Foreign Correspondent (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)
The first two movies Alfred Hitchcock made in America, this and its immediate predecessor Rebecca, couldn’t possibly be more different, yet in a strange way both are logical extensions of the work he’d been doing in Great Britain for the prior ten years. One could argue that the two films represent the director’s warring impulses toward Gothic romanticism and scrappy but urgent, almost grim entertainment. The world was in enough of a state in 1940 that he didn’t need much help making even a sprightly, fast-moving thriller like this feel like an act of despair. Seventy-five years later, it’s natural to come away from the film wanting to urge the nearest American official to join the war effort, whatever peculiar stares you get as a result, because that’s how pressing a matter Foreign Correspondent makes it out to be. It’s little wonder that no less a twisted expert than Joseph Goebbels cited it as a great piece of propagdanda.
As sharp as the distinction obviously is between Hitchcock’s British and American output — both this and Rebecca are much longer than his ’30s thrillers, for instance — this film along with the subsequent Saboteur feel most like what one might picture when told that the director was set to move over to Hollywood but keep creating the same sort of film. Foreign Correspondent feels at times like a much more expensive, though still clearly populist and direct, version of projects like The 39 Steps and Secret Agent that amount to sweeping travelogues of intrigue. That’s no crticism; such films are a joy to watch and infinitely absorbing, with the added benefit of freely capturing the paranoia and scope of their times. Foreign Correspondent makes no apologies for being a film of and about 1940 and the outbreak of war in Europe; its success lies in the fact that it is so present, gripping, lively that it makes the story feel as though it’s happening right now.
Hitchcock, who made the film on loan for Walter Wagner (with United Artists’ distribution) from David O. Selznick and greatly enjoyed the return to freedom, additionally reined in some of the pessimism that marked prewar cautions like Sabotage and The Lady Vanishes, opting instead for a rousing sense of danger and daring meant to stroke the heroic impulses of the would-be allies. You might say that in the British films, the brewing catastrophe was a background fixture that informed and enhanced the stories he was telling, but now we are in audience-participation mode; Ben Hecht’s emphatic urging aimed at the U.S. in the final scene, using Joel McCrea as a mouthpiece, bears a striking resemblance to Chaplin’s plea that closes out The Great Dictator, released in the same year. A more meaningful line, though, can be drawn to fellow Brit Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel, also a 39 Steps-like thriller with the ulterior movtive of scaring the U.S. into supporting the war against Germany. Powell was a master director, but his film lacks something that’s intrinsic to Hitchcock’s: identification.
McCrea’s intrepid, civically unaware Jones is not exactly a wrong man, he’s an angry young reporter whose interests lie far away from worldly affairs like the pending war in Europe, which is one of many reasons he’s the perfect figure of representation for an audience that has yet to fully understand the implications of the conflict. He hasn’t the everyman persuason of either Hannay in The 39 Steps or Thornhill in North by Northwest — both ordinary men pushed along with us into extraordinary circumstances — but we have little trouble living inside his head as he tries to make sense of a confusing tangle of international relations that culminate in a suave peace activist and his lovely daughter (Laraine Day), a diplomat and an imposter (both Albert Basserman), a treaty and its secrets. With its crowd-pleasing use of intrigue and an excitedly developing narrative that unfolds point by careful, deliberate point, Hitchcock here achieves what Powell’s film couldn’t. It not only brings the war home to us, it makes it happen before our eyes with more than a hint of genuine ruthlessness to imply what’s at stake — we don’t merely watch these events take place, we seem to take part in them.
As effective as the film’s political content remains, it’s inevitably dated in this regard, so it’s fortunate that Hitchcock didn’t know how to make a dull or disposable propaganda thriller. Of all his early American films, Foreign Correspondent is probably the most fun, and not just because it’s the one that includes George Sanders hopping nonchalantly out of a second-story window. The setpieces Hitchcock puts together, a surprisingly well-strung hodgepodge of what seem like ideas that could’ve fit into his six Gaumont films had their budgets been higher or producers been crazier, are just cracking fun with one superb and vistually striking idea after another. An early assassination scene and subsequent chase all spark and twist about underneath an enormous gathering of umbrellas; that same chase leads us to a windmill that contributes one of Hitchcock’s very best-ever spy-movie gags — the signaling windmill that moves in the opposite direction of the others. McCrea sneaks around inside the windmill in a sequence that vividly recalls Young and Innocent, and in the ruckus nearby a man can’t even carry a jug of water across the street. Later, Edmund Gwenn — no, really — plays a contract killer sent to dispose of McCrea, and that’s an afterthought; it’s that kind of movie.
Nevertheless, Foreign Correspondent remains now as ever a film that lives in the shadow of its climax, something that would later prove true of Saboteur‘s breathtaking finale, which is far more widely remembered than the film itself. The aircrash that finally tidies up the various narratives — the love affair and pending marriage complicated by the duty of reportage that future father-in-law is a duplicitous Nazi scumbag — is one of the most impressive feats of special effects in 1940s Hollywood, and it still looks astonishingly good even today. That’s in part because Hitchcock is so careful about what to show us; as in the Psycho shower scene two decades later, he achieves greatness through implication — you think you see much more than you actually do. Even beyond the sequence’s brilliant blocking and editing, though, is the convincing largeness of the catastrophe unfolding; the actors look as though they are really in danger when they begin to gulp down sea water, and the shot showing the pilots’ point of view as water comes crashing into the cockpit is a permanent antidote to Hitchcock’s future decades of falling back on rear projection — it looks as eerily real as the closing moments of United 93, to name just one example.
Joel McCrea isn’t the world’s most distinctive leading man, and I doubt Hitchcock was fully enthusiastic about him — especially since his ideal casting in the leads was Gary Cooper, who turned him down, and Joan Fontaine, who Selznick wouldn’t loan out — but in retrospect we can see that he is in so many ways the ideal figure at the center of a picture like this. Absent the sly self-awareness of Cary Grant, which wouldn’t have been appropriate here, he comes across as a cynical Guy Things Happen To who isn’t excessively marked as either a wisecracker or a put-upon sap. One can now see how much he might have improved later ’40s Hitchcocks like Saboteur and the non-thriller Mr. and Mrs. Smith. He’s a more complex and sardonic hero than Robert Montgomery or (especially) Robert Cummings, but he is no better than them at selling the contrived romance at the center of the film, which is its greatest flaw.
Laraine Day does her best with a typically underwritten female role, one that starts out with a feminist bang as we see McCrea talking derisively about the dullness of a forthcoming speech of hers before he realizes who it is, but it immediately undercuts this by making her weak-kneed and confused in his all-knowing manly presence. Later, an out of nowhere marriage proposal — modeled on the sweeter story of Hitchcock popping the question to Alma Reville during a bout of seasickness — crosses over the area of weak plotting into just stupid, facile laziness. It’s helped slightly when we realize that the romance subplot is crucial to the story itself, but this only makes the leads’ lack of chemistry more noticeably tepid yet. Given how much eroticism Hitchcock found in so many of his great films, it’s always bizarre to see such a crashing failure as this make it on screen; at least in Sabotage and Shadow of a Doubt, the poor love stories seemed to be deliberately hollow to make larger points. In Foreign Correspondent, it’s vital that we are sold on McCrea and Day’s romance, and potentially fatal when we are not.
Luckily, Hitchcock and his alarmingly large brigade of screenwriters skirt past this and it doesn’t interfere much with either the breezy story or what may be the best supporting cast he ever constructed. As in Young and Innocent, every small role is filled with personality: Robert Benchley and Edmund Gwenn are each given parts that can’t possibly exceed five minutes of screen time but are tremendously evocative and funny, and George Sanders’ more-badass-than-our-hero journalist ffolliott (yes, ffolliott) is one of the best and most underappreciated foils in Hitchcock’s entire oeuvre. Miles away from barging in on the de Winters’ car eating chicken, he’s a model here of physicality and (in sharp contrast to his general tone in films like Rebecca and All About Eve) boyish enthusiasm. It’s such a thrill to see him forming a loose team with McCrea late in the film that we long for more of it, to know where ffolliott’s wit and thirst for danger will take him next.
What makes this film so invigorating despite its flaws? It’s been classified by some as a glorified B-picture, and not without reason; as accomplished as it is (if anything, it’s less of a chaotic mess than Hitchcock’s next three movies), it is still the work of a director new to Hollywood and not yet fully in control of his own output. Part of the appeal of Foreign Correspondent is that it gives us the opportunity to so explicitly see the cogs turning in Hitchcock’s brain; his primary interest from one scene to the next is what will be most interesting to see, or to feel. It’s interesting to see a man giving chase through a maze of umbrellas, or to see the inside of a windmill that’s been reconfigured into a spies’ hideaway, or to watch a man struggle with his conflict between wanting to report on the mad conspiracy he’s uncovered and feeling an obligation to the daughter of the mastermind, with whom he has fallen in love. By the end of the director’s British period, he had these things down to a science, but like Orson Welles a year later, given the resources of a top producer like Wagner, he can’t help feeling giddy and going to town to put all of his most elegant and gripping ideas on celluloid as fast as he can. Fastness, abandon — that’s part of the appeal.
But I also hope it’s not tasteless to say that for someone fascinated by the era, Foreign Correspondent bubbles over with excitement (just like 49th Parallel) even though we know that its essence was a warning against the death and destruction that were set to shadow the world for the next five years. It’s a grim matter, but its morale boost remains surprisingly potent, as does its flawless glimpse into the values and fears and worries of another time. The result is such a breathless piece of popular entertainment you can be forgiven for wanting to run a few laps afterward. Hitchcock would make vastly better films, but he wouldn’t quite capture this manic, scrappy, unpolished energy again.