The Best Movie Critic + thriller

Watch THIS Instantly: Foreign Correspondent

Alright, Netflixers. It’s time to get serious about your Netflix Watch Instantly viewing habits. Haven’t you seen the seventh season of Buffy enough times already? There are some fantastic lost classics on Watch Instantly right now. I’d like to highlight a pair of them, two movies which I’m guessing many of you might not see if not for a direct recommendation. Though historically obscure for many contemporary movie watchers, World War II era British movies are a genre unlike anything you’ve seen before. The line between fiction, propaganda, and reality is more blurred in this era than perhaps any other time in motion picture history. Rather than making me feel uncomfortable or making the movies themselves feel dated, this boundary-blurring excites my heart and my brain in equal measure. For someone who loves movies, watching Ernest Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be or Sidney Gilliat’s Green for Danger will be one of your most rewarding filmic experiences. Though they are both worthy of parsing out, those aren’t the movies I want to talk about. I’m here to discuss a pair of movies – both available on Netflix Watch Instantly, mind you – that managed to be compelling fiction, on the one hand, and on the other, were produced with the expressed purpose of bullying the late-to-the-party United States into World War II.

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT

1940’s Foreign Correspondent, while not Alfred Hitchcock’s best (that would be The 39 Steps, IMO), nevertheless contains a surprising number of plot and thematic seeds that Hitch would carry with him almost fetishistically over the next 20-odd years of his directorial career. It’s damn fun to boot, and features two of the best set pieces in Hitch’s beyond iconic filmography. Foreign Correspondent not being one of the more noteworthy or well known entries in that lexicon, I was able to experience fresh one of the highlights of Hitchcock’s early career. Hitch had a very successful career making movies in London before immigrating to Hollywood. Though this is Hitch’s second Hollywood production (after Rebbecca), it still shares so much sensibility with what was coming out of London at the time, it might as well have been produced there.

If you’ve seen the more famous Hitchcock movies from the 50s and 60s the first thing you will notice is how much Foreign Correspondent foreshadowed 1959’s North by Northwest. Without giving away too much of this topsy-turvy plot, Foreign Correspondent follows New York journalist John Jones - awkwardly rechristened Huntley Haverstock by his editor in the movie’s first scene. John Jones is no name for a soon to be famous journalist, apparently. Huntley is sent to Europe on the eve of World War II to cover the events leading up to the war, and inadvertently finds himself the star witness in the murder of peace movement leader Van Meer (Albert Bassermann, who you may recognize as the set designer in The Red Shoes. What? You haven’t seen The Red Shoes!?!?!?). What’s more, Huntley follows the murderer and uncovers that he’s working for international spy ring, and that – gasp – the actual Van Meer isn’t dead but has in fact been kidnapped and tortured to reveal secrets that would be deadly in Nazi hands!

Huntley sneaks into the evil spy ring’s lair, a seemingly abandoned windmill in the Amsterdam countryside. The windmill sequence is the first sign that this isn’t just your average 1940s British thriller, but a harbinger of the Hitchcock we all know and love. Beautifully staged and devastatingly paced, it’s one of the joys of mostly forgotten cinema history. When Huntley brings the authorities back to investigate – shock – there’s nothing there. The place is empty! Sound familiar, North by Northwest fans? The events that follow are always surprising and engaging. The movie takes about 20 left turns that you will never see coming.

These left turns bring me to my next point. Foreign Correspondent’s finale is one of the most visceral experiences I’ve had watching a movie. I’m biased as I’ve seen it recently, but this sequence could be my favorite of Hitch’s. I’m going to include my thoughts on this scene in a paragraph at the end of this review. Please, please if you haven’t seen Foreign Correspondent, don’t spoil it for yourself.

The bombing of London and the general beginnings of World War II were gaining steam as Foreign Correspondent wrapped up production. Hence, Hitchcock scrapped the planned denouement and instead went with a direct and specific message about the then-isolationist U.S.’s role and responsibility in World War II. Is it a little shoehorned? Of course. One of the more fascinating things about movies from this era, however, is how amiable many moviemakers were about making what would otherwise be thrillers or dramas or comedies into message movies. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and many otherwise forgettable movies are still of interest today for being so ‘of the time.’ Luckily, Foreign Correspondent is both rigidly of its time and perennially thrilling, a combination that makes it more than worth revisiting.

Next up: Powell and Pressburger's The 49th Parallel!

-Ben

p.s. SPOILER TIME! Okay, have you watched the movie now? How about that plane crash, eh!? That sequence is absolute perfect in countless ways. I’ll try to count a few anyway. At the moment, I can’t think of any other movie that manages to pull such a complete left turn in its third act. Literally, the action that is the impetus for the movie’s climax – the plane crash – is total chance, and doesn’t really have anything to do with what has been motivating the characters over the course of the rest of the movie. I found myself exponentially more engaged with discovering how these characters adapted to their new circumstances than if the movie had built to the climax it appeared to be moving toward. That the main plot is satisfactorily resolved through this bizarre turn of events is just icing on the cake. I mentioned above that the plane crash was one of the most visceral experiences I’ve had watching a movie, and I stand by that even if the plane crash doesn’t seem terribly realistic. The way the events of the crash unfold seems very mundane, and that matter-of-factness disturbed me more than a loud, confusing plane crash would have. We do not lose track of what is happening to our characters for a single instant. Essentially, the viewer rides sidecar to sudden descent from the clouds into the ocean, and is present with the characters for every second of the ride. The effects work in this segment boggle the mind. I have no idea how they accomplished what they did.

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Watch THIS Instantly: Foreign Correspondent + thriller