Foreign Correspondent Alfred Hitchcock2010-10-20
Foreign Correspondent, released in 1940, signified a major turning point in director Alfred Hitchcock's career. Although the film was his second to be made in the United States, it constituted his first experience with a Hollywood-type production. His first American film, based on Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, so retained the style and appearance of the director's English works that it is difficult to think of it as having been made in Hollywood. Interestingly, this result was not due to any stylistic intention on Hitchcock's part but was instead a reflection of the subject matter and of the production values aimed for by producer David 0. Selznick.
Selznick had brought Hitchcock to Hollywood in 1940 with an $800,000 contract to make four important pictures. When the first project, Titanic, based upon the story of the doomed luxury liner, had to be temporarily abandoned, the director was given Rebecca, a property which he had earlier attempted to purchase and produce in England. Hitchcock's second chance to make this film of the Manlier novel was, of course, a major success, earning the Oscar as Best Picture of 1940, but it also proved to Hitchcock that working for Selznick would be a mixed blessing. In England, the director's creativity had been restrained by small budgetS; in Hollywood, however, he could afford to explore more fully the technical tricks of movie-making and experiment with projects that were not hampered by budgetary limitations. There were, however, limitations imposed by Hollywood that Hitchcock had rarely encountered in England, where he was in almost complete artistic control of his films. In the United States during the 1940's, however, it was the producer who controlled the creative direction of the project, and his intentions and wishes always superseded those of the director. When the producer was a man like David 0. Selznick, control was imperious and complete. This was the situation with Rebecca, even though the film seems to be a reflection of the Hitchcock style.
Foreign Correspondent, Hitchcock's second American film, provided him with more artistic freedom than had Rebecca and at the same time afforded the director most of the assets available at a Hollywood studio. Hitchcock had discovered that some other producers were less likely to interfere in his films than was Selznick; thus he endeavored to make additional pictures on loan to other studios. Foreign Correspondent, loosely based upon journalist Vincent Sheean's autobiography, Personal History, the first of these additional films, was made for Walter Wanger and United Artists. Its budget of oneand-one-half million dollars, which represented the most money with which Hitchcock had ever worked, was principally spent on scenery consisting of a ten-acre Amsterdam public square, a large section of London, a Dutch countryside complete with windmill, and a large transatlantic airplane. These items were planned and constructed by an army of 558 carpenters and technicians. Additionally, fourteen screenwriters worked at various times on the screenplay, and more than 240,000 feet of film were shot and edited to 120 screen minutes. The film displays some of the finest visual design and cinematography evident in any of Hitchcock's productions, indicating that the director quickly learned the manner in which to make optimum use of a generous budget.
Unlike many of Hitchcock's other famous thrillers, Foreign Correspondent features no superstars. Gary Cooper, for example, refused the role of reporter Johnny Jones, and although Joel McCrea was eventually placed in the role and did a solid job, he simply lacked the box-office appeal of a major star such as Cary Grant or James Stewart. The problem was that the "thriller" was held in rather low esteem by 1940 Hollywood, and Hitchcock, who had not yet established himself as the master of suspense, was not able to recruit the big-name actors he desired.
Foreign Correspondent establishes a pattern of suspense and intrigue that would become a hallmark of many of Hitchcock's American thrillers. Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is a tough, hard-headed crime reporter who is reassigned by his editor to investigate the prospects of an outbreak of hostilities in Europe just prior to the beginning of World War II. He thus becomes a foreign correspondent, and temporarily changes his name to Huntley Hay¬erstock. Arriving in Amsterdam, Jones meets Van Meer (Albert Basser¬man), a Dutch diplomat who has memorized a secret clause in an Allied treaty for his country. Traveling with the diplomat is the head of a pacifist group, Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), and his daughter Carol (Laraine Day). Van Meer is to make a speech to the pacifist organization on the opportunities of averting war.
In one of the most memorable scenes of any Hitchcock film, Van Meer appears to be assassinated as he arrives to address the pacifists; the scene occurs in the Amsterdam public square filled with people carrying umbrellas in a pouring rain, and the murderer escapes in a chase beneath the umbrellas, the scene being presented through some excellent camerawork from above. An elaborate drainage system constructed beneath the set carried off the rainwater to maintain some degree of traction for McCrea and the other actors involved in the scene. The murderer is pursued by Johnny Jones into the Dutch countryside. At a windmill, the reporter discovers, the real Van Meer, kidnaped by Nazis who have staged the assassination by murdering a double. The Nazis disappear with their captive while Jones is trying to con¬vince the Dutch police that the diplomat is a prisoner inside the windmill.
Jones searches for Van Meer both in Holland and England with the aid of Carol Fisher, who is slowly falling in love with him. They discover that Carol's father, who has been masquerading as a pacifist, is in reality an agent for the Nazis and has been instrumental in kidnaping Van Meer and in trying to extract his secret information. Jones and Herbert Ffolliott (George Sanders), an English reporter, rescue the Dutch diplomat, but Fisher escapes with his daughter, who is now confused and disillusioned in her romance with Jones. As war is declared, the Fishers take a plane from England to America only to find that Jones and Ffolliott are also onboard, and as the reporters confront Fisher, the plane, mistaken by a German ship below for an English bomber, is shot down. The survivors attempt to stay afloat upon the wing of the plane while Fisher, realizing that he faces arrest in America, sacrifices his life to save the rest. An American ship approaches, frightening off the German one, and rescues the plane's passengers. Barred from telephoning their newspa¬pers, Jones and Ffolliott pretend to make a personal call and then reiterate the story to the captain loud enough to be heard by Jones's editor on the other end of the line. As the film ends, Jones establishes himself as a top foreign correspondent and marries Carol.
Foreign Correspondent has achieved a well-deserved reputation as a mas¬terpiece of suspense and intrigue, and was instrumental in upgrading the reputation of the thriller genre, being nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. The fact that the film won in neither category may be due to one significant fault in Hitchcock's effort: the film is overly long and drags in spots because of diversions in the story line incorporated to promote America's entry into World War II. The film at¬tempts to merge two levels in an emotional appeal to the viewer. The first, that of the suspenseful cloak-and-dagger chase across Europe, is what Hitch¬cock does best; the second, however, is propaganda advocating an end to American isolation and an entry into World War II, and although Hitchcock Manages a merger of these two themes more successfully than many other directors at the time, the intertwining causes the film to be less taut and more meandering than many of his later masterpieces.
The best reporter in Foreign Correspondent is, unquestionably, the camera. When the diplomat. is assassinated, Hitchcock's camera is in the right place observing the fallen man's face; when a man is on the verge of dropping from a tower, the camera follows a hat making the plunge first; as the stricken airplane hurtles to the sea at the film's climax, the camera peers anxiously from the pilot's seat, indicating that it too has the reporter's gift of not revealing everything.
According to a number of sources, Hitchcock ordered several retakes of the wreck of the Clipper because it pleased him to see Joel McCrea and George Sanders floundering in the water, and when McCrea protested that the scene had ruined one of his suits, Hitchcock, who claims to dislike actors, sent him a new one the next day—made for a ten-year-old. In his role, however, McCrea proves both likable and capable. His interpretation of the reporter establishes the man as a credible citizen who, as the film ends, has the audience convinced that he will stride to one journalistic triumph after another. Laraine Day performs solidly in the role of Carol Fisher, her most ambitious part to that date, but Herbert Marshall appears somewhat miscast as the peace advocate who turns out to be a spy. Although he gives a good performance, he is too suave for his character and loses a little credibility. George Sanders, Albert Basserman, and Edward Ciannelli add much to the film, but it is Robert Benchley who carries off the acting honors in his por¬trayal of the broken-down American journalist Stebbins in London. He brought much of his own experience to the role and was specially chosen by Hitchcock, who enjoyed his brand of satiric humor. All of the scenes in which the humorist appeared were, at Hitchcock's request, written by Benchley himself.
In viewing the film as fundamentally a spy melodrama which places more emphasis on the pacing of the action than on where the action takes us, there are still awkward aspects. The meeting of the peace society contains prom¬inently overdone elements; the crucial secret is, for the most part, meaningless, and the speeches are sometimes heavy-handed, particularly toward the end. Otherwise, the film moves swiftly, and although the plot is bare enough, Hitchcock, in the manner of a painter, loves details and loads his set with them without weighing down his action. He makes a character out of every extra; he likes to have a bland face or a sweet old lady personify evil, while the sinister fellow turns out to be the good guy all along. He sprinkles his scenes with people and mechanical devices which are not direct accessories to the plot so that the film conveys the realities of life, with dogs and casual passersby who are real and have nothing to do with any plot.
Above all, the film exemplifies Hitchcock's ability to use people, sound, and objects for the sole purpose of suspense. The use of objects, for example, is seen in Foreign Correspondent in the reversing windmill, the assassin's camera and the disappearing cat Hitchcock knows where to set the microphone and camera to catch the effect he has planned, and with all of the devices of this complex art completely at his fingertips, his characters never enter a deserted building or a dark alley without the viewer wondering if they will ever come out alive.
In short, Foreign Correspondent provides an example of all the techniques that make a film move in the lightest and fastest manner possible, utilizing all of the qualities that are available through a large budget and the art of Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, Hitchcock's only oversight in making Foreign Correspondent was in forgetting his invariable signature of personally appearing in the film. Fortunately, with a generous Hollywood budget, he had the means to reshoot a scene in a railway station in order to get himself into the picture.
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