Hitch’s second U.S. film sets the bar for the rest of his career

“Foreign Correspondent” (1940) was recently released on Blu-ray/DVD (dual edition) by Criterion.

By Michael Wilmington

Foreign Corr posterAlfred Hitchcock started his American filmmaking career with a bang, directing a Best Picture Oscar winner and an inarguable classic: his 1940 David O. Selznick-produced film of Daphne du Maurier’s immensely popular Gothic romantic novel “Rebecca.” Though he was under the control of Selznick at his zenith (the year after “Gone With the Wind”), Hitch executed the assignment with near-flawless skill  and panache.

He beautifully dramatizes du Maurier’s romantic tale of a naïve young wife (Joan Fontaine) taken to a mansion by her wealthy new husband (Laurence Olivier), who may have murdered his haunting first wife, Rebecca.

But “Rebecca” wasn’t Hitch’s only 1940 film. Nor is it the one that some Hitchcock critics (and maybe even Hitchcock himself) consider the inarguable classic. Shortly after completing “Rebecca,” and freeing himself from the fealty Selznick felt was owed to du Maurier’s novel, Hitchcock made a second American movie.

This new work was a continuation of the style and technique of the delightfully frightening suspense thrillers he’d made in England in the ’30s: notably “The 39 Steps,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “The Lady Vanishes.”

That second Hitchcock movie was “Foreign Correspondent,” produced by Walter Wanger: a top-notch melodrama of international intrigue and nail-biting suspense that was set in the early days of World War II. Starring the sturdily all-American guy Joel McCrea (Hitch had wanted Gary Cooper) and love interest Laraine Day (Hitch had wanted Fontaine), it was a movie that unabashedly called  for the U.S. to enter the war against Germany, on the side of Hitchcock’s beleaguered homeland Great Britain.

That’s the conclusion McCrea’s pugnacious but immensely likable reporter Johnny Jones (pen name: Huntley Haverstock) reaches after being sent overseas as The New York Globe’s foreign correspondent and witnessing Germany’s murderous espionage and sabotage. As bodies and evidence accumulate, Johnny/Haverstock chases down a Nazi spy ring in England and Holland.

In company with Johnny: the head of an ambiguous peace organization (Herbert Marshall), his beauteous daughter (Day), a suave and plucky British fellow reporter (George Sanders), a kidnapped Dutch diplomat (Albert Bassermann), and assorted spies, officials, killers and bystanders (Edmund Gwenn, Robert Benchley, Eduardo Ciannelli and others). They race from one hair-raising Hitchcockian set-piece to the next; finally culminating in a plane crash, with McCrea and others in the cockpit.

It’s the sort of  convulsively paced, thoroughly engrossing and purely entertaining tale Hitchcock loved to make, with an audience-pleasing flair and imagination that would have been entirely out of place in a faithful classic adaptation like “Rebecca.” But “Foreign Correspondent” was a clear precursor of Hitchcock’s later career and also of the James Bond spy thrillers of the ’60s and beyond, which were partly inspired by his work.

Selznick would not allow Hitchcock to change any of “Rebecca” (except for his habitual joke-cameo appearance). While Selznick has probably been proven right by the film’s 1940 Oscars and continued classic status, “Foreign Correspondent” (which was nominated for six Oscars), has also been validated as the more truly Hitchcockian movie.

It’s full of virtuoso set-pieces, like the windmills that are turning against the wind, the climactic plane crash, the famed umbrella-knocking assassination scene, and other logic-defying moments inserted in defiance of the critics and carpers whom The Master of Suspense dismissively called “The Plausibles.”

Hitch makes his cameo in "Foreign Correspondent."

Hitch makes his cameo in “Foreign Correspondent.”

“Foreign Correspondent” was scripted by Hitchcock’s regular collaborators Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison, with dialogue by James Hilton (the novelist who wrote “Goodbye Mr. Chips”) and the Algonquin Round Table’s resident wit Robert Benchley (who also appears in the cast as a fellow reporter). The source was an actual foreign correspondent’s memoir, “Personal History” by Vincent Sheean.

One of the uncredited writers on “Foreign Correspondent” was Richard Maibaum, who was later the main Bond series screenwriter. Besides Maibaum, the remarkable gallery of uncredited writers on the project includes Ben Hecht, Harold Clurman, John Howard Lawson, John Lee Mahin and Budd Schulberg, or almost everyone in Hollywood, it seems, but William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Of course, there was the script-shaping genius of Hitchcock himself (and of his wife Alma): Hitchcock, who of all non-actor movie directors, is perhaps the most visibly present in his films. We sense him in and behind nearly every shot.

But he’s more present in “Foreign Correspondent” than in “Rebecca.” Freed for the moment from Selznick (they would make two more pictures together), Hitch charts the major direction he would follow right up to the end of his career: the ingenious set-pieces, the games with the audience, the personal touches and brilliant identification devices.

He also produced a film proselytizing for America’s entrance into the war with the Allies and against the Nazi juggernaut that was admired as propaganda by no less an expert than Joseph Goebbels himself.

Criterion’s extras include a 1972 interview with Hitchcock by Dick Cavett and a 1946 radio adaptation of “Foreign Correspondent” with Joseph Cotten.

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The Space airs short films exploring Hitchcock’s early work

In conjunction with the recent U.K. release of the film “Hitchcock” (starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren), The Space, an on-demand digital arts service developed by Arts Council England and the BBC, is offering a special treat for Hitch fans. The Space will air five short films that provide context to the master of suspense and his early work.

“The Pleasure Garden” (1925) was the first full film Hitchcock directed.

The set of short films, commissioned by the British Film Institute, includes:

Alfred Hitchcock from the archive

Hitchcock gives his insight into the workings of Hollywood, talking candidly about stars’ salaries and the difficulty of working with well-known actors.

Hitchcock at the picture palace

Historians Henry K. Miller and Matthew Sweet whisk viewers back to 1920s Britain – the era of the picture palace that saw the young Hitchcock learn his craft, refine his art and establish himself as an innovative, ambitious filmmaker.

Seeds of genius: “The Pleasure Garden”

Film historian Charles Barr and the BFI’s silent film curator Bryony Dixon explore Hitchcock’s distinctive style of visual storytelling, focusing on Hitchcock’s first full-length, finished film “The Pleasure Garden” (1925).

Restoring “The Pleasure Garden”

The unique story of how the BFI restored “The Pleasure Garden,” almost a century after it was made.

Scoring “The Pleasure Garden”

This short film follows composer Daniel Patrick Cohen’s journey to create a new score for this seminal Hitchcock work.

You can watch the films here.

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A few of FNB’s fave posts from 2012

Happy 2013, all! Here’s a look at FNB highlights from 2012.

Marilyn Monroe shot by Bert Stern

Top 10 FNB posts (misc.)

Remembering Beth Short, the Black Dahlia, on the 65th anniversary of her death

TCM festival in Hollywood

Interview with Tere Tereba, author of “Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster”

Marilyn Monroe birthday tribute

Marilyn Monroe exhibit in Hollywood

Film noir feline stars: The cat in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers”

Famous injuries in film noir, coinciding with my fractured toe, or broken foot, depending on how dramatic I am feeling

Panel event on author Georges Simenon with director William Friedkin

History Channel announcement: FNB to curate film noir shop page

Retro restaurant reviews: Russell’s in Pasadena

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REVIEWS: 2012 neo-noirs or films with elements of noir

Crossfire Hurricane” documentary

Hitchcock

Holy Motors

Killing Them Softly

Momo: The Sam Giancana Story” documentary

Polisse

Rust and Bone

Searching for Sugar Man” documentary

Unforgivable

Wuthering Heights

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REVIEWS: Classic film noir

Anatomy of a Murder

Criss Cross

Decoy

Gilda

Gun Crazy

Murder, My Sweet

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Possessed

Sunset Blvd.

They Drive By Night

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REVIEWS: Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Dial M for Murder

The Lady Vanishes

Marnie

Notorious

The 39 Steps

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Dita Von Teese to appear at perfume event in Los Angeles

Dita Von Teese photo by Ali Mahdavi

Dita Von Teese will appear at an in-store perfume event in Los Angeles this Saturday, Dec. 15. The event runs from 2-6 p.m. at Fred Segal, 8118 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, 90046, 323-651-1800. This will be the launch of the second DVT fragrance, Rouge. As Dita puts it: “Perfume sets the mood and I’m in the mood to seduce.”

Dita Von Teese perfume is available online in most countries from RonRobinson.

On Sunday, Dec. 16, makeup artist Julie Hewett, who created Scarlett Johansson’s Janet Leigh look in “Hitchcock” and draws from film noir in her product line, is scheduled to give 30-minute private consultations from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Blushington, a makeup studio at 8591 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 90069. Call 310-652-5874 to make an appointment. You’ll be charged a $50 deposit at the time of booking, which can be used toward product purchases.

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Highly entertaining ‘Hitchcock’ lacks inherent drama

For me, the much-awaited “Hitchcock,” which had its world premiere at AFI Fest 2012 presented by Audi, is the cinematic equivalent of the curate’s egg: parts were good. And the actors were quite good (Oscar-worthy some say) in their parts: Anthony Hopkins as director Alfred Hitchcock, Helen Mirren as his wife Alma Reville and Scarlett Johansson as actress Janet Leigh.

We meet the Hitchcocks in 1959, enjoying the success of “North by Northwest,” Hitch and Alma having made the critical flop “Vertigo” the year before. At 60, the great auteur was at the height of his fame and yet was unable to convince Paramount to finance his next film, “Psycho,” a story based on Robert Bloch’s lurid novel about a serial killer. So the couple decide to finance it themselves – a huge gamble that paid off nicely at the box office and with critics. The movie was nominated for four Oscars.

Against this backdrop, director Sacha Gervasi depicts the artist as a brilliant, shrewd, canny and compulsive man with no end of personal peccadilloes (overeating and obsessing over elegant blondes top the list) and renders a portrait of a marriage that was at times strained but resilient enough to last 54 years.

Upon accepting the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1979, Hitchcock said: “I beg permission to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation, and encouragement, and constant collaboration. The first of the four is a film editor, the second is a scriptwriter, the third is the mother of my daughter Pat, and the fourth is as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen. And their names are Alma Reville.”

Arguably, their ultimate bond was the work – making movies that masterfully blend high art, humor and entertainment in a way that has been often repeated and only rarely rivaled.

With its luscious looks, meticulous period details and engaging performances (even if Hopkins sometimes veers into a slightly mannered impersonation), Gervasi’s “Hitchcock” entertains, to be sure. The opening sequence and the scenes where we see Hitch directing Leigh are especially memorable.

But as I watched this glossy yarn, I couldn’t help wondering why this story was being told, what it was adding or subtracting to the legacy of Alfred and Alma. In other words, because “Hitchcock” lacks an inherent drama and an editorial stance by Gervasi, it also fails to involve us deeply or move us. That said, there’s an intrigue to the back story of a film as famous as “Psycho” and, to that end, “Hitchcock” doesn’t disappoint.

“Hitchcock” opens today in limited release.

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The Noir File: Six gems by the all-time master of suspense

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s weekly guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All the movies below are from the current schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Six by Alfred Hitchcock (1941-59) Friday, Nov. 23, 6:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. (3:30 a.m.- 3 p.m.)

Hitchcock was the movies’ all-time master of suspense – the supreme chronicler of wrong men on the run and notorious ladies in distress, of psychos and vertigo, of scenic spy chases and excruciating murder scenes, of shadows and strangers and suspicion, and most of all, of expert suspense movies, pulse-pounding pictures that got you on the hook fast, and kept you there until the last minute.

He was also the master of film noir, as this six film mini-marathon of movies proves. Dating from the heyday of both Hitchcock and classic noir (1941 to 1959), they’re films that you may have seen before, but that are always welcome for a fresh viewing. Hitchcock was one of the most punctilious, painstaking and brilliantly inventive of all major movie artists and that’s why you can see these pictures over and over. While you’re in the mood, you’ll probably also want to catch the opening of the new movie “Hitchcock,” Sacha Gervasi’s bio-thriller about the making of “Psycho,” with Anthony Hopkins as the master of suspense himself.

Friday, Nov. 23, 6:30 a.m. (3:30 a.m.): “The Dick Cavett Show” (1972). Cavett interviews Hitch, for the release of “Frenzy.”

8 a.m. (5 a.m.): “Under Capricorn” (1949). In this somewhat stiff Australian-set period romance, Ingrid Bergman plays a reclusive alcoholic torn between bad-tempered husband Joseph Cotten and charming visitor Michael Wilding – with Margaret Leighton a scene-stealer as the obsessive housekeeper. One of the director’s rare commercial flops, “Under Capricorn” is still notable for its complex, long-take moving camera scenes (like the ones in “Rope”).

10 a.m. (7 a.m.): “Strangers on a Train” (1951).

Vera Miles and Henry Fonda star in “The Wrong Man,” which is based on a true incident.

11:45 a.m. (8:45 a.m.) “The Wrong Man” (1956). Hitchcock takes a real-life episode –the arrest and conviction of New York musician Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) for a robbery he didn’t commit – and squeezes out as much suspense as he does from his fictional thrillers. Co-scripted by playwright Maxwell Anderson; with Vera Miles and Harold J. Stone.

1:45 a.m. (10:45 a.m.): “North by Northwest” (1959). One of Hitchcock’s two great spy-chase thrillers (the other is “The 39 Steps”), “North by Northwest” follows a suave but beleaguered Manhattan advertising executive (Cary Grant), who’s mistaken for a spy who doesn’t exist, charged with a murder he didn’t commit, pursued by bad guys (James Mason, Martin Landau) whose machinations bewilder him. Oh and he’s involved with a blonde beauty (Eva Marie Saint) who may want him dead. And then there’s that pesky crop-dusting plane “dustin’ where there ain’t no crops.” One of the best, most typical and most beautifully made Hitchcocks. Ingeniously scripted by Ernest Lehman.

4:15 p.m. (1:15 p.m.): “Suspicion” (1941).

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “Dial M for Murder” (1954).

Sunday, Nov. 18

2 p.m. (11 a.m.): “Casablanca” (1942, Michael Curtiz).

Tuesday, Nov. 20

4 p.m. (1 p.m.): “Bonjour Tristesse” (1957, Otto Preminger). Smooth as silk and cool as champagne, Preminger’s adaptation of the young French writer Françoise Sagan’s cynical novel, focuses on a brainy young belle (Jean Seberg), whose intense relationship with her playboy father (David Niven) is disrupted by his perceptive fiancée (Deborah Kerr) – a clash that leads to darker currents and conflicts. Seberg’s chilly performance here inspired her role several years later in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless.”

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AFI Fest 2012 starts tonight with ‘Hitchcock’ world premiere

I’m very much looking forward to the 26th annual AFI Fest, which starts tonight in Hollywood with the world premiere of “Hitchcock” directed by Sacha Gervasi and starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren and Scarlett Johansson.

Other galas include: “Life of Pi” (in 3D), “Lincoln,” “On the Road,” “Rise of the Guardians” (in 3D) and “Rust and Bone.” For an overview of the festival, read Anne Thompson and Sophia Savage’s nifty preview piece here. AFI Fest 2012 is presented by Audi.

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