Now Playing: Intolerable Cruelty
As one gets older it seems it gets easier to enjoy movies from eras older than oneself. Perhaps it's simply a case of having seen so much film that one looks past the outer, timebound attributes such as narrative conventions and acting styles, and enjoys the timeless qualities of effective storytelling via moving pictures. Of course, no director made it easier for later audiences to enjoy his works than Alfred Hitchcock, who knew exactly where the keys to movie-making lay, and made sure to use them. Evidence: FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940). This was like a Jason Bourne movie of its time; an intense, complicated rollercoaster ride of a thriller, moving across Europe as the protagonist reveals friends as enemies and even manages a bit of romance on the side. It's also a surprisingly funny movie, perhaps a deliberate wink at the fast-talking screwball comedies of the era from a Hitch who had recently arrived in Hollywood.
Twenty years ago I would have been bugged by things like how a car "disappears" when anyone can guess where it went, or how the death of a main character is overshadowed by the comedy of a lost hat. My long-running admiration of Joel McCrea (dating back to seeing Dead End Street on TV in the '70s) may have taken a hit from his performance here, while the back projection car rides would have caused repeated annoyance ("why didn't they just shoot it in a real car?").
Today--I don't really care about those things. I see them, but they don't really register, except as expressions of a contract between movie producer and audience that was different than from what it is now. Hitchcock certainly knew what a contemporary movie should look like, that's what made him Hitchcock. And instead of wasting time being irritated over things that were perfectly alright when they were made, I find myself thinking of the similarities between the Foreign Correspondent and Jason Bourne.
This is not a masterpiece from the Hitch, but it's one of his most action-packed and fastest-moving stories, which must have had people pinned to their seats in the grand old movie theatres. Comparisons have been made to North By Northwest, but that is a whole different era, and I would probably look more to The Thirtynine Steps for a sibling in the oeuvre. As for McCrea's performance, he's almost too adept at his part as the anti-intellectual man of action, and Hitchcock undermines his standing as main character by giving a British counterpart almost equal screen time during the second half, taking control of the plot with his ideas and analysis. Apparently Gary Cooper had been offered McCrea's part, which would have been interesting to see, but the most obvious choice to me is Cary Grant, as later Hitchcock movies demonstrate.
With McCrea somewhat off the bulls-eye and a fairly mundane cast for the rest, the Foreign Correspondent lacks a bit of the special Golden Era magic, a fact which again directs attention back to the swift direction, engaging script, and a brilliantly executed plane crash that must have been groundbreaking for its time. Special effects barely existed at the time, but the director managed to stage and shoot the long scene of the plane going down, crashing in the ocean, and surviving passengers clamoring on to a broken-off wing, in a way that is nail-biting still in 2013. Probably will be in 2113 as well. For those who want to "get into Hitchcock" there are better choices with an intellectual depth lacking here, but anyone with a moderate interest in old movies is likely to enjoy this proto-Jason Bourne action thriller. 7/10