Judge Maurice Cobbs watched this movie over a week ago and only just now managed to get his heart out of his throat.
Our review of Foreign Correspondent (1940) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published February 18th, 2014, is also available.
The thrill spectacle of the year!
People tend to forget that Foreign Correspondent was nominated for no less than six Academy Awards—Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Albert Bassermann), Best Original Screenplay, Best Special Effects (Thomas T. Moulton and Paul Eagler), Best Black-and-White Cinematography (Rudolph Mate), and Best Black-and-White Art Direction (Alexander Golitzen). This is one of Hitchcock's most underappreciated films. Loosely based on Personal History, the best-selling autobiography of Vincent Sheean, it moves at such a rapid pace, and the stakes are so high, with the fate of the world literally in the balance, that I found myself—no kidding—on the edge of my seat throughout the movie.
Facts of the Case
The year is 1939. Despite the looming shadow of war that has spread over Europe, Americans remain, for the most part, blissfully unaware of the seriousness of the situation. This head-in-the-sand attitude doesn't sit well with Mr. Powers, the editor of the New York Globe; dissatisfied with the lack of hard news from his staff of foreign correspondents, he decides that a fresh perspective is needed and enlists an idealistic, two-fisted crime reporter named Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea, Dead End) to bring back the real story of what is happening in Europe. Re-christening Jones with the very important-sounding pseudonym "Huntley Haverstock," Powers sends the reporter to Europe to cover the desperate last-ditch negotiations being conducted by a private peace organization, headed by philanthropist Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall, The Little Foxes) and his diplomat friend Van Meer (Albert Basserman, Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet). But a daring assassination that happens right before Jones's eyes sets him on the trail of a nest of vipers bent on bringing about the war that the entire world dreads—and it may be too late for Jones to stop them, even with the aid of Fisher's daughter, Carol (Laraine Day, Calling Dr. Kildare) and savvy British reporter Scott ffolliott (George Sanders, Confessions of a Nazi Spy).
"The Thrill Spectacle of the Year!" cries the poster for this thriller, and brother, they ain't just whistlin' "Dixie." A fast-moving tale of international intrigue set against the backdrop of a world on the brink of war, it's about as far away as you can get from the moody, gothic suspense of Hitchcock's previous film, Rebecca. Foreign Correspondent begins with such a light comic touch, in fact, that it's easy to imagine audiences thinking that they'd walked into the wrong theatre. Rapid-fire dialogue that runs the gamut from witty to scathing, a paper-thin romantic subplot, and a whimsical score by Alfred Newman seem as if they'd be more at home in a screwball comedy than a taut political thriller. But once the action shifts to the peace conference in Amsterdam, the comedic feel quickly gives way to deadly seriousness, with a shocking scene that shows one of the principal negotiators for peace being shot in the face and his assassin escaping to a waiting car through a sea of umbrellas, with Jones in hot pursuit. Undaunted, Jones commandeers a passing roadster belonging to suave British reporter Scott ffolliott, who happens to be driving with Carol Fisher, and the chase is on! The three heroes follow the assassins through the rainy city streets to the Dutch countryside, dodging bullets (and hapless pedestrians) until the assassin's car disappears, seemingly into thin air. Jones picks up the trail again by noticing that although the wind is blowing in one direction, the sails on a nearby windmill are moving in the opposite direction—it's a signal to a circling airplane. Jones sends his companions for the police, setting the stage for a brilliantly filmed suspense sequence inside the spooky, creaky windmill that has Jones seeing double, as he narrowly escapes detection again and again while trying to pierce the mystery of the assassination and the sinister plot behind it.
Joel McCrea, as Johnny Jones/Huntley Haverstock, is the standard all-American good guy from the 1930s. He's hard-boiled but idealistic, and ruggedly handsome but with a boyish quality that cannot resist an adventure. His special quality is that he has no special quality; he's a stubborn, hard-working everyman. Although Gary Cooper had been considered for the part of Jones, McCrea brings a rather low-key quality to the part that underscores the idea of his reporter character playing a game that is far above his head. It is persistence, a relentless drive to uncover the truth, that keeps Jones in the game even though he is quite aware that he is a very small presence overwhelmed by larger-than-life personalities. The veteran correspondent, Stebbins (Robert Benchley, who contributed additional dialogue to the script, along with novelist James Hilton), has come to that realization years ago and is simply going through the motions, indifferent or oblivious to the crisis brewing around him: "All you do is cable back the government handouts," he says, "and sign them, 'our foreign correspondent.'" Jones, on the other hand, is determined to show, in the finest American tradition, that although he is a small presence he is not an ineffective one. He is willing to risk his life so that Americans back home can know the truth. This character, the determined amateur cast into a situation that seems to be far above him, should be familiar to fans of Hitchcock's work.
Likewise, Carol Fisher is determined to make a difference, in her own way. A peace activist and a staunch supporter of the work being done by her father and by Mr. Van Meer, she counters suggestions that "a group of well-meaning amateurs" can have no real effect on the course of world events with the indignant reply: "Well, it's that group of well-meaning amateurs who will have to go out and do the fighting when the war starts, isn't it?" She reinforces her position in a speech shortly afterward: "The world's been run long enough by the well-meaning professional. We might give the amateurs a chance now." Initially put off by Jones because of embarrassing events, Carol rather abruptly reverses her opinion of him when she discovers that his life is in danger because of the curious secret behind the assassination that he has discovered but cannot prove. Indeed, the entire romantic subplot seems more obligatory than anything else; and even the characters themselves seem to be cynically aware of it. After a narrow escape from Amsterdam, huddled together on the deck of a ship bound for England, we are treated to this tongue-in-cheek exchange:
Jones: "You see, I love you and I want to marry you."
In the dictionary entry for the word "urbane" there must certainly be a picture of Herbert Marshall (the Oxford Unabridged, of course, would have a photo of Charles Boyer as well). Marshall plays the part of Fisher with so much old-world charm, with so much complexity, that he presents a fascinating character study: the image of a man whose professional and personal duties collide with devastating force, driving him to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect the one he loves the most, possibly even at the cost of all he has been fighting for. Albert Basserman's performance as the Dutch statesman Van Meer is striking and impassioned, and leaves quite an impression. His performance was nominated for an Oscar, and rightly so, considering that he didn't know any English at all and had to learn his lines phonetically. George Sanders—who, let's be honest here, is so much cooler than you or I could ever be—adds another level of suspense as Jones's British counterpart. We're so used to Sanders playing the role of villain, like in his silkily evil performances in All About Eve and Rebecca, that it's difficult to know where ffolliott's allegiances lie. Sanders plays this uncertainty to wonderful effect, keeping us guessing until nearly the climax of the movie, when he shows us which side he's on in a marvelously thrilling scene that features an act of torture so horrible, not even hardened Nazi agents can look on without horror.
It's so hard not to spoil this movie for you, especially in light of the rapid-fire twists that dominate the first half of the movie. The absolute best part, though—the thrill spectacle of the year, if you will—is the terrifying plane crash that occurs at the end of the movie. It is astounding how well the special effects sequence holds up against the slicker but not always convincing computer work that is being done today. It is shockingly realistic; you feel the helpless terror of the crew and passengers as the plane plummets into the ocean with a gut-wrenching crash and water floods the plane. Certainly not to be missed.
The picture and sound are adequate, but nothing special; it would have been nice to have seen a sharper, cleaner print, but the one presented here is not terrible. Still, I've come to expect a bit more from DVD releases, especially in the wake of such beautifully restored classics as Casablanca.
Is this one of Hitchcock's best? Perhaps not, but it is certainly far from being his worst, and I say that while being more a fan of Hitch's early work ( Rebecca, The 39 Steps) than of his later, more popular films (like The Birds). However, in Foreign Correspondent there is plenty of excitement and suspense to go around, and we see familiar touches from his early work along with the rough forms of elements that would eventually produce such classic thrillers as North by Northwest. The film is considered dated by some due to its jingoistic overtones—especially toward the end, where Jones attempts to awaken "sleeping" Americans to the terror and destruction happening around them—but those who would dismiss this movie as mere propaganda are overlooking a crackerjack spy thriller with classically Hitchcockian characters and situations and some outstanding and layered performances.
The charges of propaganda do have some basis, however. All throughout the movie Hitchcock advances the rather quaint idea that negotiating with murderous dictators can only lead to disaster and that we perhaps have a moral obligation to slap down the brutal tyrants of the world instead of appeasing them. This viewpoint lurks under the surface of the entire film, and it bursts forth to the strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in the final moments. Filming on Foreign Correspondent ended on May 29, 1940, but the ending to the film was written over a month afterward, and—stirring as it is—it certainly feels like an afterthought. Hitchcock had returned from a month-long trip to London on July 3 with the news that the Germans would soon begin the bombing of England, and this final sequence features Jones broadcasting a news report (written by famed reporter and playwright Ben Hecht) even as Nazi bombs are falling:
"All that noise you hear isn't static—it's death coming to London. Yes, you can hear the bombs falling on the streets and on the homes…Don't tune me out. 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 come. It's as if the lights were all out everywhere, except in America. Keep those lights burning there! 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!"
That scene was filmed on July 5. Less than a week later, the Nazi bombardment of London began, this time for real. Every concession had been made, every demand made had been met, and all to no avail. Appeasement had done no good; peace in that time had not come—only death and destruction—and the world could no longer turn away from what many had considered to be "their business" and none of ours.
Maybe it's not so dated, after all.
Foreign Correspondenthas more in common with Hitchcock's earlier British films, such as Secret Agent or Sabotage, than the eventual American work most people are familiar with. An unfairly underrated movie that offers some of Hitch's most thrilling and suspenseful scenes, this DVD release, which features an insightful featurette on the making of the movie, should be a wonderful discovery for fans looking to expand their knowledge of Hitchcock's work and for those who already consider it one of their favorites.
Not guilty! If a crime has been committed here, it's that more people haven't seen this wonderfully exciting film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Personal History: Foreign Hitchcock"
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