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Foreign Correspondent

30 May

There’s something very attractive about movies involving or based around journalists, at least I think so anyway. Classic era Hollywood generally played up the positive, virtuous side of the profession, with a few exceptions of course, which isn’t altogether surprising given the number of writers who had a background in journalism. Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) follows in that tradition; it paints a heroic portrait of the newsman and his craft, though it’s not above slipping in the odd sly dig at the less ethical practices of reporters. Of course, it’s also an early wartime propaganda piece and a very effective one, never allowing the message to overwhelm or overtake the necessity of telling a good yarn. This success comes down to a happy blend of inventive direction, strong writing and memorable performances. If it’s not one of Hitchcock’s best known films that may well be due to the fact that it doesn’t have the depth or intensity of his other works. Despite the serious themes and events it depicts, the movie has an almost deceptive lightness of touch that keeps it entertaining.

The story tells of the exploits of one Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) – he’s saddled with the appalling pseudonym of Huntley Haverstock by his boss, but I’m going to refer to him throughout as Jones to avoid confusion – a down to earth crime reporter and a veritable babe in the woods when it comes to the labyrinthine complexity of pre-war European political chicanery. Nevertheless, that’s the assignment his boss, exasperated by the vague non-news coming his way, hands him: travel to a Europe teetering on the brink of the abyss and dig up something worth printing. So this “fresh, unused mind” arrives in London and, through sheer good fortune, ends up sharing a cab with Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), the Dutch politician said to hold the key to the volatile situation that’s brewing. The movie is essentially divided into three distinct segments: the opening London sequence playing up the humorous side and setting up what will follow; the lengthy mid-section in Holland, with its gradually darkening tone; and then a return to England for the climactic developments and revelations. The Dutch section contains some of the film’s best images and set pieces, including the famous assassination amid a sea of rain slicked umbrellas. It’s here that the pace really quickens and a half-comic car chase leads to another notable setup. Hitchcock is said to have decided to feature a scene with windmills simply because Holland is famous for having them. Whatever the truth of the origins of said sequence, it results in one of the most atmospheric and visually striking passages in the picture. Every drop of suspense is extracted from having Jones creep about the gloomy, twisting spiral staircase accompanied only by the grinding of the mill’s gears and the indistinct mutterings of the villains he’s spying on. While the intrigue thickens all around him, Jones also finds time to spar with and romance Carol Fisher (Laraine Day), the daughter of a renowned peace activist (Herbert Marshall). By the time the action returns to London, Jones has been identified as a threat and plans are laid to ensure his removal from the scene. This offers Hitchcock the opportunity to blend comedy and danger yet again as Jones, accompanied by one of the most genial hitmen in cinematic history (Edmund Gwenn), comes perilously close to taking a spectacular swan dive off a cathedral. The film climaxes with a well staged plane crash that is both technically impressive and satisfying as a resolution.

On the WB DVD of Foreign Correspondent there is an accompanying making-of documentary which makes the point that the film contains a number of visual motifs that would pop up again in later Hitchcock productions, notably in North by Northwest. As I mentioned in the introduction, I think this film is somewhat underrated since it appears, superficially at least, to be more of an adventure romp than the darker and more critically acclaimed movies Hitchcock was to make in the 50s. It’s true that it doesn’t delve into any especially complex psychology but it does showcase the director’s visual flair. Aside from the assassination and windmill scenes, there’s a beautifully composed section in the latter stages where the captive Van Meer is being tortured by the villains in a disused theatre in an attempt to extract the details of clause 27, the film’s MacGuffin. Hitchcock, and cameraman Rudolph Maté, creates an expressionistic setup that foreshadows the look of classic film noir to emphasise the evil and menace Jones and his friends are up against; it even conjures up the slightly surreal image of a group of ghoulish theatre patrons watching the drama unfold before them. It’s also worth noting that producer Walter Wanger, for whom the director was working on loan, seems to have given Hitchcock greater freedom than was the case when he worked for Selznick – the film doesn’t display the kind of lush romanticism that David O encouraged. In addition to the look of the picture, its success is helped by a highly polished and sophisticated script. A whole battery of top flight writers were involved – Joan Harrison, Charles Bennett, Robert Benchley, James Hilton and an uncredited Ben Hecht – and all of them contributed to the smooth, cohesive and witty piece of work we see.

Apparently, Hitchcock originally wanted Gary Cooper for the role of Johnny Jones, but had to settle in the end for Joel McCrea. I can’t see any problem with that piece of casting as McCrea had the easy-going openness that the part demanded, and was able to walk the fine line between comic stooge and man of action. He’s entirely believable as the fish out of water, the no-nonsense crime reporter suddenly thrust into the middle of a huge political storm with nothing but his own wits to see him through. I thought Laraine Day was also fine as the romantic interest and handled both the lighter moments and the more serious stuff quite capably. The film benefits too from a large and talented supporting cast, Herbert Marshall and George Sanders providing a lesson in cinematic suavity. Marshall was handed a plum role as Stephen Fisher, the most complex and easily the most interesting character in the film. I feel he hit the right note at just about every stage and his performance turns out to be quite a moving one in the end. Albert Bassermann was nominated for an Oscar for the part of Van Meer (ultimately losing out to Walter Brennan in The Westerner) and it’s not to hard to see why; he brings a weariness and a kind of innocence to the role, and his key moment during the torture scene is almost hypnotic. As Rowley, the smiling killer, Edmund Gwenn seemed to be having a ball, his brief appearance adding a lovely touch of macabre humour to proceedings. And when it comes to humorous characterization, it’s impossible to ignore Robert Benchley’s turn as Stebbins, the dissipated London correspondent. His wit is as dry as one would expect of a man forced onto the wagon for health reasons, and he steals every scene he appears in.

The R1 DVD of Foreign Correspondent from Warners is a very nice presentation. The image is sharp and fairly clean and never displays any major flaws. In terms of extra features, the disc offers the half hour documentary that I mentioned earlier and the theatrical trailer. For a two hour movie, everything moves along at a terrific lick, never pausing for breath once the hero arrives in Europe. The only time you actually become conscious of the fact that this is really a propaganda piece is during the coda, and even that is done with style and doesn’t feel as contrived as can often be the case. Although this may not be one of Hitchcock’s better known movies it would be unfair to call it a minor work. It’s an incredibly stylish example of filmmaking that’s visually rich and just plain fun throughout. I rate it very highly.

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27 responses to “Foreign Correspondent

  1. Cavershamragu

    May 30, 2012 at 8:10 am

    Spot on Colin, definitely a film worth celebraing as one of the director’s most elaborate and entertaining ‘entertainments from his Hollywood years. It is odd how this Hitchcock movie gets forgotten about sometimes, though I also think that if he had only made films like this and Saboteur (ie superior topical thrillers), then his career would not be remembered as well as it is. I like McCrea anyway but his light but low key playing may be one of the reasons it is remembered less well, though I suspect the neglect is partly due to the fact that it was made for the independent Wanger, though it was clearly produced on a sizeable budget. I think the rights did change hands several times.

     
    • Colin

      May 30, 2012 at 8:42 am

      Hi Sergio. I think you’re right when you say only making films like this would have led to Hitchcock’s name meaning something else today. Ths kind of fare certainly wouldn’t have brought the critical plaudits that eventually came his way.

      I’m glad you mentioned Saboteur, as it’s another one that I’m very fond of. Again, it’s not a film that most people remember, in spite of its polish and scope. I think the wartime settings may play some part in that. Of course, the lack of a Cary Grant or James Stewart in the lead is probably significant too – McCrea and Cummings just don’t have the same familiarity to those outside film buff circles.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        May 30, 2012 at 9:46 am

        Also, we’ve got so used to the idea of Hitchcock only working with major stars so that on those occasions when this was not the case the impact can be quite noticeable. Which is not really fair to the film necessarily.

         
        • Colin

          May 30, 2012 at 9:59 am

          Absolutely. I’d say Lifeboat is another example of one of his movies that has been unfairly neglected, and the absence of big stars seems like it may be a factor there too.

           
  2. Randy Johnson

    May 30, 2012 at 8:48 am

    Great post. I’m a fan of McCrea’s westerns, seen a lot of them, though not much else. Another one I need to be on the lookout.

     
    • Colin

      May 30, 2012 at 8:55 am

      Hi Randy. McCrea was unquestionably one of the top western stars and specialized in that genre in the latter part of his career.
      However, he did great work in all kinds of genres earlier on. Apart from this movie, he was excellent in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels and, of course, in The Most Dangerous Game.

       
  3. vinnieh

    May 30, 2012 at 9:04 am

    I am a huge fan of Hitchcock, but have never got round to watching this film. Your review is excellent and very informative and I will definately try to watch it when I get the chance.

     
    • Colin

      May 30, 2012 at 9:12 am

      Thanks Vinnie. It’s always a pleasure to introduce someone to a movie or remind them of one they may have neglected. If you’re a fan of Hitchcock’s work then I don’t imagine Foreign Correspondent will disappoint.

       
  4. Muriel

    May 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    Thank Goodness Gary Cooper didn’t take the part! it would have been ruined.

     
    • Colin

      May 30, 2012 at 5:51 pm

      Yes. I’m a great fan of Cooper, but don’t think the role would have been right for him at all. McCrea was believable as a streetwise reporter while Cooper’s laconic style would have been odd to say the least.

       
  5. le0pard13

    May 30, 2012 at 7:26 pm

    Great article on an under appreciated Hitchcock film, Colin! You certainly gave the film its due, and with good bit of panache in your write-up. You’ve made me want to tee this one up and re-watch it again, perhaps this time with my kids (since they so enjoyed ‘North by Northwest’ so much a while back). BTW, my copy came with the 2004 Hitchcock Signature Collection that I lovingly hang on to, even as more of AH’s films are being released to Blu-ray these days. Well done, my friend.

     
    • Colin

      May 30, 2012 at 7:54 pm

      Thanks very much Michael. It may be one of Hitchcock’s lighter movies but it’s capable of drawing you in and holding onto your attention.
      Good on you for introducing your kids to Hitch, and it’s great to hear they enjoyed the experience. Just goes to show that older movies can have an appeal for a younger audience.

       
  6. le0pard13

    May 30, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    Reblogged this on It Rains… You Get Wet and commented:
    As my good friend Colin (AKA Livius) of the Riding the High Country blog, states about an under appreciated film, “this may not be one of Hitchcock’s better known movies it would be unfair to call it a minor work. It’s an incredibly stylish example of filmmaking that’s visually rich and just plain fun throughout.” I’m reblogging his post of today, here.

     
    • Colin

      May 30, 2012 at 7:57 pm

      Very cool! Thanks.

       
  7. Paula

    May 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    Thank you for this great review of one of my favorite films ever, plenty of detail that I didn’t know. I think the fact that I can’t even imagine this film with Cooper as Jones indicates McCrea’s perfect suitability for the role :)

     
    • Colin

      May 30, 2012 at 9:57 pm

      Thanks for that Paula.
      It is hard to imagine anyone else other than McCrea as Johnny Jones, isn’t it? The fact he could play this kind of role with such ease and carry off his numerous western characterizations indicates just how versatile and talented he was.

       
  8. Rod Croft

    June 1, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    While modern technology have made today’s generation of movie watchers blase’ with regard to technical effects, the final plane crash in “Foreign Correspondent” was considered, in its day, to be innovative, and something of which Hitchcock was most proud.

    In an interview with Hitchcock in the mid to late sixties, he appeared to be rather perplexed that no-one had enquired of him, ” Were you all drowned in the shot? How was it done?” He then proceeded to explain in great detail how he achieved this effect.

    Hitchcock also revealed that Walter Wanger had originally wanted him to base his film on Vincent Sheean’s book “Personal History” but Hitchcock thought it “ridiculous as the basis of a film” and so they “started from scratch on a brand new idea”, with “Foreign Correspondent”, the result.

    Joel McCrea’s versatillty as an actor is somewhat overlooked today, as, in his later career he felt more comfortable in Westerns and restricted his films to that genre.

    Colin, thanks for re-visiting a great Director and a great actor in their early careers.

     
    • Colin

      June 1, 2012 at 9:08 pm

      Hi there Rod.
      I probably should have made more of the finale of the film. As you say, it’s technically impressive and I reckon it still doesn’t look too shabby, even taking modern advances into account.
      As always, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

       
  9. Laura

    June 2, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    Very much enjoyed your post, especially as I count this underappreciated film as my favorite of all Hitchcock’s films. I’m a huge McCrea fan, and I love the film’s light touch and humor, especially as supplied by Sanders and Benchley, mixed with a seemingly endless supply of remarkable set pieces, from the umbrellas in the rain to the windmills to the plane crash. The film seems to be a bit of a crossover, transitioning from his British style into his American films, and I like the “feel” of the film which is reminiscent of his movies like THE LADY VANISHES. I’m always a bit surprised that this film seems to be neglected at times when it comes to discussions of Hitchcock.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

     
    • Colin

      June 2, 2012 at 11:03 pm

      Hi Laura. I think it’s very reasonable to view this picture as a transitional one. There is something of the spirit of The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps on show. The fact that so much of the action is set in London adds to the British feel of the whole thing too.

      Good to see more postive comments about McCrea, and Benchley and Sanders provide just the right kind of humour – it’s genuinely funny and never feels forced or shoehorned in.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

       
  10. Jeff Flugel

    June 3, 2012 at 4:22 am

    Coming late to the party, Colin, but I wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed your review of this film, probably my favorite of Hitchcock’s early career. It may not have deep themes or other meaty stuff to chew on compared to many of his other efforts, but Foreign Correspondent is an expert lighthearted thrill machine all the same, and that’s enough of an achievement in my book.
    In fact, the movie is thrilling just as much for Hitchcock’s technique as for its story. I agree with Laura that McCrea brings a nice, breezy tone to the hero role; I’m always a little surprised Hitchcock never worked with him again (think how much better Saboteur might have been with McCrea instead of Robert Cummings, for example).

    I didn’t know that Walter Brennan lost out to Bassermann for the part of Van Meer. I think that was a wise decision; as much as I love Brennan, I think he’d not be as believable. The movie as a whole is just so well cast. I wholeheartedly agree re: Herbert Marshall…he’s very, very good as the sympathetic traitor, and sweet old Edmund Glenn is a hoot as the hired killer.

    And I think that plane crash is still pretty effective.

     
    • Colin

      June 3, 2012 at 9:47 am

      Hi Jeff. Yes, McCrea could have played the lead in Saboteur quite easily, although I don’t mind Cummings in the part.

      Re the Brennan/Bassermann business: Maybe I didn’t word that so well, but the two men were not vying for the same part. Both were nominated by the Academy for Best Supporting Actor – Brennan for his role in The Westerner and Bassermann for his in Foreign Correspondent. Brennan ultimately took the Oscar home.

       
  11. Jeff Flugel

    June 3, 2012 at 10:30 am

    D’oh! No, Colin, you worded that quite clearly, I simply misread it. My bad…blame it on Internet fatigue. Now that I have my facts correct, I have to say that the Academy chose wisely. As good as Bassermann was in Foreign Correspondent, Brennan’s Judge Roy Bean is one for the record books.

     
    • Colin

      June 3, 2012 at 10:51 am

      No worries, I’ve had similar experiences myself.

      Anyway, I agree Brennan fully deserved the award. His part in The Westerner is both sgnificant and compelling. Bassermann’s performance is certainly memorable but comparatively minor when viewed against Brennan’s take on Roy Bean.

       

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