THE DVD SHELF: Alfred Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent" and Akira Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood"
By Steven Suskin
This month's column focuses on Alfred Hitchcock's early World War II thriller "Foreign Correspondent" and "Throne of Blood," Akira Kurosawa's adaptation of Macbeth.
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.
We have seen a couple of Macbeths on Broadway recently, with the portraits by Alan Cumming and Ethan Hawke being less than imperishable (although I suppose you can say that they were memorable). What's more, we have Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth to look forward to in June at the Park Avenue Armory. In the midst of these, Criterion has brought us Toshiro Mifune's portrayal of Shakespeare's Thane. Not of Cawdor, exactly; this one, going by the name of Washizu, is Lord of Spider Web Castle, in Akira Kurosawa's 1957 classic "Throne of Blood." Washizu is a Samurai general in feudal Japan. Mifune has none of Shakespeare's dialogue, but he is Macbeth just the same.
In some ways Kurosawa gives us a new way to look at Shakespeare's tragedy, as the trappings are different and the words are Japanese. The power of the story, though, and the emotions of Macbeth and his Lady are there for us to see and feel even without the imperishable dialogue. Watch Asaji (Lady Macbeth) try to rub that damned spot off her hands; the words are different, everything is different, but it's the same and it's spinetingling.
Kurosawa is at his best here, shooting in the forests and through the fog of Mt. Fuji. The final battle is unparalleled: Washizu is ambushed and riddled with arrows, like a stuck pig. Mifune —who also starred in Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" and "Rashomon" — gives another expert performance as a ruler overcome by fear, terror and a Machiavellian spouse. Isuzu Yamada as Asaji is perhaps more stunning than any Lady Macbeth you've seen. Kurosawa gives us a scene where she exits the room through a screen, into the dark, and returns a moment later with a pitcher filled with poisoned saki and a look so deadly that you read the terror. The next scene starts with a shot of the drugged guards sprawled on the floor, with the pitcher strategically placed.
Criterion accompanies the new restoration with three different subtitle translations (which are discussed in the accompanying booklet). Also included is a documentary on the making of the film taken from the Toho Masterworks series "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create."
"Throne of Blood" — or "Kumonosu-jo," as it is known in Japanese — is presented in a dual-format edition containing both Blu-ray and DVD.
Broadway Records has issued "From Broadway with Love: A Benefit Concert for Sandy Hook" on DVD and CD. This was a benefit concert for the Sandy Hook/Newtown community held Jan. 28, 2013 at the Palace Theatre in Waterbury, CT, bringing together 100 Broadway performers with some 300 students from Sandy Hook schools and groups. Among the talent — at least, as represented on the DVD — are Julia Murney, Stephen Schwartz, Christine Ebersole, Richard Kind, Phillip Boykin, Mary Testa, Michael Cerveris (singing "Sunday" from Sunday in the Park with George with the Newtown High School Chamber Choir), Nikki Blonsky, Marc Shaiman, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Capathia Jenkins, Linda Eder and Frank Wildhorn. 100 percent of the profits go to the Newtown-Sandy Hook community.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes", "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.)
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