Three Minutes with Alfred Hitchcock

17 02 2010

The other morning I saw a great example of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmmaking mastery. Before I got out of bed, I turned on the TV, flipped to TCM and tried to guess what movie was playing.

This morning, the movie was Hitch’s “Foreign Correspondent,” released in 1940 and starring Joel McCrea – not Hitch’s own favorite star, but one who I find pleasantly understated.

Here’s what I saw: On the steps of a town hall, on a rainy afternoon, a well-dressed young man greets a much older man. The older man is confused; he doesn’t seem to recognize the young man. As the young man – McCrea – talks, a photographer joins them, carrying a large camera. He asks to take the old man’s picture. The old man smiles and poses and – BANG! The photographer shoots him square in the forehead. That’s when we see that the photographer was carrying a pistol hidden against the camera. We get a quick shot of the old man’s shocked face, covered in blood, like that famous shot from Sergei Eisenstein’s film “Battleship Potemkin,” and then he collapses.

The photographer takes off into a crowd of people all carrying umbrellas; there’s a spectacular overhead shot of black umbrellas, and we track the killer’s path through the crowd as a ripple across the sea of umbrellas. He breaks out of the crowd, but McCrea is hot on his heels. The killer tries to get on a streetcar, then runs around the side of it and jumps into a waiting car. McCrea leans into another car driven by a man, with a woman passenger, and says something like, “Help me, please! That man just killed the mayor; we’ve got to catch him.” The people agree to help, and McCrea piles in. They take off after the killer.

Now McCrea’s car is on the open road. There’s some very funny banter about the driver’s name – it’s ffolkes, two Fs, neither of them capitalized. The driver explains that his mother changed it to lower case to honor the memory of his father, who had been executed. The killer starts to shoot at them, cutting off the conversation.

They speed through a suburb, where there’s a funny bit where an old man is trying to cross the road. He slowly takes a step into the street as the first car comes careening around a bend and straight at him, and he quickly retreats onto the sidewalk. Again, he starts to cross the street, but here comes McCrea’s car, and he beats it back to the curb. One more time – only this time he is chased back onto the curb by about a dozen police motorcycles.

They emerge from the town into a countryside with windmills. The killer’s car is nowhere in sight.

And that’s where I stopped watching. It couldn’t have been more than three or four minutes, but it was obvious to me that this was a Hitchcock picture, from the tip of the hat to Eisenstein to the marvelous visual gimmick of the umbrellas to the moments of humor amid the tension of the chase. Sure, the cars and fashions made it clear that the movie was from the 1940s, but it was Hitch’s style, from a visual and storytelling point of view.

“Foreign Correspondent” was only Hitch’s second movie after coming to Hollywood, and his confidence and inventiveness as a director are abundantly clear. And it isn’t even considered one of his best movies!

If you’re as interested in this film as I am, I’ll be writing about “Foreign Correspondent” in depth early in July.

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5 responses

17 02 2010
Ron Hobbs

Unfortuanately you missed the following sequence in the windmill as Joel McCrea discovers nazis in hiding. It is brillantly shot employing 3 sided sets (1st in film history), and beautifully suspenseful. The menacing, giant cogs looming over the players, eventually grab McCrea’s trenchcoat sleeve in a particlarily heart stopping moment, The mood is pure noir.

18 02 2010
adamphilips

I only missed it for the time being, Ron! Can’t wait to watch the rest of the film.

18 02 2010
Cheryl

Hey Adam- It seems like a schedule you are following to get these in in one year. Care to share it so some of us can follow along? And also, where can one watch/obtain the older films that are not rentable via DVD? My hubby was a film major in college and I think we might want to “play along” for discussion?

18 02 2010
adamphilips

Hi Cheryl — Posting a schedule seems like a good idea! I’ll have to do that one of these days, though first I’ll have to work it all out.

Pretty much every one of Hitchcock’s movies is on DVD in the US – there are a few collections that cover his early films. Also, you can find download some of the earliest movies (the ones in public domain) from http://www.archive.org/details/movies.

2 08 2010
Alfred Hitchcock Presents “Foreign Correspondent” « Hitchcock and Me

[…] wrote about a brief entry on “Foreign Correspondent” here, and now that I’ve seen the entire film, it’s clear that although the scene I wrote […]

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