Starring Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders, Robert Benchley; dir: Alfred Hitchcock
We always enjoy placing ourselves in the hands of a master manipulator like Alfred Hitchcock. But in Foreign Correspondent there’s an extra level of manipulation, besides the usual suspense machinations. It’s seeing War as inevitable, after which some pretty big decisions (like taking up arms) follow. There’s not a moment in Foreign Correspondent where Hitchcock allows us to breathe the oxygen of peacetime normalcy. The opening scene between two crusty newspapermen establishes the atmosphere instantly: "Well, they haven’t declared war yet", one says to conclude this brief scene, the ‘yet’ carrying the weight of expectations for an audience seeking suspense.
Yes, it’s a propaganda film and its times largely shaped its character. Based on the Spanish Civil War memoirs of then-famous war correspondent Vincent Sheehan, its producer, the highly urbane Walter Wanger, wanted it updated not just to World War II but on an almost weekly basis to incorporate each new domino falling in Hitler’s blitzkrieg. Hitchcock carries this off with typical elegance in a quick scene of tumbling newspaper headlines - "Norway Falls", etc. Wanger’s prescience paid off however, as the bombs falling on London, which its final scene predicts, actually started a mere five days after production concluded. No wonder it did boffo box-office in the States, elevating Hitchcock to a new level of prestige.
But the demands of timeliness and the anxieties over Hitchcock’s expatriate status in this time of crisis - his mother refused to emigrate and former English colleagues like Michael Balcon publicly excoriated his absence - saw the project go through no less than 14 writers. Not surprisingly its screenplay remains its weakest link (I still can’t fathom George Sanders’ role). Ultimately the deadlocked writing process would only be broken by Hitchcock himself and the importation to Hollywood of longtime collaborator Charles Bennett (Blackmail, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent) in the winter of 1939/40. According to Donald Spoto (in The Dark Side of Genius : The Life of Alfred Hitchcock), this pair returned to the scene of their earlier triumph, John Buchan’s novel The 39 Steps, and rifled it for scenes not already in their own gargantuan hit version.
Foreign Correspondent benefits from its consistent, and often corrosive, humour, typically allied to mordant observations of human nature which recall the bleak comedy of The Lady Vanishes (desperate tourists bribing front desk staff, etc). For all this, Foreign Correspondent is heavily reliant on typically Hitchcockian bravura setpieces: the camera-flash gun shot, rustling umbrellas tracking a killer’s getaway, reversing windmills, etc. It gets rather soggy in the middle and resorts to Saturday afternoon matinee clich�s of both Western (Joel McCrea dodging bullets in the main street shootout) and gangster ("follow that car!", says our hero, straightfaced). One wonders how these scenes would have played with Gary Cooper, Hitch’s first choice for leading man...
But all is redeemed by the extraordinarily gripping white knuckle plane crash sequence near the end, a visceral, chilling, you-are-there evocation as effective as any crash scene in cinema history. Remarkably plausible, and edited with the fractured rhythm of unpredictable disintegrations and torrential natural forces, this long setpiece alone elevates Foreign Correspondent to a very special level.
Thus pulverised, one is caught off guard by the unexpectedly moving rallying cry that ends the film with McCrea cavalierly throwing away his (fictional) script as, the bombs falling behind him in London, the lights go out – "lights that are out everywhere – except in America!". This is the grandaddy of all the Brit-engineered anti-isolationist speeches from Hollywood. Basil Rathbone implausibly ended a Sherlock Holmes with one, and Hitch would repeat the trick in 1942’s Saboteur, where he cheekily has the ‘American values/world freedom’ lines mouthed by a gypsy caravan’s bearded lady – shaved, photographed and staged to look exactly like Abe Lincoln! But for vintage, rousing emotional string-pulling, nothing beats the finale to Foreign Correspondent. Yet the brilliance of Hitchcock’s manipulation could also be subtle. The official U.S. government line of neutrality is embodied so frustratingly by the American captain of the ship which rescues the plane crash survivors, having witnessed the unprovoked German attack, that even today one wants to throttle him out of his obtuse evenhandedness.
Earlier we see the marquee of the ‘Hotel Europe’ flicker on as Hot--- Europe after McCrea grabs its neon sign for support whilst escaping on its outside ledge. This scene is remarkably similar to the finale of the following year’s Orson Welles-supervised Journey Into Fear – a comparison not hurt by Foreign Correspondent’s unusual use of a 78 rpm record in a torture scene, reflecting Journey Into Fear’s innovative sound/terror design linkages.
Ultimately Foreign Correspondent is basically about nothing except manipulation. The McGuffin is particularly offhand, and a promising through-line of ‘hats’ comes to nought (bowler to fedora initially delineates English/American, while hats blowing away lead to the windmill discovery and later tips the Westminster Tower assassination attempt). Perhaps this explains why it’s not better remembered. But Foreign Correspondent has its admirers. One was Joseph Goebbels who, according to Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol’s book Hitchcock, called it "remarkable but dangerous". What propaganda film could ever have a greater accolade?
- Roger Westcombe
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