At Random: Oscar season helps fight winter gloom

In that gray time between Christmas and spring, Oscar season helps brighten the days. Busy with work and family, my wife and I rarely get to the local cineplex, but we try to see at least four movies a year at our neighborhood theater — enough to have a passing acquaintance with the Academy contenders. With the Oscars as with the Super Bowl, it helps to have someone to root for when the competition unfolds.

Oscar night itself is a colossal bore for me. All awards ceremonies — even the ones in which I’ve had a chance of taking home a trophy or plaque myself — seem like an exercise in tedium.

I much prefer to watch “31 Days of Oscar,” a month-long film festival on Turner Classic Movies that features Academy Award contenders from the Hollywood vaults. My wife records the best of them, hoarding movies for winter weekends the way some people stack cords of firewood against the threat of cold.

Start watching most of these classics, and you feel compelled to finish them, which is why, I suppose, they’re so celebrated in the first place.

On a recent weeknight when we should have behaved responsibly and gone to bed, we stayed up much too late until the credits rolled on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent.” When Hitchcock made the movie in 1940, as Europe lapsed into war and the conflict threatened America, Gary Cooper turned down the role of leading man.

Cooper thought that thrillers were a bit beneath him, a common Hollywood attitude before Hitchcock elevated the genre to an art form. One of the biggest pleasures of “Foreign Correspondent,” in fact, is watching Hitchcock work out some of the techniques that set the gold standard for cinematic suspense.

Like so many Hitchcock projects, “Foreign Correspondent” features a lively set of cliffhanger scenarios for the hero to overcome. With everything from a plane crash to an ominous windmill, the movie plays out like a round of miniature golf — one lively obstacle after another, the game complicating into a contest that leaves no margin for error.

Joel McCrea, who embraced the part that Cooper declined, plays an American journalist who takes an assignment in Europe, where he tangles with Nazi agents. The most memorable scene in the movie comes in the final moment, when McCrea’s character, broadcasting from London as the German bombs fall, alerts U.S. listeners to the coming storm:

“It’s as if the lights were all out everywhere, except in America. Keep those lights burning, cover them with steel, ring them with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them. Hello, America, hang on to your lights: they’re the only lights left in the world!”

Maybe someone will make a speech that good on Oscar night next Sunday, but I doubt it.