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Review: 'Foreign Correspondent'

By the end of the 1930s, it was clear that Europe was on the brink of another war. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, were no longer content with simply ruling Germany. The Aryan people needed, according to the Führer, Lebensraum ("living space"), and Nazi foreign policy was to achieve this by taking what they wanted. So Hitler's Wehrmacht began to steamroll across Europe--invading, conquering, taking.

Original theatrical poster for Alfred Hitchcock's 'Foreign Correspondent' (1940).
Warner Bros.

Even after the invasion of Poland in 1939, and Britain and France's declaration of war against Germany, the United States was resolute in its desire to stay out Europe's troubles. But word of the growing number of atrocities committed by the Third Reich began to reach America's isolationist shores, as newspapers began printing the stories of foreign correspondents stationed inside a crumbling Europe. Slowly, Americans began to take notice--aided by Hollywood and its own propagandist push.

Famed British film director Alfred Hitchcock came to Hollywood during this time, to work for David O. Selznick on Rebecca. For his second American film, Selznick loaned Hitchcock out to United Artists and producer Walter Wanger. Wanger had been sitting on journalist Vincent Sheean's memoirs Personal History for several years, but had found it almost impossible to adapt into a screenplay. When he finally allowed a screenplay (and ten writers!) to stray significantly from the source material, a workable motion picture--Foreign Correspondent--was born.

This review will not spend time revealing the plot, since Foreign Correspondent is a spy picture, and this reviewer hates it when spy pictures are spoiled by reviews. So the short version is this: Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is a tough-guy crime reporter who's sent by the publisher of the newspaper to Europe, to uncover from a fresh perspective what was really going on there. The publisher gives Jones the pen name "Huntley Haverstock," and a first assignment: Interview peace activist Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) and cover Fisher's party for Dutch diplomat Van Meer.

Van Meer doesn't show at the party, even though he's supposedly the guest of honor. Fisher says he's in Amsterdam, so "Haverstock" heads there--after falling in love with Fisher's daughter Carol (Laraine Day). While in Amsterdam, our intrepid reporter witnesses the assassination of Van Meer and tracks the killer to a windmill, where he finds...the real Van Meer, drugged but alive. Except when he brings the Dutch authorities back to the windmill, they find only a drunken bum...

And as the reader can see, this is why spy pictures are best watched, and not boiled down in a synopsis. There are twists and turns, bad guys and guys one thinks are bad guys but aren't, and good guys and guys one thinks are good guys but aren't. International intrigue, criss-crossing continents, state deception--set against the backdrop of impending war.

Foreign Correspondent is filled with Hitchcock's typical flourishes: interesting camera angles and sequences, wry "gallows" humor, and brutal acts of violence that, on film, aren't really so brutal...until the imagination of the viewer manually inserts the cuts that the Master of Suspense didn't. The assassination of "Van Meer," and two attempts to murder "Haverstock" are examples of Hitch's philosophy that less was more, that our imaginations will frighten us far more than anything he could film.

Yet for all The Master's technical expertise, Foreign Correspondent falters in places. And those places are usually whenever Joel McCrea is on the screen. Since Johnny Jones was supposed to be a rough and tumble crime reporter, McCrea's casting makes no sense at all. McCrea is wooden, stiff, uninteresting, and totally unbelievable as scrappy newspaperman-turned-foreign correspondent. This is made worse by a script that relies a bit too much on sight gags and silly humor. Joel McCrea wasn't funny, but neither was the studio's original casting idea--the equally stiff and wooden Gary Cooper.

The rest of the supporting cast, though, are first-rate--and every bit as important to the film as the lead, which is typical in a Hitchcock film. Herbert Marshall and George Sanders particularly make up for Joel McCrea's acting deficiencies, as do Laraine Day and Robert Benchley. Location is also a character of sorts in Hitchcock's films, and while principal photography took place in Hollywood (he wouldn't begin location shooting as a rule until the late 40s), the second unit photography in England and Amsterdam lend an authenticity to this story of international espionage and intrigue.

Foreign Correspondent was though, at its heart, a call to the United States of America. To action, to do something. To come to the aid of Great Britain, France, and the other nations that had fallen into the hands of the Third Reich. Hitchcock would make other propaganda films during the war years--including two shorts made for the British Ministry of Information--but Foreign Correspondent is clear in its message to his new country: The world is falling apart and is again being ravaged by war, and this sitting on the sidelines minding your own business isn't helping matters at all.

My, how times have changed. On all sides. (B)

Foreign Correspondent is available to purchase at both of Modesto's FYE stores, Vintage Faire Mall and 2720 McHenry Avenue. It is available singly, or as part of Warner Brother's Alfred Hitchcock Collection.

Foreign Correspondent is also available to rent from Netflix.


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