Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent

A scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, now available on Blu-ray. (Courtesy of the Criterion Collection / February 6, 2014)

“Foreign Correspondent” was Alfred Hitchcock's second American film, arriving in theaters just four months after “Rebecca,” the hit he made for producer David O. Selznick. Both films were nominated for Best Picture, with “Rebecca” winning.

As the style of “Rebecca” was a melding of Hitchcock's and Selznick's sensibilities, “Foreign Correspondent” was the first “pure” Hitchcock film in America: that is, its combination of humor and suspense fits it right into a line that runs from “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934) and “The Lady Vanishes” (1938), even more specifically into the subset of episodic on-the-run movies: from “The 39 Steps” (1935), “Young and Innocent” (1937), and “Saboteur” (1942), and up to its zenith in “North by Northwest” (1959).

The frequently underappreciated Joel McCrea plays an unprepared newspaperman sent to Europe to cover peace negotiations at the dawn of World War II. That he runs into Nazi bad guys and falls in love with the daughter (Laraine Day) of one of the participants is not as important as the great set pieces, including the extraordinary sequence of a plane crash.

Some of Criterion's early DVD releases of Hitchcock were flawed, but the Blu-rays have been far better. “Foreign Correspondent” has some of the most beautiful cinematography from Hitchcock's black-and-white years. A scene inside a windmill has degrees of gray that are vastly improved by the higher resolution.

The extras are plentiful and mostly excellent. The 25-minute “Hollywood Propaganda and World War II” provides both production information and historical context. In “Visual Effects in Foreign Correspondent” (about 20 minutes), special effects expert Craig Barron explains many of the movie's technical tricks. (Barron shows us two goofs during the plane sequence that the director knew could never be spotted without the ability to advance a single frame at a time — the very ability we all now have in our living rooms.) This segment also contains the one (admittedly minor) bit of sloppiness in Criterion's presentation: Barron repeatedly refers to production designer William Cameron Menzies by his last name alone, prior to identifying him properly. (Maybe you need to be an editor or writer to be as bothered by this as I was.)

The prize of the collection, however, is a 1972 episode of “The “Dick Cavett Show.” For over an hour, Cavett interviews the filmmaker with a depth rarely seen in that era's talk shows. Admittedly, Cavett asks the most standard questions, presumably drawn almost entirely from the “Hitchcock/Truffaut” interview book. And the timing is frequently off, partly because Hitchcock tries to guide things in a certain direction, and partly by Cavett's hesitant delivery. Most questions are preceded by a pause, while Cavett mentally prepares exactly what he wants to say. These pauses can come across as awkward moments. (I feel his pain.) Nonetheless, the whole of it is a delight. Bizarrely, at the end, when Cavett asks if Hitchcock has anything to add, the latter chooses to tell a “Jewish joke.” Though it's utterly inoffensive and good-natured, its inclusion is just weird.

Foreign Correspondent (Criterion, Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, $39.95)

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ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).