It seems as though I have a dislike for Hitchcock’s style. With eleven of his movies under my belt, I have the data to say, with little extrapolation, that the later the movie the less I like it: The Birds was a grand disappointment; Vertigo was dependent on the twist, the acting, and its grittiness; North by Northwest only held my interest so long as I anticipated the famous blue and yellow scene which was a challenge to make suspenseful. In mid-career he made some great movies, Rear Window or I Confess perhaps being the best of them and Rope the most faux. Early in his career, though, he made the enjoyable 39 Steps, and the movie I watched this evening—Foreign Correspondent.
Foreign Correspondent is a straightforward investigative-reporter film in which we are allowed to see the game before the game is up. Not only are we privy to the gentle insinuations of Hitchcock’s low-key direction, but it doesn’t take long for us to be left alone in a room eavesdropping on the conspirators of the plot, which is a bid to force secret treaty information from a signee of the treaty before general war breaks out in Europe, and we learn what the protagonist will spend his time trying to discover. The good characters are good, the bad are bad, and the ambivalent man is sympathetically so. This simplicity of characters and genre goes a long way toward making the twists and chases unambiguously enjoyable and lets the audience settle back and revel in the pursuit without having the unsettling feeling that the girl will prove a tramp or the hero a shyster. Perhaps the film is blessed by its timing: released in 1940, between the beginning of the war and the entrance of America, it knows who the enemy is and isn’t jaded or calloused.
The forthright story is ably accompanied by deft camerawork. The shots are elegant, and nearly all the work lucid. I don’t know that Hitchcock succeeded in taking the elegance of his early work to the full-spectrum color of his later films, but here, in this film, he is certainly in his element, and the sureness of his camera, which never moves unnecessarily, is a tribute to his grasp of his art. The disconcerting camera angles of his later movies are perhaps foreshadowed, but not indulged, while his ability to place the action firmly in concrete places is superb. There is, it must be said, an unfortunate sequence in a windmill which fails to transcend the set: the lighting in the mill is wrong, the geometries of sight are off, and stairs initially sturdy enough for a man running up them to be unheard by men directly beneath are then loud enough for a man in another room surrounded by the moving mill gears to hear men walking up the stairs. The distancing effect of this failure is particularly unfortunate since the scene concludes the only lengthy chase sequence in the film, but the scene does redeem itself somewhat by being a fitting fusion of the surreal with the mystifying conclusion of the sequence.
One of the real pleasures of this film is the love story. It is understated and a little abrupt, but it fits so neatly into the plot development that it is charming. Much of the dramatic progression and our sympathy for all involved depends on its course so that although it seems as though it should not hold much weight in this tale of the coming of war, it plays the perfect sidekick.
How can I hold a dislike for Hitchcock’s style when I have found him so elegant and lucid? His lucidity, his ability to say what he intends, is only perfected as his makes further movies, but the elegance of his style suffers when he begins to use color. I don’t think he ever masters color and he is incapable of excluding distractions when he switches to it. As for the third element of style, individuality, as he develops, he lets his motifs (manipulative music, unsettling twists, odd angles, and overemphasis on the psychological element) have too much play. But if you watch the early Hitchcock you can see his genius unobscured by his eccentricities.
Foreign Correspondent is available on the Criterion Channel’s streaming service, and for rent from the Apple Store. I strongly recommend abandoning Netflix if you have it and getting a subscription to the Criterion Channel, but if you are only occasionally going to watch a movie, by all means spend a couple bucks and watch this wonderful movie.