Monday, March 8, 2010

Dial H for Hitchcock: Foreign underrated gem

In 1941 Alfred Hitchcock became one of a select few who have directed more than one film nominated for Best Picture in the same year. What makes this especially significant in Hitchcock's case is that the two of his films nominated for the 1940 award were his very first Hollywood movies: Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent.

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.

Foreign Correspondent has sometimes been called a propaganda film, and foremost among those making the claim was Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Although McCrea's final speech is an impassioned wake up plea to America (and was reportedly added by producer Walter Wanger), it hardly characterizes the film as a whole. In my view, Foreign Correspondent is one very fine brew of mystery, suspense, romance and wit.

What do you think? Love it or hate it, take it or leave it..what are your impressions of Foreign Correspondent?


  1. TheLadyEve, Awesome post! I have not seen the film Foreign Correspondent. I'm a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan. So, I' m going to put Foreign Correspondent, on my "gotta see" list.

  2. Eve, this is an excellent article on FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT! I love your point about the "doubles" and I agree that the set pieces are thrilling (for years, I thought of this as the "windmill movie"). However, as a whole, I consider FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT to be mid-tier Hitchcock. The set pieces dominate the film for me and, as a result, its already lengthy running (120 min) seems longer. I also think that Joel McCrea is miscast as the American hero (Gary Cooper would have been much better). That said, I still enjoyed very much about FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT. The pairing of an American and an Englishman is a great wartime touch. It's intriguing that the hero falls in love with the villain's daughter. And I love that Herbert Marshall and Edmund Gwen--often known for nice guy roles--are baddies. I think Marshall has the best scenes, such as the one where he's feeding treats to his dog while discussing how to dispose of Huntley. That's classic Hitchcock!

  3. P.S. Your photos from the film are terrific.

  4. Great write-up, Eve. I can't add anything significant to your informative post. But I can tell you that I really enjoy FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT. There are so many sequences in Hitchcock films that are memorable. This movie has two that always stick in my mind: the windmill scene and, my personal favorite, the umbrellas. Thanks for an excellent feature, Eve. Looking forward to future posts!

  5. Eve ,excellent post on one of my favorite Hitchcock films. Gary Cooper said he should have done this film, but I think Joel does a fine job. In fact it's one of my favorite of his roles with Sullivans Travels The Palm Beach Story, and Ride The High Country.It's sort of a shock to see George as a "good guy " for a change seeing that he was playing a lot of Nazi's (Confessions of A Nazi Spy, Manhunt) around the same time. The "set pieces" are classic and for years people wondered how Hitch did the crash. And Imust disagree with Rick about this being "mid -tier" Hitch.

  6. Eve, this is an excellent post and the pictures you chose really reminded me of how precise Hitchcock was with his storyboarding. I feel as if I have a clear idea what Hitch wanted to convey by looking at these stills. The automobiles look like they are invading the windmills in the top photo. The double-entendre of the photographer "shooting" his victim. Like Sark, I love the entourage of umbrellas that make it hard to navigate the crowd after the assasination. And I was particularly intrigued with Edmund Gwenn's polite turn as the gracious killer. You have written a profoundly thought-provoking essay, Eve. Bravo!

  7. Dawn - you must see this film, it's the stepping-stone between Hitchcock's Brit & U.S. pictures.
    Rick - we mostly agree, but I think it's a bit better film than you do & think Joel McCrea was the right choice. His style was perfect for the role & Cooper couldn't have done it better.
    Sark - good to hear from you again. We totally agree on the 'enjoyability' factor, lots of thrills & chills & humor.
    Paul - you and I are pretty much on the same page, including our favorite Joel McCrea films.
    Toto - great observation on Hitchcock's storyboarding, & you're right, Gwenn is unforgettable as Rowley (I love that sequence).

  8. I think "mid-tier" Hitchcock is still very good. It's just that if I ranked all of Hitchcock's films and divided them into three groups, I'd place FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT in the middle group. As Eve captured so well, there are several of Hitchcock's trademark touches (e.g., the set pieces, use of landmarks, etc.). However, what I find intriguing about the film is where it differs from the director's other work. Instead of a single man on the run or even a couple as the focus, we get a trio here and it makes for a different dynamic. Any thoughts as to why Sanders' character was added to the mix? As I mentioned earlier, it could be an attempt to portray American and Britain as war allies. But it could also function as a transition for Hitch--from the reserved British hero of THE 39 STEPS to the more casual American heroes of SABOTEUR and beyond.

  9. I love this film. It's one of my top ten Hitchcock films. It also contains one of my all time favorite lines:
    "If you knew how much I love you, you'd faint."