Foreign Correspondent (1940)

With hindsight, Alfred Hitchcock’s first two American movies set the tone for his career after leaving Britain. Rebecca offered up a melodrama with some of the emotional concerns typical to a Hitchcock film – the sinister mother figure, the marriage in trouble, the untrustworthy husband, the charismatic male who might be a murderer, etc.

Foreign Correspondent represented another strand of Hitchcock’s movies. It was a continuation with a bigger budget of the kind of movies that he had made in Britain. These were exciting and suspenseful thrillers with fast pacing, wit, and a series of meticulously-developed action set-pieces.

Curiously Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent were the only Hitchcock movies to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. After that, the remainder of Hitchcock’s American movies were ignored in this category. Just think of that for a moment. No recognition for Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho or The Birds. Hitchcock did receive two subsequent nominations as a director (for Lifeboat and Spellbound), but he never took home an Award.

In some ways Foreign Correspondent was the first real Hitchcock movie that he made in America. Made without producer David O Selznick breathing over his shoulder, Hitchcock was free to make the kind of movie that he wanted to make, and his exuberance shows through in the final production.

It is also a wartime propaganda movie, made for the purpose of encouraging America to enter the war. The idea of Britain and America working together is clearly on the movie’s wishlist, reflected in the fact that it has two heroes – the amiable and likeable American journalist John Jones (Joel McCrea) and the dryly humorous and polished British reporter with the quirky surname, Scott ffolliot (George Sanders). Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels is said to have admired the film.

To Hitchcock’s credit, he had been obliquely warning everyone about the threat of Nazism since long before World War 2 broke out. In films such as Sabotage, The Secret Agent, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, Hitchcock had shown his countrymen and fellow-Europeans being endangered by members of mysterious foreign powers that were clearly meant to be seen as the Nazis.

After war broke out, Hitchcock made a number of wartime thrillers with a strong anti-Nazi message. Foreign Correspondent would be followed by Saboteur and Lifeboat, as well as two short (and unused) French propaganda movies. However Foreign Correspondent would remain the best of Hitchcock’s wartime anti-Nazi movies.

As in Saboteur, the characters occasionally make speeches to the camera attacking the enemy and promoting the war effort. As in many of Hitchcock’s movies on this subject, the enemy’s name was often unspoken. There is a brief mention of Hitler early on in Foreign Correspondent, but there are few direct references to Nazi Germany.

Of course viewers have never had any doubt that the film is referring to World War 2 and the threat of Nazism, but this omission of any specific allusions may need some explanation. Hitchcock deliberately eschewed too many contemporary references, because he realised that they would be dated by the time the movie came out. This was a wise decision, and has ensured that Foreign Correspondent has a timeless appeal.

From the start, we are left in no doubt that Hitchcock is presenting the war in Europe as a global concern. Indeed the opening credits show a globe of the world. The action begins in America with an irritable newspaper editor, Mr Powers (Harry Davenport). He is tired of the reports from his foreign correspondents that offer opinions when he wants facts.

“There must be something going on in Europe beside a nervous breakdown,” Powers tells his colleagues; “There’s a crime hatching on that bedevilled continent”. Tired of the official channels, his choice for a new foreign correspondent falls on John Jones, a reporter who has no expert knowledge of world affairs whatsoever. He calls Jones into his office, and asks his opinion on the present European crisis. Jones replies in a manner that causes Powers to suppress a smile: “What crisis?” he asks.

Clearly this is the man for Powers: a fresh face who will relay news, not speculation. In spite of the movie’s title, Powers tells Jones that he is not a foreign correspondent but a reporter. Jones is sent to attend a meeting of the Universal Peace Party, and talk to the Dutch diplomat, Van Meer (Albert Basserman).

Powers also agrees to change Jones’ name to one that sounds more dashing for a reporter. For professional purposes, Jones is now Huntley Haverstock. In a world of espionage where nobody is what they seem, this alias is one of the few benign name changes we can expect to find here. “Thank you, Mr Powers, thank you for everything,” Jones gratefully tells his boss, murmuring to himself in an undertone, “Except Huntley Haverstock”.

Once in Europe, Jones finds himself in a world of espionage and double dealing, in which people are frequently not what they first seem. Van Meer appears to be a kindly but vague man who rambles about birds, but the wily diplomat is too astute to let a journalist pump him. Behind his amiable veneer however, Van Meer is pessimistic about the prospect of peace in Europe. “I feel very old and sad and helpless,” he tells Jones.

Later there is even more uncertainty about Van Meer’s personality. When Jones catches up with the diplomat in Amsterdam, Van Meer does not recognise him. Shortly afterwards Van Meer is assassinated. Naturally there is deceit involved here too. A supposed photographer has a gun pointed at Van Meer and shoots him.

While chasing Van Meer’s assassin, Jones arrives at a windmill that is not a windmill. Its sail turns against the wind, causing Jones to realise that it is a signal of some kind. When he sneaks into the windmill, he finds another Van Meer (the real one) held captive and drugged. However the hostage and evidence are removed by the time the police arrives, and there is only a tramp. Only he is not a real tramp, and he has to dirty his hands when he thinks nobody is looking.

Other instances abound of individuals not being what they first seem. A couple of policemen arrive at the hotel for Jones, but he quickly realises that they are spies who have been sent to kidnap or kill him.

A bodyguard called Rowley is assigned to Jones. That Rowley is played by that most friendly and likeable of actors, Edmund Gwenn (best remembered for his portrayal as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 42nd Street a few years later) makes it all the more shocking when Rowley attempts to push Jones off the tower of Westminster Cathedral while a choir sing the Dies Irae section of the Requiem. (The scene recalls later Hitchcock movies. Characters will fall from famous structures in Saboteur and North by Northwest. A woman will fall from a church tower in Vertigo.)

The best example of something not being what it seems however is the Universal Peace Party, and Hitchcock uses this to make a serious point. Jones is sent to London to interview the leader of the Universal Peace Party, Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall). While attending one of their events, Jones meets Fisher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day).

It is difficult to be entirely unsympathetic to the cause of peace in Europe, and Carol represents the acceptable side of the peace movement. This idealistic young woman will be the love interest for Jones, and the cute notes that he keeps sending her will distract her from her speech, an action that serves to trivialise her input.

Nonetheless she is given one or two spirited speeches in defence of her cause. “Yes, those convenient circumstances over which we have no control,” she vociferously asserts; “It’s always odd, but they usually bring on a war. You never hear of circumstances over which we’ve no control rushing us into peace, do you?” She responds irritably to Jones’ suggestion that she is a “well-meaning amateur”. “It’s the well-meaning amateurs who do the fighting when the war comes,” she points out.

Nonetheless events seem to support Jones’ low opinion of the efficacy of the Universal Peace Party. However sympathetic Carol may seem, she is being duped. The Party is run by a German spy, Carol’s father. Stephen Fisher is a decent man in many ways. He is a kind father, and he will ultimately redeem himself at the end. However his loyalty is to Germany.

By associating pacifism with helping the Germans, Hitchcock is making a point about the nature of the peace movement in Europe. However well-meaning and appealing the pacifists may be, they are misguided in the face of the threat of Nazism, and they are playing into the hands of Britain’s enemies.

Behind the light-hearted tone of much of the film, there is recognition of the darker side of the enemy that the Allies in Europe are facing. Jones and ffolliott will find their lives threatened on more than one occasion. An old man is drugged, and tortured with loud music, bright lights and physical violence. Many of the staff who co-operate with the Nazis do so for fear of what will happen to their relatives at home. In the scene where Van Meer is tortured, Hitchcock keeps the lighting low to make the Nazis appear more sinister.

Even Jones and ffolliott are obliged to resort to underhand tactics to try to outwit Fisher. At one point, they seek to convince the spy that they have kidnapped his daughter. Their plan would have been more successful if they had really abducted her.

For the most part though, Foreign Correspondent is great fun. The thriller does not get lost amidst grey, preachy diatribes. Actually the tone of the movie is generally humorous. The passion of Jones is offset by the jaded reporter Stebbins (played by real-life journalist Robert Benchley who co-wrote the script), a character who seems to have stepped straight out of The Front Page. Stebbins is the typical lazy, boozed-up journalist of cinema fiction, or would be if his doctor had not forbidden him from drinking alcohol and forced him to drink milk instead.

The romance between Jones and Carol allows for some comic moments too. Hitchcock even put the words of his own eccentric marriage proposal to Alma Reville in the mouth of Jones when he makes a similar declaration to Carol during a ship journey.

The scene where the spies appear posing as cops for the purpose of getting Jones out of the way might have been a sinister one, but Hitchcock plays it for laughs. As Jones clambers along the outside of the hotel, he accidentally damages the neon lighting for Hotel Europe, causing the last two letters to short out, so that it spells Hot Europe.

Jones escapes by entering Carol’s bedroom through the window wearing just his pyjamas, causing her guests to vanish quickly. He then rings as many hotel services as possible so that his room is filled with staff, allowing him to slip away unnoticed in the confusion.

The main attraction in many Hitchcock movies however is the quality of the action set-pieces, and Foreign Correspondent contains some of his very best. Freed from the low budget restraints that were imposed on his British movies, Hitchcock pulled out all the stops for Foreign Correspondent – perhaps too much so. The film is somewhat longer than many of the director’s lighter thrillers. Despite its success at the box office, the expense of making the film meant that it failed to make a profit.

There are still a few cheap effects, notably the obvious model of a newspaper office seen at the beginning of the film. However there are other occasions where Hitchcock was able to utilise more costly effects. This is particularly true at the end of the film, where there is an unusually sophisticated shot of a plane crashing into the water.

To achieve the effect Hitchcock used a stunt aircraft, and set up a rear projection with rice paper in front of the cockpit, with two chutes connected to water tanks behind the rice paper. The subsequent scene took place in a studio tank. This was necessary because Herbert Marshall had only one leg (he lost the other one in the First World War), and would not have been able to swim.

Not all the set-pieces were equally lavish, but Hitchcock used his ingenuity to make them memorable. There is a nasty killing in the rain. As Jones chases the assassin, the camera gives us an ariel shot showing us the tops of the umbrellas as the two men run through the crowd.

The windmill scene take place on a set that runs on several levels, linked by twisting steps that create the possibility that Jones will be spotted at any moment. As if that is not suspenseful enough, Jones catches his coat in one of the internal rotating wheels, and risks being mangled by the contraption, or at least exposed to the spies if his coat falls through.

It would be another year before America would enter the war, but movies like Foreign Correspondent had useful propaganda value in preparing the way. While making the film, Hitchcock visited Britain, and learned that the Germans would soon be bombing London. As a result, he asked scriptwriter Ben Hecht to add an epilogue to the film.

In this final scene, Jones, with Carol at his side is beginning a radio broadcast in London. He has barely begun to speak when the sirens go off. As the noise rises and the lights go out, we hear the sound of bombs falling. Jones however continues with his broadcast:

All that noise you hear isn’t static – it’s death, coming to London…You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes…It’s too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come – as if the lights were all out everywhere, except in America. Keep those lights burning, 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!


3 thoughts on “Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s