Alfred Hitchcock followed up the Oscar-winning Rebecca with Foreign Correspondent, a sweep in the other direction to say the least. Categorized as an adventure B-movie, this 1940 picture gave the British filmmaker a solid one-two punch in terms of critical reception and award recognition. It actually went up against Rebecca for Best Picture at the 13th Academy Awards (and rightly lost to the better film).
After working with producer David O. Selznick, Hitchcock was “loaned out” to producer Walter Wagner for a healthy fee of about $7,500 a week. Wagner wanted to turn journalist Vincent Sheean’s Personal History memoir into a movie and tapped Hitch and his screenwriter Charles Bennett to do the job. The finished product, Foreign Correspondent, bears little likeness to the book.
With a pending “crisis” in Europe and the rise of Nazi Germany barely making waves in America, the editor (Harry Davenport) of the New York Globe newspaper taps brash correspondent Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) to head over to the “bedeviled continent” to find out what’s going on. Jones arrives to scope out the Universal Peace Party, a group headed by Mr. Fisher (Herbert Marshall).
A Dutch diplomat (Albert Basserman) soon turns out to be at the centre of some secrecy when he goes missing and is later presumed assassinated. Jones presses on to investigate, only to unearth a world of double-crosses, windmills and murder. He falls in love with Mr. Fisher’s offspring Carol (Laraine Day) and receives support from another reporter (George Sanders) along the way.
In my view, this isn’t one of Hitch’s finer moments. He originally wanted Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck to play the starring roles, which would’ve certainly been a wiser choice. McCrea is stiff and it’s hard to care about his character because he doesn’t bring much to it despite always wanting to “have a showdown.” Day doesn’t fare much better and basically fades into the background in her many scenes.
The problem comes not only with when but how the two of them are drawn together. The romantic angle, hardly essential, springs out of nowhere and feels unusually enforced. While it’s plausible that the young and slapdash Jones, who really is a bit of a self-centered putz, might fall in love so quickly, it hardly seems to do anything beyond offering more openings for slovenly sentimentality.
The good news is that Foreign Correspondent is consecrated with a number of set pieces that almost save the day. The assassination scene on the steps of the Amsterdam Town Hall is a marvel of atmosphere and bravura, for instance. Hitch’s use of the umbrellas and the ever-expanding way the scene develops is a work of suspense brilliance, even if it does taper off somewhat curiously.
The windmill scene is also quite good. Here, Hitch and cinematographer Rudolph Maté make great use of the perspectives inside the windmill. The spatial relationships between characters is presented with ground-up shooting, which allows Hitchcock to clarify that McCrea is above and then even “over” the scoundrels inside the confined space. The addition of “subliminal Hitler” is a neat touch.
The plane crash sequence is impressive, too, if for nothing else than that Hitchcock pulled off a critical moment in a single cut. “Between them, through the glass cabin window, we can see the ocean coming closer,” he says while describing the scene to François Truffaut. “And then, without a cut, the plane hits the ocean and the water rushes in, drowning the two men. The whole thing was done in a single shot, without a cut!”
But for all the strength found in individual scenes, Foreign Correspondent doesn’t hit the mark as a complete film. It has a tacky, patriotic wind-up that could make many contemporary viewers groan over its nerve and its character connections leave a lot to be desired. It lacks the attitude and significance of some of Hitch’s earlier works, even if it is spread against the vital milieu of pending war in Europe.
What we have with this picture is something that should be important but isn’t. It may well have been a hit with one Joseph Goebbels and it may have swept up award nominations, but it’s not among my favourites. It’s a run-of-the-mill movie with forced romance and characters that are hard to care about. Despite the magnificent structure of some of its set pieces, Foreign Correspondent is a letdown.