Foreign Correspondent (1940) / Mystery-Thriller
MPAA rated: Not rated, but probably PG for some violence
Length: 120 min.
Cast: Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders, Albert Bassermann, Robert Benchley, Edmund Gwenn, Eduardo Ciannelli, Harry Davenport, Martin Kosleck, Frances Carson, Ian Wolfe
Cameo: Alfred Hitchcock
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison. Dialogue: Robert Benchley, James Hilton. Based on the book, "Personal History", by Vincent Sheean.
Review published February 23, 2013
Foreign Correspondent is a very loose adaptation of actual wartime reporter Vincent Sheean's memoirs, "Personal History", produced by Walter Wanger (Stagecoach, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and directed by Alfred Hitchcock (Jamaica Inn, The Lady Vanishes), in his second film made in the Hollywood studio system. It's doubtful that Sheean himself would recognize much of what is shown on the screen, as Hitchcock would rather make what he makes best -- a grand-scale adventure full of thrills, comedy, romance, murder, and intrigue.
Set in mid-1939, Joel McCrea (Sullivan's Travels, The Most Dangerous Game) takes the lead role as Johnny Jones, a somewhat naive New York beat reporter, who is sent by his paper's ambitious but frustrated editor to cover the brewing clouds of battle in Europe as a war correspondent writing under his pseudonym of 'Huntley Haverstock'. His first assignment is to get the scoop on an anti-war Dutch diplomat named Van Meer (Bassermann, The Red Shoes), only to be an eyewitness to the elderly man's assassination. Meanwhile, he hobnobs with Universal Peace Party leader, Stephen Fisher (Marshall, The Little Foxes), and becomes smitten with his equally adept activist daughter, Carol (Day, The High and Mighty), who were supposed to be hosting an event with Van Meer as a guest speaker. With the help of British secret agent Scott ffolliott (Sanders, The Lodger) - the first two letters of his surname are lower-case - Jones aims to get to the bottom of just what's going on, and soon discovers a conspiracy that convinces him that not everything one sees is what really transpires.
Although Foreign Correspondent is a lesser-known Hitchcock film, despite its 6 Oscar nods (Hitch would lose Best Picture to his own more well-known work, Rebecca) often shamefully forgotten when rattling off Hitch's list of classics, and even called one of his 'b-movies' by some(!), it is, nevertheless, one of his most efficient and entertaining releases. The film offers quite a few classic scenes, from the chase through a tight crowd full of umbrellas, to the Holland windmills (with one suspiciously turning the wrong way), a hotel room ledge escape, a fall from the Westminster Cathedral tower, and a climax featuring a plane crash in the ocean sequence that is surprisingly well done for its day. The lack of huge popularity among Hitchcock-philes perhaps comes through the casting of Joel McCrea and Laraine Day, who don't exactly exemplify the typical Hitchcock leading man and lady (indeed, Hitch initially sought the services of Gary Cooper and Joan Fontaine), but I personally think they do fine work, especially at the comic interplay necessary between them, initially starting off with mild repartee and then developing (perhaps a little too rapidly to be believed) into a full-blown romance.
There is an undercurrent of propaganda to the film, starting off with a rather patriotic American title blurbs, that finally unmasks itself in the final Ben Hecht-scripted report during the epilogue showcasing the bombing of London that hints that the U.S. should be gearing up for a possible conflict should it be the last bastion for peace in the world about to go up in flames. The actual bombing of England by the Germans started just three days prior to the film's release, and one week prior to the actual bombing of London, which made this oratory just that much more poignant to movie-goers in the U.S. at the time.
Foreign Correspondent is a skillfully edited and shot film, with superb cinematography by Rudolph Mate (To Be or Not to Be, Gilda). Hitchcock keeps the locales moving briskly, as well as the intrigue, in his usual whirlwind fashion that offers up small moments of suspense amid the backdrop of a larger plotline. Although the script had been in development for several years, the film is actually tuned in quite well to the chaotic times in which it is made and released. Even if the script had its share of rewrites and various handlers, including nearly a half-dozen not even credited, it speaks to the quality of the actors in delivering very good performances, as well as the skill of the men and women behind the scenes in keeping the tone of the film from swaying too far in any direction to the point where it loses the ability to entertain, despite the blending of the many genre staples within it. A precursor to Hitchcock's later smash, North by Northwest, but nearly as entertaining.
©2013 Vince Leo