Faceoff: Sabotage vs. Foreign Correspondent

SABOTAGE (1936)

It’s that time of year when I ask students to select one or more Hitchcock films as part of the course material in my upper level film history class. I like to offer a pre-WWII Hitchcock film as one of the choices to represent his early spy thrillers, in which various spies and secret agents dash about Europe either defending or undermining the forces of democracy.

Last year, after asking for the input of the Morlocks (now StreamLine) readers, I selected The Lady Vanishes (1938) to represent this phase of Hitchcock’s work. It was a resounding success. This year, I have narrowed the choices to Sabotage (1936) and Foreign Correspondent (1940), both available for streaming through The Criterion Channel. (Foreign Correspondent also airs on TCM on February 8 at 8:00pm ET.) Please weigh in on which film you think is the better choice, especially for young viewers who have heard of Hitchcock but are unfamiliar with his earlier work.

Sabotage, based on Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, was second choice last year. Though WWII was still a couple of years away, the film captured the uneasy political atmosphere in Europe as the Nazis snatched and grabbed power and territory. Sabotage makes a good choice for several reasons, including the storyline, which illustrates one of Hitchcock’s key themes. Evil lurks all around us, just on the edge of our ordinary, everyday experiences, ready to disrupt our lives into chaos at any moment. In Sabotage, Sylvia Sidney stars as a working-class woman who lives a simple but comfortable existence with her brother and husband, the owner of a small neighborhood movie theater in an ordinary neighborhood in London. She takes tickets in the booth, cooks dinner for the family and shops at local green grocers. She does not know that her unexceptional life with its daily routines hides the traitorous deeds of her husband, who belongs to a group of saboteurs determined to wreak havoc in London. The saboteurs hide in plain sight because they are shop owners and residents of the neighborhood. The security and comfort we feel from the routine of our everyday world is but a thin veneer; evil lingers at the edges of our lives, and those closest to us are sometimes the biggest threats.

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I am most interested in Sabotage because of the idea that a wife does not really know the man she shares her bed with, a recurring plot thread in Hitchcock’s work that speaks to his cynical view of marriage and relationships. While some accuse Hitchcock of sexism, I find his early films featuring female protagonists to be sympathetic to their situation, as they are at the mercy of the monster. . . . oops, I mean man. . . . they married.

SABOTAGE (1936)

It also includes a beautifully edited dinner scene with Sylvia Sidney and Oscar Homolka, who plays her husband. Sidney has just learned Homolka was responsible for the death of her little brother; her revengeful thoughts become clear as Hitchcock expertly intercuts between close-ups of Sidney, Homolka, a huge carving knife and the empty place setting for her brother. The scene features little or no dialogue as the precise montage renders dialogue superfluous. Similarly, the film makes creative use of the Disney cartoon Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935). Though this is one of the few Hitchcock films in which he does not make a cameo, it does feature other Hitchcock motifs and style elements, including expressionist lighting and birds as a signifier of chaos and destruction.

New to my list of choices is Foreign Correspondent, a taut little spy thriller that doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves. It tends to live in the shadow of Rebecca, also released in 1940. As Hitchcock’s second American film, it does not carry the same significance as Rebecca, his first Hollywood production. I did not realize until I looked up the release dates, but FC and Rebecca were nominated as Best Picture in the same year. What an auspicious start for Hitchcock in Hollywood—two films up for several Academy Awards (FC with six nominations; Rebecca with 11) in the same year. However, the Best Picture winner, Rebecca, has stolen the spotlight from FC, which I actually like much better.

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Hitchcock was under contract to David O. Selznick, but the latter lent his new, talented director to Walter Wanger for Foreign Correspondent. Rebecca may have been Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film, but FC is his first film with archetypal American characters. Joel McCrea stars as all-American journalist John Jones who is reassigned to Europe to track down a covenant of conspirators determined to undermine democracy on the eve of WWII. Like any good spy story, FC includes a string of fast-paced adventures while characters globe-hop around Europe.

One of the film’s most famous sequences occurs at a Dutch windmill, which provides an opportunity to explore Hitchcock’s German Expressionist influences. Mills are featured as locations in two other Hitchcock films, Young and Innocent (1938) and The Manxman (1929), though these are grain mills with turning water-wheels rather than rotating blades. In German Expressionism, twirling, spinning or spiraling motions have a threatening connotation, sometimes symbolizing the swirling chaos in the mind of a madman, or the destructive force of a society gone mad.

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FC also boasts a more interesting cast than Sabotage, though that doesn’t lessen Sidney’s and Homolka’s terrific performances. Costarring opposite McCrea is 19-year-old Laraine Day, along with a refined, courteous Herbert Marshall and the always suave George Sanders. The latter, who was also in Rebecca, plays fellow correspondent Scott ffolliott with the deliberately lower-case “f” in his name as a salute to a long-dead ancestor. Humorist Robert Benchley, who was allowed to write some of his own lines, and Edmund Gwenn, who plays against type, add humor and color to the story.

And, then there was Albert Bassermann, the Mannheim-born actor who had been a premier talent on the German stage, acclaimed for his interpretations of Ibsen’s characters. Bassermann did not know English when he appeared in Foreign Correspondent, and he delivered his lines phonetically. The well-known actor and his wife were refugees, having fled from the Nazis in 1939 who were persecuting them because of religion. Mrs. Bassermann was Jewish. By this time, German refugees in America and England were regarded in some quarters with scorn and suspicion. But, Hitchcock, himself an immigrant from Europe, not only gave Bassermann work in his chosen profession, but he cast him as a sympathetic, anti-Nazi character who represents the forces of freedom. This act of kindness by Hitchcock and producer Walter Wanger weighs heavily on my mind after the events of last week in which the very definition of Americanism was being reworked by the current administration.

By the way, Bassermann received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor, making this role in this film a part of American film history.

24 Responses Faceoff: Sabotage vs. Foreign Correspondent
Posted By AL : February 6, 2017 1:09 am

Pauline Kael once said that it’s almost impossible to choose THE best Hitchcock–that it’s difficult enough to narrow it down to just FIVE. Hitch said that SHADOW OF A DOUBT was his personal favorite, “But if I had to pick the one that is the most representational of my work it would be NORTH BY NORTHWEST. I agree. It’s hard to select between SABOTAGE and FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (see what I mean?), but I go with F.C. because it’s more “mature”(?) or “comprehensive”(oyVey)–Hitch was secure by then and knew exactly he was doing, so-to-speak. He knew how to put his “signature” on his films. (I’m not expressing myself well {duh}, but you know what I mean…

Posted By Emgee : February 6, 2017 3:03 am

I prefer Foreign Correspondent if only because it’s a more enjoyable and exciting movie. Sabotage is very downbeat and rather slow, although dramatically it has more impact than FC.

So i think young viewers will enjoy FC more, but Sabotage has more dramatic weight.

Posted By Charles L. Berger : February 6, 2017 6:41 am

I have watched Foreign Correspondent more than 100 times. Yes, that is correct. I first saw it in the early fifties. I never get tired of it. McCrea as Johnny Jones/ Huntley Haverstock was
terrific. No cowboy riding a horse in this flick. Both
Herbert Marshall and George Sanders ( two personal favorites of mine) add so much to the movie. And, Albert Bassermann as usual
gave a thoroughly professional and convincing performance as
Van Meer, the architect of the peace treaty. Just a great suspenseful film, one of Hitch’s best.

Although Sabotage is a really good movie, as mentioned by someone
previously, it did lack the interesting cast.

Posted By LD : February 6, 2017 8:25 am

SABOTAGE is a movie that I have just seen once. It has Hitchcock’s signature use of tension, especially in the bus scene, although he later regretted the way he filmed it. It is relevant today because of its theme of terrorism.

On the other hand, I have seen FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT several times. I have read it is considered to be an example of a propaganda film. The windmill scene and the plane crash are both notable, with the latter having an interesting backstory. It also contains Hitchcock’s signature humor and I like the way he incorporated the way he proposed to Alma in the film. What makes this film relevant today is how it shows the importance of journalists and the part they may play in world events.

It’s a tough call but if I had to choose it would be FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT. Although, my fondness for Joel McCrea may be swaying my opinion.

Posted By CitizenKing : February 6, 2017 8:33 am

Both are tight thrillers. Foreign Correspondent gets my vote for one reason, Joel McCrea. He carries the movie and was the best Hitch hero until Cary Grant came along. Props also to Hebert Marshall. He enhances every movie he was ever in.

Posted By swac44 : February 6, 2017 9:35 am

It’s funny, I used to think Hitchcock did have a cameo in Sabotage, it’s even included on at least one notable list of his on-camera appearances, and according to this link he can be spotted walking past the movie theatre and looking up around the 8:46 mark. But the image is fairly grainy at that link (probably taken from one of the many low-quality PD copies floating around), and when viewed on the best quality copy available (the disc that was issued by Fox/MGM) it’s quite clear that it’s not Hitchcock.

It’s not the first time this film has confounded me, for years many VHS copies (usually low-rent public domain ones) excised the footage of the Disney cartoon, for fear of drawing the wrath of The Most Litigious Company on Earth, and I would read about it in books on Hitch’s films with no recall of having seen any animation at all. I think it was when Criterion issued the film on laserdisc that a complete copy was finally available, but sadly only to a niche market that could play the darned things.

Posted By Lyndell Smith : February 6, 2017 12:46 pm

Not sure I have ever seen Sabotage. But Foreign Correspondent became a favorite after a TCM presenter explained how wonderfu it was and I saw it for the first time. On a personal level, I love it because of the windmill scene: I have a house full of things related to Holland including windmills. Hitch used this motif beautifully in FC. Next, over the years I have come to adore Herbert Marshall; I will watch most any movie he’s in. Though Joel McCrea was never one of my favorites, I loved him in FC. He was a perfect choice for the part, not just for his demeanor, but for that wonderful News voice. Add in that adorable Laraine Day, and you can see that Hitchcock used all his film-making talents and actor resources to great advantage making for a fine film.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 6, 2017 2:52 pm

Lyndell: I am with you on Herbert Marshall — one of my newfound favorites. If I can find a hook with something playing on FilmStruck or Criterion, I might conjure up a post about him.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 6, 2017 2:52 pm

So far, it looks like Foreign Correspondent will be on the list to represent Pre-WWII Hitchcock.

Posted By swac44 : February 6, 2017 3:28 pm

For a younger crowd, I’d definitely lean toward Foreign Correspondent, despite my love for Sylvia Sidney. It’s funnier and flashier, I’m sure they’ll love the assassination scene, which is one of the finest sequences in Hitch’s filmography, and the spectacular plane crash.

Posted By chris : February 6, 2017 3:37 pm

I’ve only seen Sabotage once, a long time ago. However, didn’t it include what could be said was Hitchcock’s classic definition of suspense vs. surprise with a bomb sequence? His definition being that suspense is when the audience knows there’s a bomb and the question is when will it go off–if it does? Whereas, if a bomb just suddenly goes, without the audience knowing there was a bomb to begin with, that’s surprise.
If so, I think I might pick that one. Plus, it’s the least likely of the two that your students might have seen. And, there is the terrorism angle.

Posted By LD : February 6, 2017 4:19 pm

Criterion’s release of FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT has supplements that are both informative and interesting, especially about the use of propaganda and the special effects in the film.

Posted By Tolly Devlin : February 6, 2017 6:33 pm

Foreign Correspondent, personally I feel its a much better film than Rebecca, and though I like Sabotage, I’m always impressed with FC.The humor, suspense & thrills make it a most enjoyable experience.

Posted By George : February 6, 2017 6:59 pm

I’ve recommended SABOTAGE before, and I’ll recommend it again. I greatly prefer it to FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (which is also worth seeing). But I know that a lot of people dislike SABOTAGE because of what happens to the kid on the bus.

If you show SABOTAGE to your students, you can tell them that Sylvia Sidney played the old lady in BEETLE JUICE (a movie they’re more likely to have seen) some 52 years later.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 6, 2017 8:02 pm

George: GOod point about Beetlejuice.

Posted By Doug : February 6, 2017 9:07 pm

Yes but…Sidney had more of a role in my favorite Burton film, “Mars Attacks!”
I know I have “Sabotage” around here somewhere, but I have the Criterion Blu ray of “Foreign Correspondent” so that is nearer to my heart. Also because I’m a Bob Benchley fan.
To see Marshall in a great fun film with Jean Arthur, seek out “If Only You Could Cook”.
I have it in the “Icons of Screwball Comedy, Volume 1″ which is Gold.

Posted By George : February 6, 2017 10:46 pm

Susan: And if you ever show them a ’30s movie with Gloria Stuart, like THE INVISIBLE MAN or THE OLD DARK HOUSE, you can tell ‘em she was the old lady in TITANIC!

Posted By Thomas Zorthian : February 7, 2017 12:09 am

I am surprised about the overwhelming support for Foreign Correspondent. It is a good film, but I don’t think it is in the same class as Sabotage, one of Hitch’s best early films. This unsettling film is short and succinct. In it, the ordinary man is guilty, an inversion of the usual Hitchcock situation. This is Hitchcock at his most perverse, as he not only puts a child in danger; he adds a puppy to the mix in order to ratchet up the suspense.

This masterpiece is not as well-known as some other Hitchcock films, but deserves a place in the pantheon.

Posted By Thomas Zorthian : February 7, 2017 12:18 am

And there is the killing of Verloc, one of Hitch’s greatest murder set pieces until the Psycho shower scene. AND it is set in a movie theater!!

Posted By Susan Doll : February 7, 2017 12:21 am

Thomas: Excellent arguments. Now I am back on the fence again.

Posted By Alonzo Church : February 7, 2017 4:01 pm

Sabotage is deeper — and shows Hitchcock working with material from Joseph Conrad (of all people). It’s not fluff — there’s a nice thematic link to 50s Hitchcock. I would guess this was a bid by Hitch to be taken more seriously as an important filmaker, rather than as a maker of entertainments.

Foreign Correpondent is much more what people associate with “early Hitchcock” — it’s tense but fun.

I think the choice here depends on what you are trying to teach your students about Hitch. If you already have North by Northwest in the syllabus, I’d go with Sabotage. Otherwise, I’m on the fence with everyone else.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : February 8, 2017 9:46 pm

Foreign Correspondent by a hair

Posted By George : February 9, 2017 3:06 pm

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT is more light-hearted, more of a crowd-pleaser, so I’m not surprised by the support for it. SABOTAGE is a darker and more disturbing film, and as Alonzo said, it’s deeper.

Posted By Ellen Marie : February 12, 2017 11:15 pm

My favorite Hitchcock film is ‘Shadow of a Doubt’. I just read above that this was Hitchcock himself’s favorite which both surprised and delighted me. My second favorite is ‘Rope’. I just signed up here and do not know if either of these films had been considered or shown to your students, but each would have my vote for future consideration.

As for a choice between ‘Foreign Correspondent’ and ‘Sabotage’, my vote would go to ‘Foreign Correspondent’. There is no doubt that it is far more light-hearted. How could it not be? ‘Sabotage’ never seemed to have any redemption for any of the characters and I craved something good to come out of this film.

‘Foreign Correspondent’ is no comedy, yet Joel McCrea manages to insert his typical brand of humor (‘Sullivan’s Travels), while still maintaining his sex appeal. George Sanders delivers his own urbane characterization as only he can. Lorraine Day is both smart and beautiful but is torn between her love of her father and her sense of honor and patriotism. Excellent film!

While not a Herbert Marshall fan, we have here the much needed redeeming value for the heroine, as opposed to the heroine in Sabotage (Mrs Verloc), if you can call her that, who takes justice into her own hands and seemingly get’s away with it. Woman, who have no idea what is going on in their own homes don’t inspire. In this day and age, I, for one, do not care to watch more films about terrorism.

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