Hello! And welcome back, if you are indeed back, to Weekly Hitch. This is a film studies type project in which I watch all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, in chronological order, and then I write about them and sometimes friend and family read what I write because they’re kind.
This week I’m watching Hitch’s second American film, but personally – I think it would be more accurate to call it ‘The First American Hitchcock’, because while it was made after Rebecca, this week’s film is far more like the British master we’ve come to know. So buckle up for war! Excitement! Thrills! Romance! It’s 1940’s Foreign Correspondent!
Beginning with a not-entirely convincing model shot of the New York Globe newspaper building, Foreign Correspondent tells the dramatic, exciting, humorous, adventurous, and romantic tale of an American reporter’s journey into the heart of war – in a film which, I would argue, is more the first American Hitchcock than Rebecca could ever have been.
Meet nice-guy actor Joel McCrea who is playing tough-guy crime reporter Johnny Jones (who might as well be named America American). Johnny doesn’t know anything about the looming war in Europe, and he’s proud of it too. So his editor assigns Jones to Europe as the paper’s new Foreign Correspondent – with an assignment to track down a Dutch minister named Van Meer and find out what’s really going on with the crisis over there.
After a quick ship journey (including a bit where some kid steals his new British bowler hat), Johnny arrives in London for a luncheon – sponsored by a group working for peace in Europe, but who should Johnny meet on the way to the lunch? It’s the Dutch Van Meer that he was sent to talk to! (He also passes Hitchcock in a cameo, but anyhow…)
Unable to get Van Meer on the record about anything (other than how much the old guy like birds) Jones is left to face the British – but not before losing another hat, which I think symbolizes his inability to fit in because he’s just too darn American. While at the lunch he meets politician Steven Fisher (played by Herbert Marshall from Hitch’s *Murder*) and his daughter Carol (Laraine Day) – with whom Jones falls right in love.
The next week, in Amsterdam, Jones waits among a sea of umbrellas in the rain for Van Meer to arrive at a conference. But when Van Meer does finally arrive, the old man seems to have no memory of meeting Jones – an issue quickly remedied by an assassin disguised as a photographer who steps out of the crowd and shoots the old man!
Like a shot, Jones chases after the gunman and ends up in a car which contains the lovely Carol Fisher, and another reporter by the name of Scott ffolliott (with a lower case at the start of his name for real). Scott is as British as the day is long and he and Carol join Jones in pursuit of the assassin (ffolliott is played by George Sanders, who was also in Rebecca).
After a rather exciting car chase (for 1940 at least) they end up at some abandoned windmills where (after losing his hat again) Jones sees the sails of the windmill turn backward against the wind and realizes that the killers are inside the mill! Jones sends Scott and Carol to get the police, and goes to investigate.
Inside the mill, Jones discovers not only the killer and his comrades – but shockingly Van Meer is there, alive, but held hostage. The old man is drugged, but says that they killed a double so that people wouldn’t be looking for him. Jones decides to go for help – but returns to find that all the villains are gone – along with any evidence they were there!
But the bad guys haven’t forgot about Jones, and that night two men arrive to kill him! Jones escapes along the roof of the Hotel Europe (accidentally breaking a couple lights on the sign to leave it reading ‘Hot Europe’ – a probable reference to the coming war) and then slips into what turns out to be Carol’s bathroom. They escape and get on a boat to London – during which Jones proposes marriage to Carol, who is happy to accept. (Hitchcock proposed to his wife Alma on the cold deck of a ship as well)
But it’s when they get back to London, to Carol’s father’s house that things really take a turn, because Jones recognizes a friend of Carol’s dad as one of the killers – and that means that Fisher, Carol’s father, must have something to do with Van Meer’s kidnapping! Fisher realizes that Jones is on to him and hires a guy to kill Jones (the killer is played by Hitchcock favourite Edmund Gwenn). Luckily the assassin ends up taking a bad step and falls from the bell tower of Westminster cathedral… not the last time Hitchcock would toss a body from a bell tower (Vertigo).
Convinced that Fisher is a villain, Jones and Scott ffolliott team up (Britain and America teaming up to fight evil… what an idea!) and Jones finds Van Meer – held captive by some spies and being tortured with jazz music into divulging a secret clause to a treaty (Clause 27) which would help the villains win the war. Jones causes a bunch of disruptions and eventually Scott shows up and then the police, but not before Fisher can escape.
Then war breaks out and Carol is mad at Jones because she can’t believe her father would be on the wrong side of peace. Carol and Fisher book a plane to America and Scott and Jones decide to follow – but on the plane, Fisher confesses to Carol that he was a villain… right before the plane is attacked by gunfire! In a damn stunning sequence (one British woman, refusing to put on a life jacket because she thinks that her Britishness will protect her ends up getting inexplicably shot in the head – no subtle symbolism there), the plane goes down – and in the aftermath, Fisher sacrifices himself to save the rest of the survivors.
Everyone makes it to safety where Jones sneakily gets the story back to his newspaper before returning to London with his love, and then – in a somewhat incongruous ending – Jones gives an impassioned speech (written by Ben Hecht) pleading for America to enter the war and save Europe before it’s too late.
So, what are we to make of Foreign Correspondent? To be honest, I’m very biased. This has always been one of my favourite Hitchcocks, partially because in a hipsterish sort of way it’s overlooked and forgotten, but still very good – but also because this movie is unpretentious, obvious, and thoroughly escapist – while still being a rather blatant bit of propaganda. It’s spectacular.
First off, let’s talk about what this movie is – because this is a real Hitchcock film. I know Rebecca was a very Hitchcockian romance, but Foreign Correspondent is something else. In this film, Hitch has taken his British formula; exotic locale, tough man and strong woman, bad guys, spies, killers, unhelpful police, state secrets, chases and mystery – he’s essentially combined The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes into something new, and most impressively, very American.
This movie isn’t just Hitch making a movie in America – he’s trying to say something about America – and doing it at a time when America needed something to be about. Foreign Correspondent was made while tensions were mounting and Germany was marching across Europe – and America was very neutral. There was little interest from the average American to enter the European war – the Johnny Jones’s of the country didn’t care about things overseas, and so Hitchcock (with the help of screenwriters Charles Bennet, Joan Harrison, and Ben Hecht) crafted a picture designed not just to thrill, but to be a call-to-arms for America.
And it’s really effective. It’s hard to imagine what this movie must have been like for people who didn’t know the full extent of Hitler’s evil, or what the war would bring – but for ordinary people, I can see how this film would be a wake-up call. If to action, at least to the idea that no nation can ever be truly isolated from the effects of war. Joel McCrea starts out just like them, the average Joe – but simply by looking, he discovers that a European war doesn’t stay in Europe, that it reaches out and touches all.
As for the film on a purely critical level, it’s not the best of Hitch’s romantic adventures up until now, it’s a bit episodic and uneven – the failed assassination plot in London with Edmund Gwenn drags especially – but where the film lacks in narrative drive and pacing, it makes up for in creativity and exuberance.
Foreign Correspondent spends its first half hour as a romantic comedy of sorts, a whimsical farce inexplicably set amongst the high-stakes world of pre-war peace talks and treaty negotiations – there’s drunken buffoons and lost hats and absent-minded Dutchmen, a Latvian man who doesn’t speak English, fast-talking newspaper men… it’s like a Preston Sturges film, and then comes murder.
That should be the title of every Hitchcock film I suppose – “And Then Comes Murder” – because it always does, especially from 1940 on. And with Foreign Correspondent, that murder is the death of peace, and from then on nothing is as it seems, or as it was. Hitch uses one death to symbolize thousands, and for Joel McCrea – that death lights a powder keg.
The film benefits from some really gorgeous cinematography and insanely beautiful visual effects – the 1940’s were a high point for matte-painting (gorgeous paintings on glass used to extend scenery or replace backgrounds) and the artistry that Hitch and producer Walter Wanger brought to this movie is fantastic. There’s also a fantastic plane crash that has to be seen to be believed.
And while this might not seem like the kind of film to draw attention to performance or character – Joel McCrea is a solid and very enjoyable leading man, always was. Laraine Day is an admirable and nearly feminist leading lady. George Sanders is the most British of wonderfully British side-kicks. And finally, Herbert Marshall plays one of the most complex and nuanced Hitchcock villains yet realized. They’re all solid – yet only Albert Bassermann, who plays the ailing Dutch diplomat Van Meer, was nominated for an Academy Award… probably because he plays the role with such quiet dignity that his few scenes manage to anchor what might have otherwise been a somewhat outlandish adventure.
I could clearly go on. But this movie, often overlooked, is really a very dense and complex and wonderfully realized affair. It’s the Americanization of Hitchcock, in all the right ways.
Foreign Correspondent had its beginnings back in 1935, when producer Walter Wanger bought the film rights to an autobiography by real-life correspondent Vincent Sheean. The book was called ‘Personal History’, and for the next five years, Wanger would struggle to bring the story to life. Several directors and screenwriters came on board and off over those years, but it wasn’t until Wanger set up a lunch meeting with Hitchcock that things began to fall into place.
Hitchcock, for his part was in a rather difficult and unfortunate position. Firstly there was money. Hitch had left England just as war was looming, and the British government wasn’t keen on people taking reserves out of the country, so most of his liquid assets were left back in Britain, while Selznick kept a very tight reign on Hitchcock’s finances, but also his ability to earn any extra money on the side.
The contract between Selznick and Hitch granted Hitchcock $2,500 a week – which was a heck of a lot back then – but once you add in moving his whole family across the Atlantic and such, money became slightly tight for Hitchcock. And so he was very keen to get another production off the ground as soon as possible – especially as he received a bonus if two pictures were made in the same year. So Hitch was very much on the look out for work.
And the second unfortunate for Hitchcock was that, back home in England, certain parties (including his old friend and mentor Michael Balcon) were holding Hitch up as a deserter. As one of many in the British arts community who were leaving England right when she needed them most. And while, it was true that Hitch had moved an that the coming war was a motivating factor (bombs would be dropping on England before the end of 1939), the fact remained that Hitchcock was deeply hurt by the unfair characterization. The truth was, that among the Hollywood community of Brits, Hitchcock was very active in working for peace, and more importantly in lobbying the American government to end its policy of neutrality and enter the war.
And then came Foreign Correspondent. After meeting with Walter Wanger, Hitch saw an opportunity to help the war effort back home, and make some money all at the same time. Selznick gave Wanger permission to hire Hitchcock (at the hefty rate of $5,000 a week – half of which went to Selznick, who owned the contract), and Hitch began writing up a scenario.
‘Personal History’ – the autobiography – was, it turned out, horribly ill-suited to adaptation, since it had no actual story – but Wanger was so excited about having Hitchcock involved that he told the director that he could basically write anything he wanted, so long as it was about a foreign correspondent for a newspaper. And so Hitchcock brought in Charles Bennett (writer of so many great Hitchcock adventures) and the two set about bringing the great British Hitchcock thriller to America.
Once scripting had been completed, Hitch set his mind to casting – first going after Gary Cooper, but eventually settling for the affable Joel McCrea. Hitchcock, at the time, still couldn’t command the stars the way he could in England, or would later on in America – and the adventure/thriller genre was looked down in Hollywood as a B-picture. But Hitchcock’s vision was nothing short of first-class.
Hitch and Bennett had crafted a story of lavish settings and chases. Planes, boats, cars, gunfire, murders, romance… it was to be the most Hitchcockian adventure of all time (until North By Northwest) and with Wanger leaving Hitchcock to do what he pleased, Hitch had finally found the freedom to make his own kind of film.
So with his cast in hand (a mix of old standbys like Gwenn and Marshall and American studio-system products like McCrea and Day), and the absolute confidence of his producer, filming got under way in the summer of 1940 and almost immediately, something unexpected happened. Something which, to my knowledge, had never happened to a Hitchcock film before… the real world started to happen.
With Walter Wanger enthusiastically involved (Hitchcock and Wanger seemed to have gotten along very well) he and Hitchcock began to change their script as new events happened in Europe. Both men were determined to make Foreign Correspondent feel as modern and up-to-the-minute as possible, and so – even though the American government didn’t want any film to speak badly about Germany or declare the country an enemy – little bits of the real world began to creep into the movie. References to Hitler and to the invasions of Poland and Norway, real-world fears and concerns – and, as Hitchcock planned, the picture started to become about showing America that war was coming to them, whether they liked it or not.
Hitchcock had never really dealt with reality, or the outside world before. With the subtle exception of The Lady Vanishes, a Hitchcock film had, up until now, always existed in a vacuum, like a fairy tale. But with this movie, Hitchcock was brought boldly into the real world. So much so that by the end of filming an additional new ending was added to address the bombing of London which had, by that time begun.
The new ending – written specially by Ben Hecht, possibly the greatest screenwriter of all time – features Joel McCrea delivering a speech on the radio to America from London while bombs fall on the city. In the speech he pleads with America to enter the fray and accept that neutrality won’t save American lives. It’s a stirring and effective scene, and while it might push the film from adventure toward propaganda – I think it speaks to Hitchcock’s frame of mind and is very much in keeping with his intent.
Foreign Correspondent was released to critical acclaim (though not as much as Rebecca was) and made decent money at the box office, but at the time it seemed as though America wasn’t yet willing to accept that it was war-time. So the film became sadly overlooked – even as it was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
Good grief, I have written way too much – but I like the movie, so what can we do? We’ll wrap up here with a look at what Foreign Correspondent means for the future of Hitchcock. Which, in a nutshell, is a lot.
While Rebecca might have been Hitchcock’s first look at America, I feel like Foreign Correspondent was America’s first real look at Hitchcock. It was his first chance to make a picture his way – with the support and trust of a producer, and the resources he needed to tell a cracking good adventure. And it’s an absolute success.
As far as the future goes, Hitchcock would revisit the motifs in the film time and again, from the bell tower in Vertigo to the watery ocean drama of Lifeboat. Hitchcock found in this movie, all the tools he would need to put his stamp on things in the future.
The betrayal of a father figure to a young woman? That’s Shadow of a Doubt. The wartime time struggle to stop evil spies? That’s Saboteur. The tough talking only-cares-for-themself hero who must take up a false identity (as Joel McCrea’s character does she he uses the by-line of Huntley Haverstock)? That’s Ingrid Bergman in Notorious.
And then there’s the elements and bits of Hitchcock that play and have played through all his films. Religious imagery, and innocent people thrust into danger. McCrea searches for proof that he really saw the old Van Meer, just as Margaret Lockwood sought to prove she saw the elderly miss Froy. Van Meer talks about birds constantly. McCrea gives Laraine Day some brandy, telling her it’s “just like medicine” – a line which Hitchcock would repeat in films almost verbatim over a dozen times after this first instance. The film is obsessed with identity. There’s a suave villain, comedy bits, the other American drinks a glass of milk and calls it poison… and a few films down the road, Cary Grant will bring Joan Fontaine another glass of supposedly poisoned milk in Suspicion.
What I’m saying is – Hitchcock always new that “style is self-plagiarism” and when it came to stealing, he stole from the best; himself. And Foreign Correspondent is one of the best places to see what he’s been stealing, and what he would steal in years to come.
Also, it’s just a great film. So there you go.
Next week, Hitchcock goes someplace completely shocking… into a screwball comedy with Carole Lombard and Mr. and Mrs. Smith! Until then.