It may seem strange to call a Hitchcock film underappreciated, given the fact that Alfred Hitchcock is arguably the most famous movie director ever to pace a set. And, to be fair, Foreign Correspondent was a hit with audiences when it was released in 1940 and earned several Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. But when it comes to Hitchcock conversations and recommendations and favorites, these days, people usually crow about Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho and other films made after his Stateside arrival. Critics tend to cite two reasons for the movie’s sub rosa status among film lovers: it boasts no major stars, and its propaganda taint made it unfashionable once the aftershocks of World War II subsided. But the propaganda makes Foreign Correspondent all the more interesting, if you ask me, and it certainly can’t detract from the movie’s technical achievements and entertainment value. It may not be a masterpiece like [insert your favorite big-name Hitchcock film here], but take it from someone who’s seen over forty of the man’s movies: Foreign Correspondent ranks in the top dozen or so and, as such, deserves more press than it gets these days.
Depending on which film historian you ask, Foreign Correspondent is sometimes regarded as Hitchcock’s first truly American film. Though the story is set in Europe, it was shot primarily on Hollywood reconstructions of British and Dutch landmarks, and though the subject is the outbreak of World War II, the film’s hero is an American everyman reporter; the film’s purpose was to whip complacent American viewers into contributing to the war effort on a distant continent. The movie opens in the offices of the New York Globe. The newspaper’s editor, Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport), wants to convince the public that war is about to break out overseas, in a time when many people are still in denial. By August of 1939, the economists and historians haven’t failed to spot the signs, but Powers wants a “fresh, unused mind” rather than an expert to report on goings-on abroad, because the man on the street (plus ça change) mistrusts the experts but might heed one of their own. He summons Johnny Jones (Joel McCrae) from newsdesk obscurity, anoints him with an alias of distinction (“Huntley Haverstock”), and sends him to London to learn more about a Dutch/Belgian treaty and the Universal Peace Party, a League of Nations-like association of uppercrust do-gooders ostensibly trying to halt the war with luncheons and diplomacy. High on the list of Peace Party VIPs is Stephen Fisher (played by Herbert Marshall, a James Mason doppelganger whose quiet yet superb rendering of a tormented, paradoxical kind of man has my respect). Fisher advises Haverstock to contact a Dutch gentleman named Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) who has inside information about the treaty and might know something about a mysterious section of the pact called Clause 27.
Don’t let the bureaucratic jelly in the above paragraph turn you off the film. By the half hour mark, Hitchcock’s well-oiled gears of suspense are spinning, and they spin gorgeously in four outstanding scenes over the course of the movie. As the film’s MacGuffin, the cryptic Clause 27 throws reporters, spies, assassins and officials into the kind of frenzy that can only be assuaged with shootings, car chases, mistaken identities, and frantic escapes by way of hotel ledges. And here sits my dilemma: one of the reasons I so loved this film on first viewing it was because (unlike some Hitchcock movies whose highlights are part of our cultural dialogue) I didn’t know what was coming and could watch with eyes about as fresh as those of its original 1940 audience, riding a tide of successive surprises (sub rosa films are great for that effect). I almost hate to mention the movie’s key moments because they’re major spoils. But this is a Hitchcock film, after all, and some readers might be curious about just how this is a Hitchcock film (if you covet the fresh-eyes approach, skip the next paragraph).
Foreign Correspondent is hailed as a taut espionage picture thanks in part to those four scenes that scream vintage Hitchcock: an assassination and chase sequence amid a sea of black umbrellas knit together by a heavy rain; Haverstock’s sneaking around the gyrating insides of a windmill, always just out of view of the killers he’s spying on; a comic/tense sequence involving a would-be assassin posing as a bodyguard who lures Haverstock to the top of a cathedral spire and waits for an opportunity to throw him over; and an astonishing plane crash into the Atlantic, shot in a studio tank with 1940s effects technology but surprisingly convincing and suspenseful. The windmill and plane crash scenes stand out thanks to the sheer confidence it must have taken on Hitchcock’s part to set them up; few directors would have had the clout to insist that his producers build him a full-scale windmill complete with moveable guts, or the imagination to shoot an ocean crash from the perspective of the pilots and passengers in the days before such things were commonly done. The camera angles and editing in the windmill sequence are as masterful as anything Hitchcock’s ever put together, and the movie’s noir atmosphere is helped along by a black and white palette that makes the choppy ocean waves in the crash scene look cruel and cold. There’s no shortage of pristine chiaroscuro production design in Foreign Correspondent — she’s a looker on an aesthetic level alone, with very clean, deliberate lines and stainless composition, and you can almost feel the warmth of Hitchcock’s and art director Alexander Golitzen’s pride as you watch what they constructed out of a staircase, a reporter’s camera, and a shifting herd of wet umbrellas.
Woven into this thick rug of pure Hitchcockian yarn is a romance as light and airy as any found in the studio system days, complete with slingshot banter. Soon after arriving in London, Haverstock is smitten by Fisher’s activist daughter Carol (Laraine Day), and suspense is inevitably melded with love as Haverstock jousts with foreign operatives with his girl at his side. The fledgling lovebirds are joined by Scott ffolliott (George Sanders), a salad-days flâneur who steals his scenes with Wildean languor and epigrams — not to mention winning competence in the face of any challenge. While McCrae (who won his part when Gary Cooper turned it down) is irreplaceable as Haverstock, and while Day brims with bright smarts and charm as Carol, it’s Sanders’ ffolliott and Marshall’s Fisher that are most often saluted. Bassermann may have been nominated for an Oscar for his role as Van Meer, but Sanders and Marshall are memorable as much for performance as for character. ffolliott (his spelling) provides both the comic relief and the dash, but there’s a gigantic heart beating under his double-breasted suit and double-consonant surname — a certain thrum of genuine good-naturedness that’s mighty appealing to viewers and that represents (along with Van Meer) the Friendly European Face pleading for sympathy as Hitler’s army closes in both onscreen and off (England was bombed just weeks after the film opened in the US).
Foreign Correspondent has all the art direction and suspense we demand in a good Hitchcock flick, but its status as an in media res historical relic gives it a whole other layer of intrigue. The most interesting war pictures are sometimes the ones made in the very midst of things, when outcomes are uncertain and when key events that have since defined the tone of post-war art have yet to take place. Here’s a movie made about the outbreak of total war just as total war was swallowing Europe and Asia whole. America may be featured in the image, via the emblematic Johnny Jones, but America was still two real-world years away from Pearl Harbor. It all makes for a slightly surreal, palimpsest viewing experience — particularly when today’s America is embroiled in a shiny new war of a different stripe entirely, and when the concept of war journalism has never been so polluted. Johnny Jones/Huntley Haverstock is almost a fantasy imp of a reporter that can’t possibly exist now and maybe never did, but his appeal is enough to grease the cogs of the film’s political message, and he’s the perfect voice for the movie’s closing call to arms to Americans. As Haverstock pleads to his countrymen through a microphone in a London radio booth, fictional bombs fall in anticipation of real historical events. The curtain closes on the image of a bald eagle and the strains of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Stomachs turn, admittedly, and eyes can’t help but roll, but this is what makes Foreign Correspondent such an interesting Hitchcock film — and Hitchcock’s cinematic signature is what makes Foreign Correspondent one of the best-looking and most entertaining propaganda pictures in our archives. It ultimately fared better as a piece of cinema than as an inspiration to join the war, but — gee-whiz closing speech and bald eagle aside — it deserves the attention of the director’s admirers. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published as part of Pajiba.com’s Underappreciated Gems series, on May 16, 2008.)