — yes, the fellow who won an Oscar playing jolly Kris Kringle in "Miracle on 34th Street," with a glint in his eye — as a shady private detective who tries to shove our hero off the tower of Westminster Abbey. For a grand climax, Hitchcock stages a mid-Atlantic seaplane crash.
The film is given full Criterion Blu-ray treatment, complete with the inclusion of two DVDs — the film and the bonuses — along with one of those booklets with highly informative essays, in this case by James Naremore. Extra features include a droll 1972 interview with Hitchcock on "The Dick Cavett Show" and a new piece on the film's special effects in which they recreate the stunning plane crash. It turns out that Hitchcock had a daredevil pilot dive into the ocean and pull up at the last moment, with a camera above the cockpit; had the footage projected onto a rear projection screen made of rice paper; had his prop cockpit "dive" towards the screen; and at the proper moment inundated the screen with gallons and gallons of water. Thus, the water tore through the screen at the moment that the prop plane crashed into it — all in a water tank on the studio lot.
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