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Hitchcock at the top of his game
on January 9, 2004
Despite being nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture, Alfred Hitchcock's second American film, "Foreign Correspondent," has received little notice through the years. Critics gush, and rightly so, over "Rear Window" and "Vertigo" but scarcely breathe a word about this masterpiece. Released in 1940, the same year as "Rebecca," it has been left to languish in the graveyard of late night television where its very lack of promotion no doubt leads many a Hitchcock fan to believe it must be one of the master's lesser films, something on the order of "The Paradine Case" or "Under Capricorn."
"Foreign Correspondent" is, in fact, one of the director's greatest films, every bit as good as "The 39 Steps," "North by Northwest" and other famous Hitchcock classics and far superior to "Rebecca," a film that Hitchcock himself described as belonging more to Selznick than to him. The Master of Suspense's trademark touches are very evident in this exciting suspense adventure in which Joel McCrea (chosen after Gary Cooper passed on the project), a lightweight reporter for a New York newspaper, is given a plum assignment that leads him into international intrigue involving a kidnapped scientist.
Hitchcock may have been disappointed in McCrea (labelling him "too easygoing") but the often underrated actor is excellent and is aided by one of Hitchcock's most perfect casts. As fellow reporters, George Sanders provides plenty of world-weary wit and the great Robert Benchley, who also wrote some of his own dialogue, adds a light touch in what is otherwise a fairly grim thriller. Herbert Marshall is on hand as the elegant villain, and Edmund Gwenn who would define "warm and cuddly" as Santa Claus in "Miracle on 34th Street" a few years later, exudes evil as an assassin.
There are many standout scenes, all every bit as imaginative as the cropduster attack on Cary Grant in "North by Northwest" or the shower murder in "Psycho." Note the ominous mood in the windmill where the kidnapped scientist is held captive, or the plane's plunge into the ocean just before the finale. The moment when the aged scientist (perfectly embodied by Albert Basserman, an Oscar nominee for his role) is tortured in a hotel room while a helpless Sanders looks on can make you squirm more than anything in "The Birds."
In short, this is Hitchcock at the very top of his game. The only thing "Foreign Correspondent" lacks is the acclaim and notoriety it deserves.