Blu-ray Review: Foreign Correspondent – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 969

Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: February 18, 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 120 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

English Mono LPCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 Kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles:  English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 23.98 Mbps

Notes: This release also includes 2 disc DVD set. Warner Brothers has also given the film a DVD release. However, this Criterion edition is the only version available on Blu-ray.

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“I had offered Gary Cooper the Joel McCrea part in Foreign Correspondent. I had a terrible job casting the thriller-suspense films in America, because over here this kind of story was looked on as second-rate. In England, they’re part of the literature, and I had no trouble casting Donat or anybody else there. Here I ran into it all the time until Cary, who’s really English. Afterward, Cooper said, ‘Well, I should have done that, shouldn’t I?’ Of course I don’t think it was Cooper himself. I think the people around him advised him against it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

It isn’t surprising that Alfred Hitchcock decided to make a film that contained anti-neutrality sentiment. Shortly after his voyage to America; London was bombed and Hitchcock worried about the safety his family. He even tried to convince his Mother to join him in America.

David O. Selznick was famous for loaning out his contracted talent for a hefty profit and decided to do so when Walter Wanger requested the services of his star director. Wanger had bought the rights to Vincent Sheean’s memoir Personal History and he wanted Hitchcock to bring the book to the screen. Hitchcock used only the basic idea of the book and constructed an original screenplay (with Alma Reville, Joan Harrison, and Charles Bennett) that can really only claim to be inspired by Sheean’s memoir.

The resulting production can only be described as “extravagant.”

“With Foreign Correspondent, Hitchcock hoped to advance his American career. When Selznick loaned him to Walter Wanger in late November 1939, both producers apparently contemplated a twelve week schedule. Hitchcock consistently exaggerated his speed and may well have promised to develop the script in only three or four weeks [and] shoot it in eight or nine. A lax supervisor, Wanger gave the reins to Hitchcock and let the production take its course. Three months later, the screenplay remained unfinished and pre-production expenses had begun to soar. According to press releases, nearly six hundred craftsmen and technicians worked on Foreign Correspondent, many of them building the enormous sets. Hitchcock supervised construction of a three-story windmill, an Amsterdam city square, an airplane interior, and a mock-up of London’s Waterloo Station. A replica of the Clipper ran $47,000, and the director’s subtle lighting effects required a special relay system from the cameraman to the gaffer. By June 1940, costs approached a reported 1.5 million and would finally tower over those of Rebecca.

‘As soon as I was working for someone I wasn’t under contract to,’ Hitchcock later said, ‘the supervision was lessened.’ Selznick understood the consequences. Although Hitchcock’s assignment to Wanger ultimately lasted thirty weeks and brought his employer a $54,000 gross profit, Selznick grew concerned about the picture’s long schedule. United Artists had accused Wanger of inadequately controlling his operation and broken with him; through ‘improper supervision,’ Dan O’Shea told Selznick, Wanger had now made Hitchcock appear ‘an exceedingly slow director.’ Production manager Ray Klune confirmed the point: Hollywood had begun to gossip that the quality of Foreign Correspondent only barely justified its cost. As Selznick realized, unchecked extravagance would make Hitchcock difficult to handle and even more difficult to lend.

Hitchcock returned from Wanger with a fresh taste of independence…”

– Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood)

Hitchcock’s extravagance paid off for Wanger, even if it was a thorn in Selznick’s side. Audiences and critics both raved about the film. Bosley Crowther’s review encapsulates the film’s critical reception:

“They say that the current heroes of Americans, young and old, are the foreign correspondents, those dashing chaps who presumably hop all over Europe, Asia, Africa and points between, hobnobbing with influential persons, catching wars on the wing and rushing madly every few minutes to cable home the latest hot news. If such is the case, then Walter Wanger’s own special Foreign Correspondent, which arrived at the Rivoli last night, should be the particular favorite of a great many wonder-eyed folk. For into it Director Alfred Hitchcock, whose unmistakable stamp the picture bears, has packed about as much romantic action, melodramatic hullabaloo, comical diversion and illusion of momentous consequence as the liveliest imagination could conceive.

Never, we venture to suspect, has there been an American news scout abroad who got himself so fantastically involved in international monkey-shines as does Mr. Hitchcock’s bewitched and bewildered Joel McCrea. And never, we know for a fact, has Mr. Hitchcock let his flip fancy roam with such wild and reckless abandon as he does in the present case. Instead of a young reporter covering Europe methodically for his sheet, Mr. Hitchcock is giving us a picture of Europe—or, at least, a small but extremely sinister sub-sector of same—doing its most devious best to cover and destroy Mr. McCrea. And although this does not abuse the romantic conception of a correspondent’s career it does make for some oddly exciting and highly improbable shenanigans.

Improbable? Well, after all, no one expects probability in a Hitchcock picture. The secret of the fellow’s success is his command of the least expected [and] his use of the explosive surprise which often verges upon the absurd. Usually he manages to keep things moving with such fascinating rapidity that he never goes over the edge, but this time he comes perilously close. With the news-hawk hopelessly entangled in a monstrous spy plot, beyond his control or even his comprehension; with Mr. Hitchcock trotting out some rather obvious old tricks of suspense and diabolically piling on the trouble, the patron is likely to suspect that his leg is being deliberately pulled. Even Mr. McCrea, in a desperate moment, yelps helplessly, ‘The one thing everybody forgets is that I’m a reporter!’

Obviously, it is unfair to reveal the plot of a Hitchcock picture. So the most we can tell you about this one is that it casts a young police reporter, sent to Europe in August, 1939, because his publisher believes ‘a crime is hatching over there,’ right bang in the middle of a big ‘fifth column’ plot in London; sets him legging after a kidnapped Dutch statesman and in turn brings the Nazi agents down on him. There is much flesh-creepy business, much genuinely comical by-play and a generous interlarding of romance. And it reaches a fantastic climax on the wing of a shell-wrecked transatlantic plane in mid-ocean. Some story!

No one but Hitchcock would dare to whip up a picture like this and for those who can take their sensationalism without batting a skeptical eye it should be high-geared entertainment. The cast is uniformly good, especially in the minor roles, and some of the photographic sequences are excellent—especially one in an old Dutch windmill. Only Robert Benchley, who plays a broken-down bowler-and-cane type of London correspondent, tends too heavily toward travesty—just a shade too heavily. And that is the lone inclination which Foreign Correspondent could most becomingly do without.” –Bosley Crowther (The New York Times, August 28, 1940)

His derogatory commentary about Robert Benchley’s performance seems unfair and does not extend to most of the other reviews written on the film.

One wonders what Selznick thought when he heard about the film’s various Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, B&W Art Direction, and Special Effects). The film would be in direct competition with Rebecca (which was produced by Selznick)! Whatever his reaction may have been, it was soon remedied when Rebecca took home the golden statue.

While many of the propaganda films from this era have aged awkwardly, Hitchcock’s thriller still manages to engage modern audiences. Donald Spoto shares this opinion and elaborates:

“…Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent has best withstood the years, and even after just one viewing, the picture clearly reveals concerns beyond its concluding propaganda statement (tacked on by producer Walter Wanger). Charles Bennett’s and Joan Harrison’s screenplay is adventurous and entertaining, and the brilliant production design by William Cameron Menzies made for a film of astonishing visual complexity. In its meticulous structure, its disarming humor and its multi-leveled humanity, Foreign Correspondent remains without a doubt a Hitchcock Masterwork.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Foreign Correspondent is not as well known as other Hitchcock films, but this should not be interpreted as a sign of inferiority. The film is thoroughly enjoyable and contains some amazing sequences that stand amongst director’s most iconic set pieces.

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The Presentation:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion has always packaged their discs in an attractive manner, but this release is one of their most beautiful presentations to date. The box features a spectacular cover illustration designed by Patrick Leger (and designed by F. Ron Miller). A booklet is also included and features an essay by James Naremore that is entitled “The Windmills of War.”

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Box Set Art 1

Box Set Art 2

Box Set Art 4

The menus are attractive and are in the same style as other Criterion titles and features music and ambiance from the film.

Menu 1

Everything about this release is presented with an elegance that is sure to delight cinemaphiles. This is by far the best presentation that any Hitchcock film has ever received on Blu-ray (so far).

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Foreign Correspondent is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:37.1. On widescreen televisions black bars will appear on the left and right hand sides of the image to maintain the proper screen format. This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics scanner from the 35mm original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices warps, and jitter were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, noise management, and flicker.” –The Criterion Collection

Criterion’s meticulous work on this transfer has paid off. To say that this 1080P transfer is a step above the previous Warner Brothers release (available on DVD) is a bit of an understatement. Much of the damage evident in the older release has miraculously disappeared and there is more information on all four sides of the frame due to the accurate 1:37.1 aspect ratio. The picture clarity is superb and contrast is beautifully rendered. One notices details and textures that haven’t been evident on any previous home video format.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

“The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.” –The Criterion Collection

The sound quality has also been notably improved over the previous Warner Brothers release of the film. The disc’s uncompressed Mono mix sounds extremely clean and one must strain to hear a slight amount of hiss, which is really the only freckle on the face of this track.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Dick Cavett Show – (1:02:06)

Dick Cavett Show Logo

In 1972, Alfred Hitchcock was a guest on The Dick Cavett Show and the resulting interview is one of the most entertaining and informative television interviews with the director that this reviewer has ever seen. It is nice to finally see it featured on home video.

Dick Cavett Show Screenshot

Visual Effects in Foreign Correspondent – (18:57)

Special effects expert, Craig Barron provides an extremely in-depth analysis of the special features included in the film. Viewers are not only told but are also shown how the various effects were achieved.

Hollywood Propaganda and World War II – (25:19)

Mark Harris discusses the background of propaganda films and elaborates on the political atmosphere that surrounded their creation. He also gives a rather detailed account of the origins and production of Foreign Correspondent. It is a very compelling addition to the disc and should delight fans of the film.

Theatrical Trailer – (2:23)

This trailer for Foreign Correspondent is one of the more interesting trailers from the era.

Have You Heard? The Story of Wartime Rumors

One of the more interesting and unusual items on this disc is this1942 Life magazine “photo-drama” by Alfred Hitchcock. Life explained the essay in a short letter to their readers:

LIFE ESSAY - BTS

“From Stephen Early, [White House press] secretary to President Roosevelt, recently came the suggestions that LIFE tell a picture story of wartime rumors and the damage they are liable to do. In accordance with this request, the editors asked Alfred Hitchcock, famed Hollywood movie director, to produce such a story, with LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon as his cameraman. When Mr. Hitchcock graciously agreed, a script was prepared, the director picked his characters from the ranks of movie professionals and LIFE’s Los Angeles staff, and shooting commenced in Hollywood.

Have You Heard? is the result of their cooperation in photo-dramatization. A simply sexless story, it shows how patriotic but talkative Americans pass along information, true or false, until finally deadly damage is done to their country’s war effort. One false rumor is silenced by a man who later is unwittingly responsible for starting a true rumor which ends in a great catastrophe. Moral: Keep your mouth shut.” –Life Magazine

The director even makes one of his cameo appearances!

 LIFE ESSAY - Hitchcock CAMEO

This is an extremely interesting addition to the disc that adds an incredible amount of value.

1946 Radio Adaptation of Foreign Correspondent – (25:07)

Joseph Cotton stars in this interesting radio adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film. The story has been gutted like a fish and restructured to accommodate the much shorter length of the radio program, but this is an interesting companion piece to the film.

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Final Words:

Criterion deserves to be thanked and congratulated for their wonderful efforts. This release goes beyond offering a great transfer of a great film. It also contains one of the most impressive supplemental packages available on any Hitchcock related Blu-ray release. The included 2-disc DVD set is also a very welcome addition to this package.

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The Criterion Collection’s Foreign Correspondent page:

http://www.criterion.com/films/27692-foreign-correspondent

Review by: Devon Powell

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Blu-ray Review: Rebecca

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Distributor: MGM Home Entertainment / 20th Century Fox

Release Date: January 24, 2012

Region: Region Free

Length: 131 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC, 37.39 Mbps)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English SDH

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 37.39 Mbps

SET -Front

Notes: This title is also available both individually and as part of The Premiere Collection boxed set (both with different cover art) in the DVD format, and was given an incredible release in the same format by The Criterion Collection.

This Blu-ray disc is also available as part of a three film set entitled, The Classic Collection.

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“Well, it’s not a Hitchcock picture; it’s a novelette, really. The story is old fashioned. There was a whole school of feminine literature at the period, and though I’m not against it, the fact is the story is lacking in humor.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Most of the contemporary critics and scholars tend to agree that the film belongs more to Selznick than to the director. In, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Donald Spoto writes:

“Hitchcock’s first American film won David O. Selznick the Oscar as producer of the best film of 1940. In fact, it’s more a Selznick film than it is Hitchcock. Depending on your mood, it’s either impossibly dated, woefully prolix as well as comically overstated every step of its long way – or it’s deliciously entertaining, the kind of gothic romantic hokum they don’t make anymore. Or both…”

While this is certainly a valid opinion, it would be a mistake to ignore the fact that Hitchcock’s fingerprints can be found throughout the length of the film. Hitchcock was even interested in purchasing the rights to Daphne du Maurier’s source novel while he was still working in England but the cost of the property was prohibitive. Something about the material must have appealed to Hitchcock’s sensibilities considering the fact that the film contains elements that would appear again in Hitchcock’s later work.

It is my personal belief that what works in the film seems to belong more to Hitchcock than to Selznick. This may be an oversimplification, but Selznick’s insistence on fidelity created a more literary melodrama that is indeed more prolix than is typical of a director who prefers to tell his stories visually. Another unfortunate side effect of Selznick’s meddling is the sometimes overwrought and syrupy score by the talented Franz Waxman. Selznick obviously didn’t trust Hitchcock’s wonderful visuals to make their point and musical punctuation overwhelms what might have been poignant subtleties. The production values also seem to belong to Selznick. Rebecca has a gloss that is tonally different than even the glossiest of Hitchcock’s later films. Whether this is a good or a bad thing will depend on the viewer.

Rebecca is required viewing and marks an extremely important benchmark in not only Hitchcock’s career but also his artistic evolution. The stormy production created by a thunderous clashing of two giant egos resulted in more than a great film. It resulted in the creative growth of an already brilliant director.

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The Presentation:

2.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is contained in the standard Blu-ray case with reasonably attractive cover art. It is nothing earth-shattering, but the artwork is more attractive than MGM’s DVD release of the same title.

There is no menu on the disc. To access the special features or change the audio settings, one must do so while the film is already playing. This is rather bothersome and terribly inconvenient. Some people might not mind this issue, but this film deserves a much better presentation.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The 1080P transfer looks surprisingly accurate on almost every level. Contrast is lovely with admirable shadow details. Black levels are fairly rich and accurate as well. The transfer also seems to maintain the film’s natural layer of grain which enhances the cinematic look of this classic. The picture is very often quite soft, but this was the trend of the day and the look served David O. Selznick’s sensibilities. There is also occasional dirt and scratches on the source print that keep this transfer from being perfectly pristine. However, these issues are never distracting.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The 24-bit 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio track serves the film well and seems to accurately represent the intentions of the filmmakers. The now antiquated soundtrack seems to be free of the hiss and pops that one comes to expect with older films. The lossless mono mix is certainly the strongest track that Rebecca has ever been given on home video.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Commentary by Richard Schickel

Mr. Schickel’s commentary is rather sparse and he seems to be rather bored as he mumbles through this particular track. He does not say very much and what he does say usually isn’t rich with information (although there are a few minor exceptions).

The Making of Rebecca – (SD) – (28:08)

Film historians discuss the uneasy relationship between David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock during the making of the film. It offers more generalized “behind the scenes” information than many of the more comprehensive documentaries of its kind, but there is enough information to make the viewing experience rich and rewarding. This is probably the best supplemental feature on the disc.

The Gothic World of Daphne Du Maurier – (SD) – (19:02)

This is an extremely interesting look at the author of the film’s source novel. While one cannot claim that this featurette is particularly comprehensive, it does provide enough information to increase one’s understanding and appreciation of Rebecca.

Screen Tests – (SD) – (9:07)

While it is nice to have a few of the screen tests made during the casting period of Rebecca, it is disappointing to note that there are many screen tests that are simply not included here. The Criterion Collection’s amazing 2 disc DVD release of Rebecca included quite a few tests that are not included on the MGM releases. Criterion saw fit to include test footage of 5 different actresses (Margaret Sullavan, Vivien Leigh, Anne Baxter, Loretta Young, and Joan Fontaine).

MGM includes some of the footage from Margaret Sullavan’s test and one of Vivien Leigh’s screen tests (which includes Laurence Olivier). There is quite a bit of footage of both of these actresses included on the Criterion release that is not included on this disc. I must admit to being a little disappointed by this.

However, the footage that MGM has seen fit to include is extremely interesting and enlightening.

Hitchcock Audio Interview with François Truffaut – (9:15)

These interview clips may sound familiar to those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview with Hitchcock, but it should remain interesting regardless. This audio-only feature plays over a blank black screen.

Hitchcock Audio Interview with Peter Bogdanovich – (4:20)

This is a brief excerpt of Hitchcock’s interview with Peter Bogdanovich. Hitchcock is always interesting and this is no exception. Again, the audio plays over a blank black screen. The interview is not as great (or as comprehensive) as Truffaut’s, but it is always nice to listen to Hitchcock as he discusses his films.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2:22)

This trailer seems to be a re-release trailer for the film instead of the one used for its original release. It is always nice to see vintage trailers included on a disc and this is no exception.

Isolated Music and Effects Track

This feature allows audiences to experience the film with only the music and sound effects.

1938 Orson Welles Radio Play – (59:35)

1941 Cecil B. DeMille Radio Play – (58:31)

1950 Radio Play (w. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh) – (1:00:22)

These radio plays are interesting, but they have nothing on the actual film. The beginnings of these programs include a list of credits and then the audio plays over a blank black screen.

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Final Words: 

Fans will want to hold on to their Criterion discs for the wealth of supplements included on that release, but they should also welcome the two short documentaries that are provided on this disc. This Blu-ray release is a substantial upgrade from previous releases in terms of picture and sound quality and earns an easy recommendation.

Review by: Devon Powell