The unexpected comedy stylings of Alfred Hitchcock

A while back, when I was preparing the audio commentary for To Be Or Not To Be, I found myself making repeated allusions and references to Foreign Correspondent. The more I made them, the more I found them not just useful but essential–and before long I had started to discover an entire network of deep structure connecting the two films. Not all of that was relevant to a discussion of To Be Or Not To Be, and the commentary track was already overstuffed so I had to jettison some material. This month’s celebration of Hitchcock seems a perfect opportunity to explore Foreign Correspondent‘s secret twinship with To Be Or Not To Be. (Sorry I couldn’t align this with last week’s cablecast of Foreign Correspondent–I wanted to get the Edwin S. Porter post in as close to the start of The Story of Film cycle as possible)

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It’s important to bear in mind that the “World War II era” is not a monolithic thing, but was in fact broken into several discrete phases. For example, there was a period of time, in both the UK and US, where war hadn’t actually started yet but seemed increasingly likely, and filmmakers (like Hitchcock) made “wartime” thrillers before the war as a way of whipping up popular support for the coming fight.

Hitchcock made a number of these in the UK, prior to the outbreak of war in 1939 (The Lady Vanishes, 39 Steps, etc.) and then came to America and did the same thing, making Foreign Correspondent before Pearl Harbor. The plot of Foreign Correspondent is about the American press trying to suss out the likelihood of impending war.

But then, after the US joined the war in late 1942, a new phase began where propaganda was no longer about convincing audiences that a war needed to be fought against these Nazi bastards but that now that we were fighting we should keep our morale up–and To Be Or Not To Be had the misfortune to be made in one propaganda era but released in another. Its farcical vision of Nazism played differently to audiences now that war was no longer just somebody else’s problem.

But that being said, the two films stay weirdly in synch.

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Some of the parallels are in personnel: Charles Dobosh is one of the first actors to appear in both films, playing Dobosh the theater director in Lubitsch’s film and Bradley the news editor in Hitchcock’s. Rudolph Mate was director of photography on both films. Walter Wanger was to have been producer on both, until scheduling conflicts pulled him off the Lubitsch picture.

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Some of the parallels involve character types and narrative themes: both films turn on the idea that a prominent intellectual known as an influential voice of peace is actually an enemy agent. Herbert Marshall plays this role for Hitchcock, and Stanley Ridges plays it for Lubitsch. Both films involve a character sent into enemy territory for an intel gathering recon mission. Both films involve the impersonation of a public figure.

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But the more interesting and revealing parallel is more subtle. Consider for a moment the opening act of Foreign Correspondent. It is packed with comedy: Joel McCrea making paper dolls while his boss muses that his habit of punching policemen makes him a perfect choice for the assignment is just where we start. Soon McCrea is involved in a silly scene with a Latvian diplomat whose language is hilariously gibberish, a gag he would replay two years later for Preston Sturges in Palm Beach Story. There’s McCrea’s “meet cute” with Laraine Day, which could have come from any screwball comedy. There’s every scene with comedian Robert Benchley–McCrea’s first contact abroad.

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Even after the plot starts to heat up, and Van Meer is apparently assassinated, the film remains in a comic mode for a while. McCrea takes after the assassin, but finds himself in a car with George Sanders, with whom the primary topic of discussion is not “hey a major diplomat just got shot in the face” but rather “gee your name is spelled funny.”

The assassin’s getaway car mysteriously vanishes into thin air, and our heroes are stumped. They stand around perplexed, and the authorities arrive–at which point McCrea’s response is to make another joke about George Sanders’ name.

And then, something interesting happens.

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McCrea loses his bowler hat and goes to get it. In and of itself, this is another gag–a Laurel and Hardy routine, one McCrea already did earlier in the film, a running joke. But in retrieving the hat, he has the vantage point to notice that one of the windmills is running backwards. It’s so unlikely that not only has no one else noticed, but they don’t believe him when he insists on it.

This is where the movie shifts gears–and the literal shifting of gears inside the windmill to cause this anomaly is just a wonderful meta-joke highlighting the masterful way Hitchcock is manipulating the audience. For the last half hour we’ve been watching a comedy–with comedy stars doing things that in any other film would be unambiguously comedy routines. The tone has been light and jaunty. And then, at the moment McCrea goes to pick up his bowler hat out of the mud, as they say, “the s**t just got real.”

The film changes register into thriller. McCrea goes clamboring around inside the windmill, surrounded by baddies, with the very architecture of the place a threat, every shot moving him into greater danger–and the fact that this nightmare sequence follows so abruptly after being told for half an hour that it’s all a joke is what gives it an extra oomph.

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The windmill scene marks a major transition in tone. The tension is ramped up throughout the scene in part due to the brilliant staging and set design by William Cameron Menzies, but also because McCrea has been catapulted out of one movie and into another.

To Be Or Not To Be plays the exact same trick–spending its first act in the realm of broad farce and then suddenly dropping the audience unexpectedly into a true wartime thriller where all the jokes have been stripped away.

The difference is how Lubitsch uses the structure and tools of a thriller to give teeth to his comedy, where Hitchcock uses the structure and tools of a comedy to give energy to his thriller.

Notice how Hitchcock continues to invoke comedy elements throughout the film–such as Joel McCrea’s recreation of the Marx Brothers stateroom gag from A Night at the Opera.

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The latter part of the film involves the kind of romantic mix-ups that dominate screwball comedy–Joel McCrea and Laraine Day have gone off on a pleasure jaunt through the countryside and ended up at an inn–where she mistakenly believes he’s trying to get her into bed. She huffs off back to daddy, and Joel has to make amends–but plenty of complications intervene in which it isn’t clear who is where. But as much as these scenes fit perfectly with the kind of stuff 1940s romantic comedy did in its sleep, Hitch has twisted it all by mapping this bedroom farce stuff onto the machinations of international intrigue. McCrea wasn’t trying to get her into bed–he was trying to fake her kidnapping; and when she returns home to pout, she derails their attempt to force a confession from her father and puts Van Meer’s life in even greater danger. But for all the seriousness of the situation, the bedroom farce material still functions as comedy. When George Sanders breezes in to try to save Van Meer’s life, he does so with a comic’s swagger and deadpan flippancy that even Groucho Marx would have been proud of.

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Where they differ is that an Ernst Lubitsch film starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard is expected to be a comedy, and the only surprise is when it shifts gears at the end of act one. An Alfred Hitchcock film is expected to be a thriller, and that expectation drowns out the comedy in the first act to the point that it isn’t entirely recognized for what it is.

This is a key difference–Foreign Correspondent‘s first few reels are not “comic relief”–there’s nothing to be relieved from and the entire approach is consistently comic. Even though the first half hour is completely played for laughs, no one was fooled into thinking the film was a comedy.

But what did Hitchcock make immediately after this film? Mr and Mrs Smith–a screwball comedy with Carole Lombard and no thriller content at all.  (Airing on TCM Sunday the 29th, by the way)

If you think of Hitchcock solely as the Master of Suspense, and quantify his films based on how they fall on that set of criteria, then Mr and Mrs Smith is just an outlier, a black sheep, something to be skipped over. Which is indeed how most books on Hitchcock do treat it–making excuses and shrugging it off.

When I wrote about Mr and Mrs Smith a while back, I tried to contextualize it within Hitchcock’s larger career by pointing out how his earlier Rich and Strange already toyed with romantic comedy tropes, such that Mr and Mrs Smith could be favorably viewed as an evolution of ideas begun in Rich and Strange (which is generally thought of as a thriller). I now realize I should have been looking closer–Foreign Correspondent finds Hitchcock working comfortably within a tradition of Hollywood studio comedy in 1940.

1 Response The unexpected comedy stylings of Alfred Hitchcock
Posted By tolly devlin : November 18, 2015 8:12 am

How about Edmund Gwenn’s attempted assassination of Joel McCrea this is played out as a purely comic scene.George Sanders leap from the window & the awning which prevents him from winding up injured on the pavement is another comic scene .

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