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.