Posted by Susan Doll on February 6, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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