MYSTERY IN WHISPERS THAT CRACKS LIKE THUNDER!
Producer Walter Wanger had bought the rights to “Personal History”, a memoir written by the journalist Vincent Sheean who had covered the Spanish Civil War for the Herald Tribune. The book came to serve as the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film, a thriller so successful that it was only beaten at the Oscars by his first, Rebecca. Wanger and the director reportedly clashed during the making of Foreign Correspondent because the producer frequently wanted to update the script with events ripped from the headlines of the day; Hitchcock preferred to work with a finished screenplay. The film is nevertheless one of his most timely, mirroring U.S. sentiments at the time.
Assigned a new task
The New York Globe crime reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is assigned a new task as foreign correspondent, simply because the editor wants someone with fresh eyes to go to Europe and assess the situation. Johnny is sent to London where he meets Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), the leader of an organization called the Universal Peace Party. Johnny is also introduced to Fisher’s daughter Carol (Laraine Day) who’s also involved with the party, but she’s less than impressed with the brash American. Johnny also happens to meet a Dutch diplomat, Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), who is slated to speak at a party event.
However, Van Meer disappears and when news arrives of his plans to attend a political conference in Amsterdam, Johnny goes to the Netherlands… and together with Carol witnesses the assassination of the diplomat in the middle of a crowd. The murderer escapes into a car and Johnny and Carol follow him in another vehicle, along with Carol’s reporter friend ffolliott (George Sanders). There is one thing Johnny can’t forget – right before the killer struck, Johnny talked to Van Meer… who acted as if he had never seen him before.
Preparing the heartland audience
When the film premiered, America was still not an active part of World War II. Nevertheless, this film was not the only one at the time to prepare its heartland audience for the inevitable; Foreign Correspondent ends with our heroes reporting back to the U.S., urging for action as the enemy keeps pounding London. A stirring scene, although Hitchcock makes sure the movie is not entirely bound to the current events of the day; Germany and Hitler are barely named, which brings some degree of timelessness to the proceedings. Still, there are clear (even humorous) signs, such as (what many have gathered is) an image of Hitler in that famous windmill scene; look closely right after McCrea’s coat gets stuck in the wheel.
The movie is full of remarkable action/thriller sequences. The windmill sequence makes use of an idealized Dutch landscape in effective ways; the plane crash near the end is unusually horrifying for a 1940s film; and Van Meer’s murder, which is set on a rainy day with the killer disappearing in a sea of black umbrellas, is just one of those brilliant scenes that Hitchcock knew how to stage. No wonder that he couldn’t be bothered with Wanger’s demands for a constantly updated, realistic script; above all, Foreign Correspondent is fiction directed with an iron fist.
The spy story is straight-forward and not the film’s strongest asset. McCrea is reliable as a typically American hero and he has a few charming scenes with Day; Sanders is lovably sarcastic as the ultra-British ffolliott.
Joseph Goebbels once called this film a “propaganda masterpiece”. Allow me to simply state, at a stage when I have seen more or less every significant movie Alfred Hitchcock ever made, that it’s a pleasure to have experienced this film for the first time.
Foreign Correspondent 1940-U.S. 119 min. B/W. Produced by Walter Wanger. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay: Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, Robert Benchley, James Hilton. Cinematography: Rudolph Maté. Cast: Joel McCrea (John Jones), Laraine Day (Carol Fisher), Herbert Marshall (Stephen Fisher), George Sanders, Albert Bassermann, Robert Benchley… Edmund Gwenn.
Trivia: Gary Cooper was allegedly considered for the lead; Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Fontaine for the part of Carol.
Last word: “I went to Gary Cooper with it, but because it was a thriller, he turned it down. This attitude was so commonplace when I started to work in Hollywood that I always ended up with the next best – in this instance, with Joel McCrea. Many years later Gary Cooper said to me, ‘That was a mistake. I should have done it.'” (Hitchcock, interview with François Truffaut)