14 October 2008

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 120 mins.


Amazingly, Alfred Hitchcock's first year in Hollywood produced two Best Picture nominees: Rebecca, a psychological thriller in the gothic tradition which won the award, and Foreign Correspondent, a war-time espionage thriller that was much more in the vein of Hitchcock's 1930s films.

The film is a fictionalization of the memoir Personal History by American journalist Vincent Sheean. A hard-nosed crime reporter named Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea, in a role Hitchcock wanted for Gary Cooper) is stationed overseas at the request of his newspaper editor, who is politically concerned with the inter-continental unrest in Europe and professionally concerned that his foreign correspondents aren't quite doing the job required. Jones, who once punched a police officer, is seen as the right candidate to ask the tough questions, and while stationed, uncovers a conspiracy to draw England into a possible war.

Hitchcock made Foreign Correspondent with producer Walter Wanger, loaned out from his contract with Selznick. Wanger treated the director in a categorically opposite way: he loved Hitchcock's musings, imagination, and risk-taking vision, and encouraged the director. In fact, whereas Hitchcock found himself repeatedly at odds with Selznick on Rebecca, on Foreign Correspondent the director's limits were seemingly as high as federal law; the heaviest restriction put on him was the Hays Office's enforcement of the Neutrality Act, which the United States had passed in the 1930s to keep the nation out of international warfare. As such, the Foreign Correspondent script couldn't specifically indict the Germans as the evil-doers in Europe so Hitchcock and his writers went with an imaginary European country (modeled after the Germans, of course).

Ten screenwriters are known to have worked on the script (not including Hitchcock, who always had a hand in the stories), and many of them were quite well known: frequent Hitchcock collaborators Joan Harrison and Charles Bennett were given as its writers, and Robert Benchley, whom Hitchcock adored, worked on the film's dialogue. Uncredited scribes include Budd Schulberg and Ben Hecht in the first of many collaborations with the director. The numerous screenwriters might be part of the reason the film feels like it's being pulled in ten different directions; it's a thriller, it's a romance, it's propaganda, it's a visual tour de force, but it's all of these things sewn together in a way that isn't quite pitch-perfect.

The visual elements of Foreign Correspondent, however, are stellar. While Hitchcock would make many more spy films in America, the sequences in this film continued to be the best remembered. My personal favorite is an assassination on the stairs outside a building in the pouring rain, the killer disguised as a photographer with a gun held firmly against the still camera, Hitchcock's own camera positioned in a high angle and capturing the assassin as he flees into (and under) a sea of black umbrellas. Other favorites include a countryside of spinning windmills and one that spins in the opposite direction, and the stunning climax where an airplane is shot down out of the sky by a U-boat and makes a spectacular (and scary) splash landing. It's these Hitchcock touches that help make Foreign Correspondent an above-average spy thriller; without them, it might have become forgotten instead of instantly recognized.

4 comments:

the editor., 15 October, 2008  

Hi! T.S.,
Once again!..a very interesting review of a film that I do "classify" as one of Hitchcock's best!...I do agree with you some scenes in Hitch's 1940 film "Foreign Correspondent" are "visually" stunning! and according to the author of the book Hitchcock's Notebook [The title has been edited] Dan Auiler, "Foreign Correspondent is a "great"-well designed film with some very effective Hitchcock moments" ...Well, I guess I can say, that a "consensus" has been reached when it comes to the film "Foreign Correspondent" and Hitchcock's "touches."

"...the heaviest restriction put on him was the Hays Office's enforcement of the Neutrality Act,
which the United States had passed in the 1930s to keep the nation out of international warfare. As such, the Foreign Correspondent script couldn't specifically indict the Germans as the evil-doers in Europe so Hitchcock and his writers went with an imaginary European country (modeled after the Germans, of course)."
I always wondered why?!? the "evil doers" were never identified specifically, in the film "Foreign Correspondent"...Now I know!
Tks,
dcd

Sam Juliano,  15 October, 2008  

I found FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT as a mostly splendid Hitchcock, a fast, exciting, very immaginative and strongly reminiscent of his British thrillers. I fondly remember several set-pieces including an attempted murder on the top of Westminster Cathedral, a brilliant sequence in an isolated Dutch windmill, and above all, a magnificently handled assassination scene in pouring rain. (Of course the ones you pointed out were just as memorable). You rightly praise the visual elements and your historical discourse is once again engaging. I thought that Edmund Gwenn in that minor role as the gentlemanly little murderer out-acted everyone else in the film.

darkcitydame4e 16 October, 2008  

Hi! S.J.,
I know that your comment is for T.S., to answer, but I really have to comment on the scene a top the Westminster Cathedral, and in that scene...actor Edmund Gwenn's character is just chatting nonchalantly, with actor Joel McCrea's character...and the next thing you know he charging actor Joel McCrea's character hands first, luckily he (McCrea) moves out the way just in time and (Edmund Gwenn's character) plunges to his death! from the top of Westminster Cathedral. The next shot a Nun crosses herself and the next day newspaper display a picture with a heavy white line of his plunge. Pure and simple...Hitch!



S.J.said,"I thought that Edmund Gwenn in that minor role as the gentlemanly little murderer out-acted everyone else in the film."
ha!ha!...I agree with you!
Tks,
dcd

Sam Juliano,  16 October, 2008  

Dark City Dame: That was a meticulous description of that famous Cathedral scene that really captured its essence! And I'm glad we're on the same page with Gwenn, an actor extraordinaire! Thanks.

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