April 19, 2017
1940’s Foreign Correspondent was Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film and looks and feels like a precursor to the suspenseful rollicks he’d eventually perfect in the 1950s. A spy thriller with a comedic streak not to be reckoned with, it’s something of a forefather to films like Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955), and North by Northwest (1959). Its ticklishness ensures that the focus be more on wit and fantastical intrigue and less on the rugged seriousness that plagued so many genre films of its era.
Set in 1939, days before the international rise of World War II, Foreign Correspondent follows the adventures of Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), a newly appointed crime reporter working for the New York Globe under the pen name Huntley Haverstock. With Hitler’s powers rising overseas, Jones’ editor, Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport), has grown increasingly dissatisfied with his foreign correspondents’ ability to confidently decide whether war will be declared.
Trusting that Jones has the capacity to dig deeper than his other employees, Powers first assigns his newest agent to profile Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), the leader of the Universal Peace Party. The center of all the action: the banquet Fisher is throwing for Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Albert Bassermann).
But Van Meer himself goes from supporting player in Jones’ mission to leading man after the former is assassinated right in front of the aforementioned reporter’s eyes. A couple action sequences later, though, and Jones finds that there’s much more at stake than what meets the eye – and that there’s a traitor among the men he thinks he can trust.
The chicanery supplemented by likable supporting actors George Sanders (as sardonic British agent Scott ffolliott [sic]), Laraine Day (as Carol, Fisher’s headstrong daughter), and Edmund Gwenn (as a would-be murderer with a killer set of shifty eyes), Foreign Correspondent is, like all of Hitchcock’s greatest features, a masterclass in popcorn entertainment.
Centering its story around of-the-time hijinks (so much so that producer Walter Wanger employed more than 10 writers to make sure the plot stay as timely as possible throughout filming), it is very much a war film, though not a propaganda-stuffed one akin to Across the Pacific (1942) or Mrs. Miniver (1942). The war, rather, is used as a tool to give weight to our greatest cinematic daydreams, Hitchcock instilling a winking conviction that maybe represented is one of the many hidden stories to have been buried under other moments of intrigue during the second world war.
It’s all reverie, of course, but Foreign Correspondent is so spotlessly fun that perhaps we wish it were some kind of too-good-to-be-true docudrama. A lot of that fun stems from the snappy dialogue and the thoroughly charming performances from the ensemble (McCrea has never been more charismatic). But most of it comes from the set pieces. And there are three phenomenal ones: the first a bullet-riddled car chase, the second an expertly choreographed discovery of a secret organization within the shifty walls of a run-down windmill, and the last – and most jaw-dropping – a plane crash which climaxes in a drop into the ocean with a bang.
And in that regard does Foreign Correspondent become predominantly about Hitchcock, who was still in the relatively early stages of her career and yet had already announced himself as the finest filmmaker of his generation. His vision is astonishing, a spellbinding mezcla of caper tropes and up-to-the-minute relevance which secures the movie as a product of the times that keeps its excitement intact. It’s a minor work in his hefty oeuvre, but I like it a hell of a lot more than his more often acclaimed Rebecca, and I’m close to holding it in as high esteem as Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Having this much of a good time is too powerful a thing to