Monday, August 16, 2010


Hitchcock's best 1940 film

To those intrepid ones who went across the seas to be the eyes and ears of America....
To those forthright ones who early saw the clouds of war while many of us at home were seeing rainbows....
To those clear-headed ones who now stand like recording angels among the dead and dying....
To the Foreign Correspondents--
this motion picture is dedicated.

By Edward Copeland
Don't get me wrong: Rebecca is a great film, but the wrong Alfred Hitchcock film that was nominated for the Oscar for best picture of 1940 won. His other nominated film, Foreign Correspondent, which turns 70 today, is the better film in my opinion. Of course, the fact that Hitch had TWO films up for best picture that year and still lost best director makes the fact he never won that prize a bigger outrage.

Often, if you just mention the title Foreign Correspondent, even Hitchcock fans might not recognize it as one of his films, let alone one of his classics. Even though it managed a none-too-shabby six Oscar nominations, it seems to have been somehow lost in the Hitchcock canon. It's easy to see how that's possible when you are just one of the numerous great films directed by perhaps the most famous brand-name director of all time, but that doesn't mean the fate is a deserved one. With a cast led by Joel McCrea, Herbert Marshall, Laraine Day and George Sanders, several memorable Hitchcock setpieces and a screenplay that almost invents the screwball suspense genre thanks to additional dialogue work by Robert Benchley (who also plays a role), Foreign Correspondent has earned a place in the upper echelon of Hitchcock films and in the 1940 film you can spot the templates for things the Master of Suspense will use again in some of his more revered films such as Lifeboat and, especially, North By Northwest. Foreign Correspondent is hardly a rough draft and the later films aren't remotely retreads. Foreign Correspondent stands marvelously, wonderfully on its own and if it's a Hitchcock that you've missed somehow, I'd stopped reading now and consider this your spoiler warning. Even the photos will give things away.

At the film's outset (following the credits), it would be understandable if a viewer thinks a comedy is afoot because it takes awhile for the intrigue to rear its head. For film buffs who might have missed Foreign Correspondent, it might seem even more like that as they see future Preston Sturges lead Joel McCrea and Herbert Marshall, star of early Lubitsch gem Trouble in Paradise, effortlessly emoting the script's snappy dialogue in the scene set at the New York Morning Globe where John Jones (McCrea) works as a reporter. We enter the scene at the Globe as its editor, Powers, (Harry Davenport) has grown weary of the lack of news on the looming European war clouds from Stebbins, his longtime foreign correspondent based in London (played by Benchley himself once we meet him). "Foreign correspondent! I could get more news out of Europe looking in a crystal ball," Powers complains before inviting Jones into his office, at first gives him the mistaken impression that he's being fired but Powers says no, he has something else in mind. "Give me an expense account and I'll cover anything," Jones replies. Powers reveals his plan to make Jones his new man in Europe. Jones says he knows nothing on the subject, but he can start reading, but his editor insists that isn't necessary. "I like you just as you are, Mr. Jones. What Europe needs is a fresh, unused mind." What Jones does need, Powers decides, is a name with a bit more panache so he gives him the moniker of Huntley Haverstock. The re-naming is witnessed by an important visitor: Stephen Fisher (Marshall), the head of an international peace organization trying to stave off war. "It's really very exciting being present at the christening of an American newspaper correspondent," Fisher says. "Shouldn't we break a bottle of champagne or something?" As the film unfolds, Fisher will suggest much worse.

Though the new job will send Jones/Haverstock to London and later to Holland, this definitely was one of Hitchcock's Hollywood's films. David O. Selznick loaned him out after Rebecca and all the foreign locales were faked in California. Upon Jones' arrival in "London" he's greeted by the Globe's longtime foreign correspondent, the lush extraordinaire Stebbins (Benchley's first appearance), who tries to give Jones a quick primer on how to do the job which, as far as Stebbins is concerned, is doing as little real work as possible while appearing to do so. He explains the art of sending and receiving messages to New York. "They love to cable from New York. It makes them think that you're working for them," he tells Jones as they belly up to a bar. Jones orders a scotch and soda while Stebbins surprises him by ordering milk. "Yeah, I'm on the wagon. I went to the doctor today to see about these jitters I got, and he said it was the wagon for a month, or a whole new set of organs," Stebbins tells Jones. "I can't afford a whole new set of organs." The first assignment Jones gets is to attend a speech by an important diplomat named Van Meer (Oscar nominee Albert Basserman) at a lunch sponsored by Fisher's peace group.

As Jones makes his way to the luncheon speech, by coincidence, he runs into Van Meer and the diplomat offers him a ride to the event and Jones sees it as an opportunity to interview Van Meer ahead of time. Unfortunately, Van Meer is easily distracted and tends to wander off subject. Once they arrive at the site of the luncheon, the film begins to make its transition from nearly all comedy to thriller with comedic touches. First, Jones tries to put the moves on a young woman (Day) before the luncheon without much luck only to learn once the speech is set to begin that for some mysterious reason Van Meer won't be delivering his speech, news delivered by Stephen Fisher, who introduces in his place his daughter Carol, who is of course the woman Jones was hitting on and who was none too impressed by him. Among the points she makes in her "peace" speech is that "I think the world has been run long enough by well-meaning professionals. We might give the amateurs a chance now." Jones' New York bosses aren't happy to hear that he missed Van Meer and tell him to head off to Amsterdam, where Van Meer has been scheduled to speak at an important conference on the peace movement, sponsored, of course, by Stephen Fisher. The newly minted foreign correspondent gets ready to go. He's also curious to meet Van Meer again to find out what happened so suddenly between their car ride and the luncheon that forced him to cancel his London speech.

From "Holland" on, Foreign Correspondent nearly becomes one long chase, beginning with one of Hitchcock's most memorable sequences. It begins on the steps of an important-looking building where the conference is being held. A downpour of rain is drenching the spectators, including Jones, who runs into Stephen Fisher, who tells him he's heading back to London but other members of his organization will be there.

Jones continues his wet vigil for Van Meer when the diplomat finally arrives. Jones rushes up to greet him, but is confused when Van Meer shows no sign of recognizing him.

A photographer asks for a photo, only the flash he makes isn't just from his camera but the gun he conceals as he assassinates Van Meer in a shot that's reminiscent of the shot from Eisenstein's Potemkin.

Jones and the authorities try to capture the killer who escapes in the sea of umbrellas before finally reappearing on the street and dodging Jones' pursuit though a throng of vehicles before the assassin hooks up with his getaway car.

Fortunately, Jones finds a car of his own to continue to pursuit and meets a fellow reporter Scott ffolliott (George Sanders, another wizard with snappy dialogue) and, surprisingly, Carol Fisher. Amidst the thrill of the chase, Jones admits he doesn't get Scott's last name with its two lower case Fs at the beginning, but Scott explains that one of his ancestors was beheaded by Henry VIII and his wife dropped the capital letter to commemorate it. The two reporters and the daughter of the peace commission's leader head the police pursuit of the killer throughout Holland, including a small village where a poor man keeps attempting to cross the street with a pitcher only to be stopped time and time again by speeding vehicles before finally giving up and going back inside. Even after the film's first scene of violence and the beginning of the suspense side of its story, there's still time for a sight gag.

The strangest thing happens during the frenzied pursuit though. As Scott, Jones and Carol speed across the countryside, complete with the country's trademark windmills, the assassin's car vanishes, apparently into thin air. The trio stops by one of the windmills trying to figure out how the bad guys possibly could have escaped, noticing an airplane circling overhead. Surely they couldn't have driven that high, they surmise. When the authorities arrive, they decide to continue the pursuit even though they now are chasing a phantom car. As Johnny continues to be puzzled, a strong wind blows off his hat, landing it into a pool of water, giving Scott and Carol a good laugh but allowing Jones to notice something amiss about the windmill they are standing near: It's blowing in a different direction than all of the other windmills in the immediate vicinity. Jones points out his finding to Scott and Carol and feels it warrants further investigation. He circles to the back of the windmill and unbolts a wooden garage door and, sure enough, there sits the vanished escape vehicle. He tells his compatriots of his find and his suspicion, as they watch the windmill change directions again, that it is a signal for the plane to land. He decides to proceed into the windmill to see what he can find and urges Scott and Carol to go catch up with the police and bring them back. Scott and Carol depart in the car and Jones proceeds carefully inside the windmill, uncertain of what dangers might await him inside. The bad guys may have had time to hide their getaway car, but surely they haven't had time to escape entirely, so the green foreign correspondent risks his life and limbs to enter alone. It's no longer a story that he's simply reporting; it's a mystery he's determined to solve.

Sure enough, Jones does discover the assassin as well as other men discussing some vague but serious-sounding matters. Realizing that it's best that he not be discovered, at least until Scott and Carol return with the police, Jones carefully slinks around the windmill's innards, a maze of stairs, to try to keep himself out of sight of Van Meer's killer and his conspirators. Luck seems to be on Jones' side as he's able to make it up a stone stairway that not only keeps him hidden but also allows a good look at the men below and a chance to hear more of their conversation. He can't quite make sense out of their discussions, but it's definitely about the impending war and Van Meer's role as an impediment to the conflict. However, the biggest surprise for Jones is yet to come. As he climbs further up the stairway, he finds a door and figures a room would make for a much more secure hiding place from the goons below to await the arrival of the authorities. He just has to hope they get there in time before the conspirators make their escape. When he opens the door, he's surprised to be greeted by a familiar voice — a voice belonging to a man whose life he saw silenced earlier in the day. It's a very much alive Van Meer. He explains the man Jones saw killed was an impostor. (Don't stop to think too hard about who in the world would volunteer for that assignment?) The men who are doing this are trying to allow the war since he is one of the only people who knows a secret clause to a peace treaty that would prevent it and it's firmly esconsced inside his head. Audience, meet this movie's MacGuffin.

Van Meer explains to Jones that the fake assassination/kidnapping is in the hopes that his "death" would speed the process to war and they are going to keep holding him hostage until he tells them what he wants to know. Unfortunately, Jones realizes too late that his hiding place is that last place that he should be as they come to fetch Van Meer for his trip and knock Jones unconscious. Later, he comes to and makes his way outside when Scott, Carol and the police finally return. He relays his incredible tale, but the police are skeptical. They go back into the windmill, but of course it's empty, though they find what appears to be a vagrant in the room that used to be where Van Meer was being held. Jones figures perhaps the car still will be there, but it's gone too and the police leave, though Scott notices the supposed vagrant dirtying himself up with soil when no one is looking to make his story seem more realistic. What really sets Foreign Correspondent apart from other Hitchcock films is that, though all the usual elements are there in addition with a heavier dose of comedy than usual, it's really a rarity to take its fictional story but set it against the backdrop of very real world events at the time. He's creating well-crafted escapist fare with the bad guys pursuing a pointless article pertaining to a very real war, as if there would have been magic words contained in a peace proposal that would have convinced Hitler to give up his plans. If you think about it too hard, it could be seen as offensive, but despite the real war clouds in the background and even actual mentions of Hitler and in the film's spectacular climax to come, German warships, it's all played on a level that keeps it fun without losing the very real worries of 1940. Not in the same specific way but similarly, it resembles Ian McKellen's spectacular Richard III that reimagines Shakespeare's tale in 1930s England.

The next sequence seems as if it could have been taken directly from North By Northwest. As Jones, returns to his hotel, dejected that no one seems to believe his fantastic tale and determined to rescue Van Meer before he's killed for real, he gets two unexpected guests. Men claiming to be from the police say that their chief would like him to come down to headquarters to recount his tale again, because they believe him. Since one of the biggest problems getting in Jones' way has been the language barrier, he asks if the chief speaks English. "We all speak English here," one of the men replies. "More than I can say for the people in my country," Jones retorts, but the answer ie enough for him to smell the rat and he get them to let him to go the bathroom to tidy up a bit. He starts the tub and proceeds to climb out the window and scale the ledge, knocking out part of the hotel's sign so it reads: HOT EUROPE. When he's able to get into another hotel room, it ends up being Carol Fisher's. She's still hostile, but she buys his story and they cook up a multitude of diversions to retrieve his clothes (he's in a bathrobe), stymie the fake cops and escape the hotel.

Jones and Carol decide perhaps the best course of action is to return to London and see what they can learn there and tell her father about Van Meer being alive, though the point may be moot since war has been officially declared. Jones wires his paper and tells them not to write about Van Meer's assassination, but he'll give them more when he can confirm it. With no other way out, the two are forced to buy cold deck seats on a ship sailing to London. One of the things about old movies that always cracks me up, even in good ones, is the speed in which people declare their love for one another or propose marriage. Since a love story is about the last thing Hitch has on his mind, he gets it out of the way so quickly, it's funny. As the pair shiver under blankets on their chaisse lounges, the following dialogue takes place:
JONES: I'm in love with you and I want to marry you.
CAROL: I'm in love with you and I want to marry you.
JONES: Hmmm...that cuts down our love scene quite a bit, doesn't it?

Back in London, they head over to Carol's father's place, but Jones finds a nasty surprise, one that forces him to keep his mouth shut: Stephen Fisher is meeting with one of the men who was holding Van Meer at the windmill. Carol and Jones convince Fisher to let the man wait in another room for a minute or two to finish their business so they can speak. After the man leaves, they spill the tale of the man being involved in Van Meer's kidnapping and that the assassination was a fake. Fisher expresses shock, understandably, then decides he better see to the man in order not to arouse his suspicions. Once he enters the other room what many viewers might have suspected is made clear as Fisher asks why Jones wasn't taken care of in Holland. The man has no answers, but suggests a solution: A man named Rowley (played by none other than good old Kris Kringle himself, Edmund Gwenn) who acts as a bodyguard but really makes certain the person he's protecting gets killed "accidentally." When Fisher returns to his daughter and Jones, they demand to know why he didn't call the authorities, but he says he was afraid if he did, it would mean Van Meer's death. However, Jones' life might certainly be in danger so Fisher recommends Rowley as a bodyguard.

This sets in course another of Hitchcock's best suspense sequences of the film as the seemingly harmless Rowley escorts Jones around London, including an early push into oncoming traffic which fails to kill the reporter who, understandably, wonders what he was doing. Rowley tells him he was saving his life: If he hadn't pushed him between the vehicles, a different car would've nailed him. Jones buys it and, for some reason, agrees to Rowley's suggestion that they check out the ideal view from the top of a cathedral. Rowley gets antsy as other visitors linger and show up, some deciding to take the stairs, others the lift. Jones has seen about enough, but Rowley doesn't want him to miss a certain sight and he finally makes his move, rushing to shove Jones out the opening. Unfortunately, the lift arrives and distracts Jones at just the right moment leaving Rowley to take the fatal fall instead. Back at the office with Stebbins and Scott, Jones said something told him not to trust a bodyguard that Stephen Fisher suggested, but he didn't want to believe it. Scott tells him that he's been on to Fisher's involvement for months and they have to move fast to find Van Meer and finger Fisher. "I'm in love with a girl, and I'm going to help hang her father," Jones sighs.

Instead of synopsizing what's left, I just want to single out the other great Hitchcock sequence in Foreign Correspondent, a setpiece that remains amazing in this day of CGI and digital effects. Jones, Scott, Carol and Stephen Fisher all happen to be flying to New York on the same plane (aware of each other, though in different cabins). An airline official makes his way through the cabin to hand out some wires and Fisher spots one for Scott and takes it and sees that it says that authorities will be arresting Fiaher upon landing. He says something to the effect that he will be having to leave the flight early and before too long a German battleship in the vicinity opens fire on the plane. It never shows Fisher signaling them, but the implication is that somehow he did. The depiction of the attack and the plane crash that follows truly is astounding, especially considering this is a 70-year-old movie. It ranks with the plane crash in Cast Away that would come after 60 years of technological advancements. It also foreshadows to some extent parts of Lifeboat to come from Hitchcock four years later.

Now, I'm sure some will dispute my assertion that Foreign Correspondent bests Rebecca, but I stand behind my claim. If given a choice between watching one or the other, I'll always opt for Foreign Correspondent (of course there are countless other Hitchcocks I'd grab before either first). The main problem that prevents Foreign Correspondent from being a complete masterwork is its close connection to the reality of that time. Sure, the bad guys in the movie don't get away with their crimes, but their war still goes on and that war is World War II, so in a way they do succeed and millions pay a deadly price. Because of that reality, there is a final scene that does seem tacked on where "Huntley Haverstock" speaks to radio listeners as bombs rain down on London. A blackout is called and he and Carol are urged to call off the broadcast and get to a shelter, but Carol says they are listening in America, so Jones wings it.

"OK, we'll tell 'em, then. I can't read the rest of the speech I had, because the lights have gone out, so I'll just have to talk off the cuff. All that noise you hear isn't static — it's death, coming to London. Yes, they're coming here now. You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes. 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 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!"

It still has a ring of power and certainly it resonated even more strongly during the war years, but it comes off as a bit startling after the frivolity and suspenseful entertainment we've enjoyed up until that moment. Still, it's not enough to cast a pall over all that came before it — and all that came before it remains superb.

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Don't get me wrong: Rebecca is a great film, but the wrong Alfred Hitchcock film that was nominated for the Oscar for best picture of 1940 won. His other nominated film, Foreign Correspondent, which turns 70 today, is the better film in my opinion.

I once had the pleasure of meeting Donald Spoto, the author of The Art of Alfred Hitchcock at Marshall University back in 1983...he remarked that "Rebecca's not a Hitchcock film, it's a Selznick film."

Correspondent ranks among my top favorite vehicles from The Master of Suspense. Great write-up, Ed!
Bravo! Great post and I wholly agree with your opinions. I enjoy Foreign Correspondent more than North by Northwest and some of Hitchcock's other more-playful films. I always thought he had a lot of fun making this film, and I suspect one of the reasons it's legacy isn't as strong as some of his others is due to McCrea. He's great--and perfectly cast--but his body of work in general isn't as well remembered as that of, say, Grant or Bogart. It's not fair, but I think the lesser films of icons tend to be remembered more than the great films of actors who didn't make as much of a cultural impact.

I also think this film must play like a mother on the big screen. Jeez, think how that production design must look!

Thanks for reminding me how much I love this film!
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