Foreign Correspondent (1940) doesn’t always land on lists of Hitchcock 101, despite being a prime example of the kind of breakneck travelogue the director more or less invented. It’s a spiritual sequel to the first The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935), as well as a dry run to everything from Saboteur (1942) to the pinnacle of the form, North By Northwest (1959), which reworks Correspondent’s hotel escape. It’s possible Hitch even felt an affinity for this protagonist, Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), who arrives at work ready to tell American stories—the director had just come to Hollywood and made his first U.S. production, Rebecca (1940)—only to find himself on sudden assignment to Europe. Hitchcock himself was on loan, working for producer Walter Wanger while contracted to David O. Selznick. Granted the preposterous nom de plume Huntley Haverstock, the pugnacious Jones embarks on his first trip to Europe to get fresh facts, not just the “daily guessing game” of whether war will break out.
As scholar James Naremore explains in the liner notes—and Grantland and Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris further details in a supplementary doc—Hitch had come under fire in his native Britain for leaving his country at a time of need. But in retrospect, Foreign Correspondent seems a sterling example of how the director could help the war effort by using current events as a launching point for his signature brand of suspense. Hitchcock’s other wartime commentaries include Lifeboat (1944) and—in the judgment of some critics—Shadow Of A Doubt (1943), which concerns a woman’s dawning awareness that a family member, dear old Uncle Charlie, believes a certain segment of the populace, little old ladies, should be exterminated. Less rich with subtext, Foreign Correspondent is a comparatively blunt instrument; Josef Goebbels dubbed it a “masterpiece of propaganda” for the Allies. The film was even updated one month before its August 1940 opening, with a climactic, Ben Hecht–penned monologue intended to emphasize the urgency of America’s entry into the war.
None of this prevents Foreign Correspondent from being spectacularly entertaining. Haverstock’s first assignment in London is to interview a Dutch diplomat, Van Meer (the Oscar-nominated Albert Bassermann, performing in English, a language he didn’t speak), who soon becomes the subject of one of Hitchcock’s most famous scenes—a rain-soaked assassination in which the murderer, posing as a photographer, escapes through a sea of umbrellas. (Brian De Palma quoted the overhead shot in The Bonfire Of The Vanities, and probably elsewhere.) Haverstock soon learns that Van Meer’s double is the one who’s been killed, and that the diplomat holds the movie’s MacGuffin, “clause 27,” a bit of secret text in a treaty that could help the enemy if its contents were known. As Jones pieces his scoop together, he falls for the daughter (Laraine Day) of a spy politician (Herbert Marshall) and banters wittily with Scott ffolliott (George Sanders), who’s guillotined the first letter in his last name. There are at least three other set pieces—McCrea eavesdropping at the windmill, only to get his coat caught in the gears; the thwarted murder attempt at the cathedral; and the innovative plane crash at the end—that could sensibly be ranked with Hitch’s all-time greats. In interviews, the director has singled out the contribution of production designer William Cameron Menzies, who’s credited with visual effects.
If anything holds Foreign Correspondent back from being first-tier Hitchcock, it’s the sweetly improbable romance between McCrea’s intrepid reported and Day’s Carol, who have barely met before they propose to each other (in dialogue reputedly taken from Hitchcock’s own proposal to his wife, Alma). Even so, there’s more than enough greatness here to make repeat viewings a necessity. While most of the Selznick collaborations could be found in a widely available Key Video box set, Foreign Correspondent was, for years, not the easiest Hitchcock title to track down. Criterion’s typically spiffy package includes a pristine 2K transfer; the aforementioned context from Naremore and Harris; a short documentary on the film’s special effects; a 1946 radio adaptation of the film, featuring Joseph Cotten; and an hour-long 1972 interview with Dick Cavett, in which Hitch speaks at length about how the plane crash sequence was assembled.