FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940) – Walter Wanger Productions – Rating: ★★★★
B&W – 120 minutes – 1.37:1 aspect ratio
Principal cast: Joel McCrea (Johnny Jones/Huntley Haverstock), Laraine Day (Carol Fisher), Herbert Marshall (Stephen Fisher), George Sanders (scott ffolliott), Albert Bassermann (Van Meer), Robert Benchley (Stebbins), Edmund Gwenn (Rowley).
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by Walter Wanger
Cinematography by Rudolph Mate
Film Editing by Dorothy Spencer
Screenplay by Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison; additional dialogue James Hilton and Robert Benchley
Music by Alfred Newman
In the spring of 1939 Alfred Hitchcock left England for America, having signed an exclusive contract with producer David O. Selznick. Hitchcock knew he was going to be under Selznick’s thumb for a time, but he also knew that the loan-out clause in his contract would be mutually beneficial to himself and Selznick. Hitchcock’s services as director could be “loaned” to other film studios and producers, which would allow him to choose films that he wanted to make. At the same time, while Selznick directly paid Hitchcock’s salary of $2,500 a week, he charged other studios a loan-out fee of $7,500 a week, meaning that Selznick pocketed a cool five grand a week when Hitch was making movies for someone else. Thus began a pattern in Alfred Hitchcock’s early American period, where he made a film that he had to make, in order to make a film that he wanted to make. His first American film for Selznick productions, the film he had to make, was Rebecca. Upon completion of that movie, he was loaned to producer Walter Wanger, to make the film he wanted to make: Foreign Correspondent.
In many ways, Foreign Correspondent is the first American Hitchcock film. Certainly it was preceded by Rebecca, which is a very well-made movie. But Rebecca is as much Selznick’s picture as it is Hitchcock’s; it lacks many of the elements of suspense and humor which fans of Hitch’s British films had come to expect. Foreign Correspondent picks up right where The Lady Vanishes left off, full of spies and political intrigue. In The Lady Vanishes (1938) the enemy was only alluded to, but in Foreign Correspondent he is given a name. The movie is set in ’39, by which time the Nazis were on the march. Joel McCrea plays a crime reporter for a New York newspaper who is sent to Europe to get the “real story”. McCrea somewhat flippantly asks his boss if he should interview Hitler! Once McCrea gets to Europe he is introduced to several key players in the European peace movement, including the charming Albert Basserman as the elderly Van Meer, who may hold the key to European peace. Also involved are Stephen Fisher and his daughter Carol, played by Herbert Marshall and Laraine Day, and a couple of other reporters, played by George Sanders and Robert Benchley. The story structure is Hitchcock’s favorite; a spy story with several set pieces, moving from locale to locale (e.g. The 39 Steps, Saboteur, North by Northwest). The MacGuffin is the clause to a peace treaty which has been memorized by Van Meer. A group of spies that is secretly fomenting war in Europe fake Van Meer’s assassination, then secret him away to try and get him to disclose the secret clause. All the while Joel McCrea is searching for Van Meer, leaping from one adventure to another.
Signature set pieces: The first breathtaking sequence in the film takes place at Van Meer’s assassination, set in Amsterdam. Hitchcock shot the sequence on the back lot at Fox. The establishing shot is phenomenal; there are trolleys, cars, bicycles, horses, dozens of pedestrians, all in a pouring rain. This is the kind of shot that Hitchcock had wanted to make for years; now that he was in America he finally had the budget to do it. And he certainly got his money’s worth. The sequence finishes with the assassin fleeing into a crowd of umbrella-holding spectators, and Hitchcock’s signature overhead shot of the umbrellas being jostled as the assassin runs through.
Joel McCrea and company chase the assassin into the windmill strewn countryside, and the exterior and interior shots of the windmills are magnificent. The exterior shots combined a painted background with live foreground action and hold up very well today. The interior is beautifully designed and lit, with a look redolent of the German Expressionists that influenced Hitchcock early in his career.
After many further adventures, the film culminates in a sequence involving a plane over the ocean, a sequence that Hitchcock was clearly very proud of, for he spoke of it with great pride over thiry years later, sounding like a doting father. The sequence involves a full scale model of a plane, rear projection, and thousands of gallons of water. It is arguably one of the greatest technical feats captured on film at that time. Even more impressive is the fact that it is just as exciting to watch 75 years later.
Performance: Hitchcock originally wanted Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck for the leads, and thirty years later when he talked to Truffaut, Hitch was still disappointed that he didn’t get them. He didn’t entirely disparage Joel McCrea’s performance, but he had little positive to say. He called him the “next best thing” to Gary Cooper, and said McCrea “was too easygoing.” Hitch said of McCrea and Laraine Day that “I would have liked to have bigger star names.” Hitchcock loved having big stars in his movies; that’s one of the reasons he came to America in the first place. In this case though, I think the leads as cast are fantastic. Joel McCrea is pitch perfect in the role of the roving reporter who becomes involved in political intrigue. His easygoing nature is essential at the beginning of the film; by the end his experiences have toughened him, and prepared him for the inevitable conflict to come. McCrea and Day play off of each other very well. George Sanders is excellent, as always, as reporter Scott ffolliott. Herbert Marshall’s charming villain Fisher is essentially a prototype for the James Mason character in North by Northwest. Albert Basserman brought genuine humanity to his character, Van Meer. And let’s not forget Edmund Gwynn, one of Hitchcock’s favorite actors, who plays a small but juicy role as an assassin. All in all, a superb cast, with no missteps.
Recurring players: Herbert Marshall had earlier appeared in Murder! George Sanders had just appeared in Rebecca. Edmund Gwynn was also in The Skin Game, Waltzes from Vienna, and The Trouble with Harry. Frances Carson would have brief roles in Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt. Ian Wolfe played a very similar role in Saboteur. Charles Halton and Emory Parnell would have small parts in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Saboteur. Gerturde Hoffman, Donald Stuart and Hilda Plowright would appear in Suspicion. Gino Corrado also had a bit part in Rebecca. Elspeth Dudgeon would appear in The Paradine Case. Herbert Evans would have a bit part in Strangers on a Train. Sam Harris had several other uncredited roles for Hitch in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Saboteur, The Paradine Case and Dial M For Murder. Colin Kenny would appear in The Paradine Case and North by Northwest. Eily Malyon would appear briefly in Shadow of a Doubt. Henry Norton and George Offerman, Jr. also had bit parts in Saboteur. Ronald R. Rondell was in Rebecca and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Loulette Sablon would appear in To Catch a Thief. And William Yetter, Sr. would show up in Torn Curtain.
Where’s Hitch? This Hitchcock cameo is easy to spot, as Hitchcock, holding a newspaper, passes Joel McCrea on the street at about the 12:40 mark.
Academy Awards: Foreign Correspondent received 6 Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Albert Basserman), Cinematography, Art Direction, Original Screenplay, Special Effects. It lost in all categories. (Hitchcock’s Rebecca won Best Picture this same year.)
Screenplay: Producer Walter Wanger owned the rights to a book called Personal History by Vincent Sheehan, which was the starting point for this screenplay. By the time the screenplay was finished, it bore no resemblance to the book at all, so the book was not listed in the film’s credits. Hitchcock regulars Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison were the principal writers, but Robert Benchley (who also acts in the film) added some of his incomparable wit, just as his Algonquin cohort Dorothy Parker would later add her unique wit to the screenplay for Hitch’s Saboteur. Benchley contributed what has to be one of the wittiest lines in any Hitchcock film. At a peace conference, Stephen Fisher has just finished giving a speech; he then introduces his daughter, who begins to talk. A man leans over to Joel McCrea and says “The female of the speeches is deadlier than the male”, a clever play on the word species, and trademark Benchley. Another Hitchcock regular, Ben Hecht, wrote the speech that ends the movie, a moment of pure propaganda.
Hitchcock and propaganda: Alfred Hitchcock was unfairly criticized in his home country of England when World War II broke out. He was accused of fleeing the impending conflict, which was an unfair accusation. He made his deal to come to the States long before Great Britain entered the conflict. And during the war, Hitchcock made several contributions to the war effort. Foreign Correspondent, in addition to being a very entertaining movie, also has elements of propaganda, designed to arouse the sympathies of the American people. Joel McCrea’s final speech begins “Hello, America” and after describing the bombs falling on London, McCrea encourages America to keep it’s lights burning. The movie then dissolves to patriotic images of US flag and eagle, while the final line of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is sung in the background. Not very subtle, but certainly effective. One can only imagine the effect this would have had on a theater-going audience in 1940.
What Hitch said: Hitchcock was prticularly proud of the final airplane sequence in this film, something he described numerous times over the years. Beyond that, he didn’t have much to say, telling Truffaut “there were lots of ideas in that picture.”
Definitive edition: The 2014 Criterion blu-ray release of Foreign Correspondent is superb. Certainly the film has never looked this good on home video before. Not even close. Most of the special effects shots hold up extremely well, which is a testament to the filmmakers. There are also some great extra features, including short documentaries on propaganda, and on the special effects. Also included are a radio adaptation of the movie, starring Joseph Cotten, and the complete Dick Cavett Show episode from 1972 that featured Alfred Hitchcock. While the Criterion blu-ray is by far the definitive edition, it is worth pointing out that the 2004 Warner Bros. DVD release does have a nice documentary, which includes interview footage with Laraine Day, Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, and Robert Osborne among others.