Rebecca won the golden statuette, one of nine nominations and two wins, and it remains highly respected today. Foreign Correspondent was nominated for six Oscars but eventually fell into a relative obscurity. Though not one of the director's ultimate tours de force, it is nevertheless a well-made classic that deserves recognition.
The story is set on the eve of World War II. A newspaper publisher (Harry Davenport) is fed up with the fluff his correspondents in Europe have been sending back. He decides to assign an ambitious crime reporter (Joel McCrea) to London in hopes of getting the real story as events unfold. The intrepid reporter eagerly pursues his assignment and in the process uncovers an espionage ring, befriends a trusty pair of cohorts (George Sanders and Robert Benchley) and falls in love with a beautiful woman (Laraine Day).
The film harkens back to Hitchcock's earlier British films and connects with his later films in various ways. As with The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes and other of his British movies, foreign intrigue drives the plot (a scenario Hitchcock returned to several times on later films including Saboteur, Notorious and North by Northwest). The director's penchant for 'doubles' also surfaces here (the diplomat and his imposter, McCrea's character has two names, Herbert Marshall's character leads a double life). Hitchcock also makes effective use of landmark locations, another trademark device.
Foreign Correspondent is a showcase of Hitchcock's cinematic artistry, particularly his mastery of the set-piece. One of the film's most striking features is a series of famous set-pieces that established a high-water mark to that point and set the standard for his later films.
The first involves a political assassination on the steps of Amsterdam Square during a downpour. The sudden, shocking murder is followed by pursuit of the assassin through a visual sea of bobbing umbrellas and into rain-washed city streets.
The next takes place in the Dutch countryside, where McCrea and two others have tracked the assassin. As McCrea takes in the scene from a Frankenstein-ian windmill, he notices that one of the windmills is turning backward, against the wind, and this tips him off that things are amiss. He moves in closer to investigate...
A third is set back in London, where McCrea agrees to take on a bodyguard who is actually a killer (Edmund Gwenn). This jovial henchman repeatedly puts the reporter in harm's way, and their final harrowing scene together takes place in the tower of Westminster Cathedral. The entire sequence is both amusing and terrifying.
Finally, and most dramatically, is the crash of a transatlantic clipper into the sea. Devised long before the advent of sophisticated special effects and CGI, the scene was magnficently and simply conceived. The crash is viewed from the back of a cockpit set. Footage filmed from a stunt plane diving over the ocean was rear-projected onto rice paper at the front of the set. Behind the rice paper were water tanks with chutes aimed at the cockpit windshield so that, at the precise moment Hitchcock pushed a button, water would burst through the paper giving the effect that the plane is crashing nose-first into the ocean. The action surrounding the crash encompasses the chaos and hysteria aboard the clipper when it comes under attack as well as the struggle of passengers to escape the sinking plane and survive on a floating wing.
Though Hitchcock's first choice for the lead was Gary Cooper, Joel McCrea hits all the right notes as the dedicated news hound, a slightly rumpled American everyman. He is ably assisted by Sanders as a wry and eccentric newsman, and Benchley as another quirky reporter. Edmund Gwenn's turn as the affable would-be killer is marvelous; Albert Basserman was Oscar-nominated for his role as an abducted diplomat. Herbert Marshall delivers his usual fine performance as the head of an international group and Harry Davenport is always an asset. Laraine Day is fetching as Marshall's daughter and McCrea's love interest, but doesn't bring much more to the part. In this case either of Hitchcock's original choices, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Fontaine, would've better filled the bill.