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.


Alfred Hitchcock Enters the Sound Era with “Blackmail”

21 03 2010

“It was a rather simple story, but I never did it the way I wanted to.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Whether or not Alfred Hitchcock was satisfied with “Blackmail,” his final film of the 1920s, there’s no denying the impact it had at the time. “Blackmail” has earned its place in cinema history in many ways. It’s the first British sound film, making inventive use of sound; it’s also Hitchcock’s first thriller since “The Lodger,” which I wrote about here.

Legend has it that after filming had begun, Hitch’s producer, John Maxwell, approved adding a few scenes in sound; Hitch thought this was ridiculous and switched over to sound throughout the rest of the movie, although the opening sequence is silent, with the first bit of dialogue heard just after the eight minute mark. Hitch also made a full silent version of the film, with title cards, that reportedly ran in theaters (the ones not yet equipped for sound) longer than the talking version. You can watch the silent version of the murder scene here:

As we saw in the brief camera test here, Hitch’s star, Anny Ondra, had a heavy accent. Since she was playing a Brit, Hitch got around the problem by having another actress, Joan Barry, stand offstage and read the script while Ondra lip-synced on camera.

The virtually silent opening sequence makes me think that Hitch must have known that sound was coming – the opening of the sequence takes place in a police van, with one officer wearing a headset and listening intently as he receives information. The sequence doesn’t have much to do with the plot, although it does introduce our cast and the New Scotland Yard setting. There’s a tone of modern crime detection set as the man the cops caught is booked and fingerprinted, while we see the arresting officers chatting about their evenings’ plans. (There’s something odd in that opening eight minutes, before the cops begin chatting, about the way we hear music and sound effects, but no dialogue.)

One of the officers meets his girlfriend, Alice, to go out for the evening, although she is annoyed that he kept her waiting. In a crowded restaurant, Alice spots another man she knows. She and the officer, Frank, quarrel, and Frank storms out, leaving Alice to meet the other man, an artist.

The artist talks Alice into coming up to his studio, and there he tries to seduce her by getting her to pose for him in costume. When he kisses her, she says she has to leave, but he’s hidden her own clothes. She asks him to give them back, but instead he tries to kiss her again. She turns away, and he attacks her, pushing her onto a bed behind a curtain. As she screams, we see her hand groping for a weapon – a knife. The screams stop, and his lifeless hand falls out from behind the curtain. Alice steps out of the curtain, knife in hand. She defaces one of the paintings she had praised only minutes before, then changes her clothes and leaves.

Dazed, Alice wanders the city through the night, oblivious to the crowds but horrified when she imagines a neon sign with a cocktail shaker on it having a hand with a knife in it instead. Finally, she gets home, where she helps her parents run a small shop.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood is abuzz with news of the murder. A woman hangs around the shop, talking on and on about how she could never kill someone with a knife until all Alice hears is the word “knife” over and over.

Frank flexes his fists while the blackmailer relaxes

On the crime scene, Frank finds one of Alice’s gloves and realizes what’s happened. He goes to the shop and tries to talk to her, but just then an unsavory character named Tracy enters the shop. He pulls them aside and says that he saw her at the murder scene. In not so many words, he starts demanding money to keep quiet. But Frank receives a phone call saying that the artist’s landlady has identified a possible suspect named Tracy.

Frank sees his opportunity – he’s going to pin the murder on Tracy. Alice is horrified, and Tracy tries to talk his way out of it, but when more officers arrive, Tracy jumps out a window.

"Look! A fabulous relic of the ancient world!"

This leads to the famous sequence in which Tracy takes refuge in the British Museum  with the cops hot on his trail. They weave through halls crowded with antiquities, until Tracy ends up cornered on the museum’s dome. With nowhere to run, he tries to talk his way out, but instead falls to his death.

While all this goes on, though, Alice decides to turn herself in. She arrives at Scotland Yard and is shown into an inspector’s office, where Frank is discussing the case with his boss. When the inspector gets a call, Frank is asked to take Alice’s statement. Frank leads her away, explaining what happened. Alice realizes that she won’t have to go to prison after all, but on her way out she sees some of the artist’s paintings being carried inside as evidence. The haunted look on her face speaks volumes.

“Blackmail” features plot elements that would become major themes running through Hitch’s career, including a blonde woman in danger, death by stabbing, an action sequence in a visually interesting setting, and my favorite, crooked and/or inept cops – in this case, it’s Frank, who is ready to frame Tracy for murder the moment it becomes a convenient way to save his girlfriend. Just for fun, here’s the British Museum sequence, with Hebrew subtitles for some reason…

Along with the innovations in sound, like the knife-y conversation in the shop, the camera work in “Blackmail” is terrific. There are more panning shots, shots where the camera had to have been mounted on a moving vehicle, and a powerful montage of criminals as the landlady reviews mugbooks, where wanted posters and mugshots fade in and out as the pages turns.


Hitchcock had made six pictures since “The Lodger,” his last thriller. This was the genre that would boost him to international fame as “The Master of Suspense,” and it’s worth considering whether he chose this picture and subject matter knowing that he was at a turning point with the start of the sound era. He was already the top director in England; he certainly must have wanted to make a splash with his first sound film, and “Blackmail” did just that. Although Hitch made quite a few movies in other genres and styles in the 1930s and 40s, he would always come back to crime, action and suspense.

Anny Ondra, meanwhile, retired from screen acting after only a couple more films, a victim of the sound era and her own accent.

Hitchcock puts in an appearance toward the start of “Blackmail,” as a man being bothered by a small boy on a subway. There’s a line of dialogue at the end of the movie said by someone off camera that I’m convinced is Hitch, too – he says something like “You can come along now.”

Next up, Hitch puts aside suspense for the 1930 movie “Juno and The Paycock.”

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