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Foreign Correspondent (1940)

October 14th, 2007 · 5 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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With Europe on the brink of war and no news fit to print coming in over the cables, the editor of the “New York Globe” demands “a good honest crime reporter” get to the bottom of events unraveling overseas. Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) – close to being fired for assaulting a police officer – is handed the task. Renamed “Huntley Haverstock”, he’s dispatched to London to get news on Van Meer, a Dutch diplomat brokering a last minute peace deal between Germany and England.

The Globe’s lazy London man Stebbins (Robert Benchley) supplies Jones with an invitation to a luncheon being given by the Universal Peace Party. Jones snares a cab to the luncheon with Van Meer (Albert Bassermann). Jones fails to get an interview, but does infuriate Carol Fisher (Laraine Day), headstrong daughter of Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), the head of the Universal Peace Party, when he tells her that the group is made up of “well-meaning amateurs.”

Sent to Amsterdam to cover a peace conference, Jones greets Van Meer, but the diplomat has no idea who he is. Moments later, an assassin shoots Van Meer in the face. Jones gives chase with Carol Fisher and a droll newspaperman named Ffolliott (George Sanders). The assassin disappears near a row of windmills, one of which Jones notices revolving against the wind. He sneaks inside and finds the real Van Meer in custody of foreign agents. They want something he knows. Jones returns with police, but Van Meer has vanished.

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Jones escapes the clutches of agents at his hotel and convinces Carol to return to London with him. The pair falls in love. They go to her father for help, but Jones recognizes one of Fisher’s associates as the agent who kidnapped Van Meer. Carol’s father is revealed to be leader of a ring of spies and traitors. Fisher hires a private eye (Edmund Gwenn) to take care of the foreign correspondent before he unravels their plans to sabotage the peace accord.

Production history 
Two weeks into shooting his first Hollywood film – Rebecca – director Alfred Hitchcock was looking for his next project. He realized that producer David O. Selznick, who had brought Hitchcock to America under contract, would be too busy publicizing Gone With The Wind to develop anything for him. The director was given permission to talk to producer Walter Wanger, who suggested that Hitchcock take over a troubled project called Personal History.

A 1935 political memoir by newspaperman Vincent Sheean, Personal History had been optioned by Wanger and was stuck in development purgatory. The producer felt Hitchcock might be able to make something out of it. As long as it was about an American foreign correspondent, Hitchcock was given the green light to do anything he wanted with it. Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville and screenwriter Joan Harrison began work on a treatment.

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In February 1940, Hitchcock requested Charles Bennett – who’d helped write seven of his British pictures – adapt the script. British novelist and screenwriter James Hilton was later brought in to give the dialogue some flavor. American humorist Robert Benchley – whom Hitchcock was so amused by, he cast as Stebbins – was put on the payroll to give the script some comic relief. A young screenwriter under contract to Paramount named Richard Maibaum also served as script doctor.

With production designer William Cameron Menzies – who won an Oscar creating the sets for Gone With The Wind – the budget rose to $1.5 million, twice what Wagner was used to spending. Rebecca hadn’t even been released, but the producer had faith in Hitchcock. The director had fashioned the starring roles for Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, but Cooper’s people were wary of Hitchcock, while Stanwyck was unavailable. Hitchcock settled on Joel McCrea and Laraine Day.

Released August 1940 in the U.S., Foreign Correspondent was hailed for its immediacy. Less than a month later, Germany began its bombing campaign against the UK. Hitchcock’s former ally, producer Michael Balcon, denounced the famous directors he felt were riding out the war in the States. Hitchcock responded, “The manner in which I am helping my country is not Mr. Balcon’s business.” Nevertheless, the film received a chilly reception from critics when it debuted in England.

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The film was nominated for six Academy Awards – including Best Picture – but due to an absence of stars, or Hitchcock’s signature shocking style, it rarely figures into discussions of his best work. Foreign Correspondent is the lost gem of Hitchcock’s career, a supremely well made action/comedy/thriller that works flawlessly as both an entertainment vehicle, and as a social document of a culture on the brink of world war.

The set pieces Hitchcock devised are among the most ingenious ever created for a movie. The assassin’s escape through a sea of umbrellas. McCrea sneaking around a windmill. Edmund Gwenn (Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street) plotting to kill McCrea by shoving him off the observation tower of Westminster Catholic Cathedral. The climax – involving a clipper plane being shot down over the ocean – is a masterpiece of storyboarding, camerawork, special effects and editing.

Foreign Correspondent is a perfection of everything that makes movies great: strong narrative, three-dimensional characters, comedy (Benchley steals the show), romance, intrigue, action. There’s so much going on that this film demands repeated viewings to absorb it. The final scene – with McCrea broadcasting on the brink of the London Blitz – is a classic. It avoids feeling hokey because of McCrea’s affability, and because of the sincerity and geopolitical foresight of the filmmakers.

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Andrew Wickliffe at The Stop Button writes, “Watching early, raw Hitchcock is an exciting experience and Correspondent is one of the two best of these raw films (the other is The Lady Vanishes).”

“‘The Thrill Spectacle of the Year!’ cries the poster for this thriller, and brother, they ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie. A fast-moving tale of international intrigue set against the backdrop of a world on the brink of war, it’s about as far away as you can get from the moody, gothic suspense of Hitchcock’s previous film, Rebecca,” writes Maurice Cobbs at DVD Verdict.

Jeffrey Anderson at Combustible Celluloid writes, “The film includes some of Hitchcock’s finest set-pieces, including a secret hideout inside a windmill, a murder in broad daylight and a plane crash, even if the romantic subplot tends to slow things down a bit.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on book · Father/daughter relationship · Golden Age of Hollywood · Interrogation

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dave Pattern // Oct 15, 2007 at 2:41 am

    Great review Joe — the assassination in the rain scene is one of my favourite Hitchcock moments :-)

    Out of interest, the British reviews weren’t all chilled. Although unusually brief (there was a war on and words were rationed!), the review in The Times was positive:

    “…first-rate tale of adventure”

    The reviews in the same newspaper for “Rebecca” and “Suspicion” were much less favourable.

  • 2 Damian // Oct 17, 2007 at 9:16 pm

    I also saw Foreign Correspondent for the first time recently and loved it. Your characterization of it as the “lost gem of Hitch’s career” is quite apt, Joe. I even considered using a screenshot from it for my “Windmills” logo. Maybe I still will someday.

  • 3 Megan // Oct 18, 2007 at 11:01 am

    I love George Sanders in this. I remember the first time I saw it I thought for sure he was going to turn out to be a bad guy!

  • 4 Pat Evans // Oct 18, 2007 at 1:36 pm

    Let’s see if your spam filter hates me today too. I love this movie particularly with its offbeat casting: having very suave Herbert Marshall as the big baddie and everyone’s favourite Kris Kringle, Edmund Gwenn, as a would-be assassin. Good stuff!

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Oct 18, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    Dave: Thanks for pointing that out. I doubt all critics vote as a bloc, even in circumstances similar to the one in England in 1940.

    Damian: This is such a fantastic movie! It could have been a serious political thriller, or a comic romp, but the way the script manages to do both is something I’m truly in awe of as a writer. It goes to show that sometimes a movie written by committee can be a masterpiece too. Thanks for commenting. I’m really curious which image you’d choose to illustrate your site with.

    Megan: I agree with you completely about George Sanders. The phrase “cheeky bastard” seems invented specifically for him.

    Pat: Hitchcock’s decision to show the plummeting body and not clue us in until the next scene whether it was McCrea or Gwenn seems so simple, yet it really made for brilliant suspense. p.s. You were successful tonight. Receiving a comment from you across the Atlantic and through the spam filters is always a treat.

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