Alfred Hitchcock Presents “Foreign Correspondent”

2 08 2010

“There were a lot of ideas in that picture. The picture was pure fantasy, and, as you know, in my fantasies, plausibility is not allowed to rear its ugly head.” — Alfred Hitchcock

When “Rebecca” was nominated for an Academy Award in 1940, one of its competitors was very close to home. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent,” also released that year, earned its own nomination for “Best Picture,” along with nominations in five other categories. Only a few more of Hitchcock’s films would earn a nomination as “Best Picture.”

Hitchcock had been loaned out by producer David O. Selznick to direct the film for another producer, Walter Wanger, and Hitch sank his teeth into this witty, fast-paced and thrilling tale of spies and a world at the brink of war. The film starred Joel McCrea as Johnny Jones, a ace reporter for a New York newspaper who is sent overseas to give the paper a fresh take on developments in Europe. (His boss actually praises him for having “an unused mind,” meaning that he doesn’t have the biases of his predecessors.)

I wrote about a brief entry on “Foreign Correspondent” here, and now that I’ve seen the entire film, it’s clear that although the scene I wrote about takes place about thirty minutes into the story, it sets events in motion that will play out through the end of the film. Jones – given the pen name “Huntley Haverstock” by his boss – is sent to Holland to interview a Mr. Van Meer, leader of the peace movement. After witnessing Van Meer’s seeming assassination, Jones pursues his killer, hopping into a car driven by Scott ffolliott (sic, played by George Sanders) and Carol Fisher (played by Laraine Day), daughter of Stephen Fisher, who is Van Meer’s partner in the peace movement.

This is exactly the sort of action that strains plausibility: By sheer chance, our hero leaps into the car of someone he’s already met, Fisher, and someone who’s been keeping an eye on Van Meer, ffolliott. They manage to chase down the killer and find him in the world’s creepiest windmill, but by the time they get the authorities, the criminals are gone.

Then, the chase is on, as Jones and ffolliott attempt to piece the puzzle together, with the help of Miss Fisher as well as Robert Benchley, in the role of Jones’s guide in Europe. Edmund Gwenn puts in a brief appearance as the bodyguard hired by Fisher to protect Jones – but whose real purpose is to kill him. He fails in his attempt to push Jones out of a cathedral tower and winds of plummeting to his own death instead.

The bad guys are after information: Specifically, the contents of a secret clause in a peace treaty. We learn eventually that the clause’s contents are known only to Van Meer and one other person – it was not even written down. A lot has been written about Hitchcock’s MacGuffins – devices that move the plot along but don’t ultimately matter that much – and this is one of the best I’ve ever seen, as it doesn’t even really exist.

“Foreign Correspondent” begins as a comedy, with Johnny Jones in over his head but not concerned about it as his attempts to land a story. It veers into mystery, then, after a brief stop at romance, becomes a thriller as the main players fly from London to New York just after the war begins in Europe. The plane is fired on by a German ship, and the plane’s crash landing in the ocean is as exciting as anything Hitchcock had committed to film to that date – and as technically complex, too: It took a combination of a rear projection on a paper screen and a giant water tank to create the illusion of the landing at sea.

The comedy of the film continues throughout, though. Even at one of its most suspenseful moments, Benchley adds wry commentary (pastrami on rye, to be specific). Benchley was one of four writers credited on the film, although several others had worked on it as well, including Ben Hecht and Budd Schulberg.

The not very subtle message in the movie – that the U.S. must not delay in helping England in the war effort – is driven home at the end of the film when Jones, back in England and now a star reporter after his story stopped the efforts against Van Meer’s peace movement, delivers a radio address that compares London to U.S. cities like Toledo. As an air raid takes out the lights, Jones continues without his notes, delivering a rousing speech.

Albert Basserman, who played Van Meer, was particularly praised for his impassioned performance, in which he pleads for peace but refuses to back down from the possibility of war. The elderly actor pulled off a wide range of emotions, pretending to be a doddering fool, an almost poetic statesman, a disoriented old man and an aloof stranger in his few scenes.

In “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” Hitch said that he was not entirely satisfied with Joel McCrea in this film, as he did not have the air of authority he would have liked, but given the many comic lines McCrea has to deliver, I thought he pulled off the role with just the right tone. Yes, Cary Grant or Gary Cooper might have performed a little better, but McCrea has his own style that works quite well. Hitch does a good job pretending not to notice McCrea in his cameo, when he wanders down the street past his star.

Next up, Hitchcock directs “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” his one and only flat-out comedy, starring Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery.

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