New on Video: ‘Foreign Correspondent’

Foreign 1Foreign Correspondent
Written by Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
USA, 1940

As if his British films weren’t evidence enough of his talent, Alfred Hitchcock made quite the impression when he came to Hollywood in 1940. His first picture in the states, Rebecca, was nominated for Best Picture at the 1941 Academy Awards. So was his second, Foreign Correspondent, also released in 1940. While Rebecca would ultimately win, many – then and now – consider the achievement as belonging more to producer David O. Selznick than to the director. This is not without some justification. Though Rebecca bears more than a few notably Hitchcockian touches, between the two features, Foreign Correspondent looks and feels more appropriately like Hitchcock’s previous and later works. The Criterion Collection, recently very kind to Hitchcock on Blu-ray, now gives this latter feature a suitably well-rounded treatment, with a documentary on the film’s visual effects, an hour-long interview with Hitchcock from The Dick Cavett Show, Joseph Cotten’s radio adaptation, an excellent essay by scholar James Naremore, and two features that focus on the film’s war-time resonance.

America had not yet entered World War II when Foreign Correspondent was released, and there’s more than a little insinuation – particular toward the end of the picture – that maybe it should. Set in Europe and following essentially just one American character, the propaganda isn’t as explicit as in films being made in more directly affected European countries at the time. Even though the movie opens with a dedication to real foreign correspondents (the “eyes and ears of America”), the audience is initially at a distance from the global troubles. There’s something happening Over There, and it’s probably not good, but for now, let’s just keep an eye on it. This is basically the sentiment of the New York newspaper editor Mr. Powers, played by Harry Davenport. He’s suspicious about this Hitler fellow, his rise to power, and the inevitable war that’s no doubt soon to follow. On the other hand, crime reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is less concerned. Asked what he knows about the crisis in Europe, he responds, “What crisis?” The editor needs a man in Europe reporting on the situation, but he doesn’t want someone sending out indefinite telegrams. He wants facts, not “a guessing game.” Despite his international ignorance, Jones might be the man for the job. He’s an average guy who recently beat up a policeman while covering a story (“Sounds ideal for Europe,” says Powers). He seems careless, but he’s apparently good at what he does.

Jones gets the assignment – give him an expense account and he’ll cover anything, he quips. Under the alias “Huntley Haverstock,” Jones first arrives in London to interview Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), a man who may hold the key to European peace talks. Van Meer is associated with the Universal Peace Party, which is headed by Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall). This being a Hitchcock film, and Hitchcock knowing that it often takes two to tango in thrillers (from The 39 Steps to Family Plot, an opposite-sex pair of protagonists is frequently prominent in his work), Fisher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day), soon catches Jones’ eye. They exchange barbs and banter; they are, of course, clearly in love. Hitchcock somewhat recreates his proposal to his wife when Jones and Carol talk marriage as they’re huddled together during a cold, damp, and bumpy boat ride. In real life, when Hitchcock asked his wife to marry him she burped due to seasickness; he took that as a yes.

Before he knows it, Jones is in Amsterdam and Van Meer is apparently assassinated in a wonderfully staged sequence that concludes with a swarm of Foreign 4umbrellas shot from above, enveloping the crime scene (Brian De Palma thought this overhead shot looked good, too; see The Bonfire of the Vanities). But when Jones, Carol, and a newfound colleague, ffolliott (George Sanders), follow the assassin into the countryside, the assailant’s car disappears. Jones investigates and discovers the real Van Meer hidden in a windmill. The captors escape with the hostage and Jones is left trying to convince others of what he saw. Fortunately, Carol believes him. However, unbeknownst to both of them at the time, her love and allegiance to Jones is going to get dramatically tested by a life – and a father – she previously thought she knew. Their relationship faces conflict as all involved attempt to unravel the mysteries of who’s up to what and to what aim. In the screenplay’s successful alternation between the points of view of Jones, Carol, and Fisher, emotional tension is well-integrated as the audience gradually knows more than each of the characters, and we’re left to suspensefully wonder when they too will ultimately get the full breadth of information.

Van Meer, for his part, knows something about a mysterious and apparently quite critical clause in the peace treaty, and that, as the famous Hitchcock “MacGuffin,” is what drives the film’s narrative on a basic, superfluous level. More important is the general scheming and suspicion surrounding those who make war, those who profit from it, and those who have the power to manipulate it. Jones is clearly in over his head in this world of foreign intrigue, but due in large part to Joel McCrea’s humorous charm, it’s tremendous fun to watch him go from the wrong man for the job to the man who knows too much.

Aside from McCrea’s nonchalant performance (it’s hard to imagine original choice Gary Cooper in the role), Foreign Correspondent also contains other strong comedic features throughout. There are more subtle bits of amusement, such as the menacing baddies being obvious stand-ins for Nazis, though the word “Nazi,” or even “German,” is never used. There’s also Alfred Newman’s jaunty score which, in the beginning, keeps the film happily and lightly moving along. And the sudden death of a complaining woman near the end of the film is one of Hitchcock’s funniest and darkest inclusions. Perhaps more than anything though, it’s George Sanders who comically steals the show. He’s not our main hero, but he might be the most entertaining and appealing; he blends a sharp wit with a degree of daring that Jones doesn’t quite possess.

Known for stunning set pieces and action sequences, Hitchcock takes to the skies for Foreign Correspondent’s most famous special effects spectacular. Even if you do inadvertently see studio lights, the film’s concluding plane crash is pretty remarkable. Hitchcock goes into some detail about this scene during the Cavett interview, which, with the director being hilariously droll, is the most insightful and enjoyable bonus feature included.

Foreign 2Throughout the film, Hitchcock masterfully creates a number of other scenes that benefit considerably from their setting. The aforementioned assassination is brilliantly aided by the rain and necessary umbrellas, the search amidst the windmills gets much of its visual value from its unusual locale, and there are multiple scenes played out from great heights, all quite effectively shot (was Hitch already thinking of Vertigo?). In all of these sequences, the location is both visually striking and functional. It’s more than just a backdrop to the action: the umbrellas, the windmills, the hotel rooms, the towering cathedral each serve a crucial narrative purpose in addition to their cinematically potent presentation. Among his many other filmic talents, this use of place was one thing Hitchcock did better than almost anybody.

As informatively pointed out in “Hollywood Propaganda and World War II,” the interview with writer Mark Harris on this disc, the gestation of Foreign Correspondent did not begin with Hitchcock. The film was more the brainchild of maverick producer Walter Wanger. Ever socially and politically minded, Wanger took the film, which first got his interest in 1936, and added considerable topicality. The impending war in Europe was a hot-button issue in America prior to Pearl Harbor, with many feeling that isolationism was imperative. As production went on, Wanger did what he could to slightly sway this idea by bringing the film up to speed, with the latest real-world developments added when possible. This is generally minimal throughout the film, but it’s nonetheless done efficiently. It’s fascinating and terrifying to see characters balancing on the brink of war, in a precarious situation where there are looming blackouts and requisite planning based on the inevitability of destruction, yet there’s still time for drives in the country and touristy sightseeing.

Foreign 3Explicit propaganda is only brought in at the very end of the movie. It starts when America’s then-neutrality is somewhat mocked; during the film’s most hilarious scene, Jones attempts to secretly report to his paper about what has transpired (he’s not allowed to discuss such war matters aboard the American ship he’s calling from). The great Ben Hecht was brought in to write Jones’ final speech. Over the radio, Jones passionately pleads for America’s strength and perseverance in the face of the approaching war and the anticipated need for participation. Carol declares, “They’re listening in America, Johnny,” and he proceeds: “Don’t tune me out, hang on a while. This is a big story, and you’re part of it. It’s too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come, 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.”

As is pointed out on the disc, this wasn’t Hitchcock’s only war-related work. He made a number of shorts for the US and British governments, and films like Saboteur and Lifeboat are strongly connected to World War II dramatics, but this, in Mark Harris’ words, is the “closest thing he ever made to a message movie.” Be that as it may, with the filmmaker’s customary humor, characterizations, staging, editing tricks, and a variety of camera effects, Foreign Correspondent is quintessentially, and unmistakably, a classic Hitchcock movie, whatever its motives.

— Jeremy Carr

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