Foreign Correspondent (1940) Keeps the Lights Burning

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To view Foreign Correspondent click here.

Here we have it: that “other movie” Alfred Hitchcock made in 1940 along with his much-loved Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Rebecca. Though it rarely pops up in lists of directors’ essential titles, Foreign Correspondent (now streaming on FilmStruck as part of The Criterion Channel’s theme, “The Good War Revisited”) was nominated for Best Picture as well, the only time Hitchcock had to face off against himself in the same category. It also had another five nominations, and though it didn’t take any awards home, that’s still remarkable considering that, with Rebecca, it’s one of his most-honored film. Perhaps this one doesn’t come up in conversation as often because of its somewhat topical nature, including a hastily-added ending (without Hitchcock’s involvement) to reflect the necessity for Allied action in the early days of World War II. However, the film itself hasn’t aged poorly at all; it’s a relentlessly inventive, engaging thriller that shows how comfortable Hitchcock was in the Hollywood system within his first year away from England.

I must say up front that I have a soft spot for Hitchcock’s WWII-themed suspense films, including Saboteur (1942), several semi-propagandistic shorts and the wildly experimental Lifeboat (1944), with its aftermath driving one of his darkest and most perverse films, Notorious (1946). Many immigrated European filmmakers in America tackled the demand of pro-American films to help the war effort throughout the first half of the 1940s, and along with Fritz Lang, Hitchcock had a particularly interesting approach to the balance between commercial patriotism and an artistic statement. This is unquestionably a Hitch film down to the core, packed with set pieces that are just as potent as his more traditional suspense films that bookend this era.

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940)

It’s always fun to contemplate how this film might have played had the leading role of reporter John Jones, a.k.a. Huntley Haverstock, been played by anyone besides Joel McCrea, an actor who was transitioning at this moment from boyish Pre-Code dreamboat to the more worldly, hard-bitten star of westerns and screwball comedies that cemented his legacy. Clark Gable and Cary Grant were the two names bandied about most often, but I think McCrea brings an accessibility that those more debonair actors would have had to work harder to convey. Not that the film would have suffered, but it certainly would have been different. (On a more interesting note, try to imagine a young James Stewart in this role, long before he first teamed up with Hitchcock; you can almost hear him saying “Huntley Haverstock” in your head already, eh?)

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940)

Of course, the other acting secret weapon this film has in its arsenal is the great George Sanders, who also appeared most epically in Rebecca and has just as much fun here. It’s a shame he and Hitchcock only made two films together as it’s a real joy hearing Sanders (who has the hilariously stylized name of “ffoliott”) letting his cynical, urbane dialogue drop off his tongue courtesy of the expert script, furnished by several heavy hitters both credited and uncredited including Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, James Hilton, Robert Benchley (whom you can also see in front of the camera here), Ben Hecht and Richard Maibaum. It was Hecht who ultimately came up with the final bomb-laden call to arms finale we have now, replacing a more cynical and subdued ending focused on Sanders that was shot by Hitchcock.

As for the Master of Suspense himself, you’ll find that this film fits more snugly within the most common perception of his films, over something like Rebecca, which of course is a masterpiece but relies less on suspense set pieces and more on the opulent atmosphere and romanticism nurtured by producer David O. Selznick. This film fits right in line with the “man on the run” films he had already mastered with The 39 Steps (1935) and would hone to studio perfection with North by Northwest (1959). However, in this case McCrea isn’t the only hero; Sanders gets almost as much heroic duty here, as does Herbert Marshall. (Of course, Edmund Gwenn nearly swipes the film out from under them in a role very different from what you’d normally expect from the rosy-cheeked thespian.) That gives Hitchcock a somewhat broader canvas to paint on here, and that episodic approach lets him go wild with some visual concepts that are frankly staggering for a 1940 film. The much-celebrated assassination sequence on an imposing outside set of stone steps during a rainstorm is still a master class in image composition and editing to catch the viewer off guard, including a shocking burst of violence and a sea of umbrellas conveying visual chaos. It’s a perfectly rendered moment that was still influencing films decades later in everything ranging from Lee Myung-se’s terrific, undervalued Nowhere to Hide (1999), which throws some Bee Gees into the mix for fun, to the boxing match shooting in Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes (1998). Then there’s that audacious plane sequence, which I won’t describe any further for fear of spoiling a moment that can still cause a theatrical audience to gasp and leap out of their seats. How that moment was accomplished has become the stuff of film geek legend (be sure to check out the “Visual Effects in Foreign Correspondent” special feature streaming here as well, which covers the participation of the genuinely visionary William Cameron Menzies), but even when you know the nuts and bolts of how it was accomplished, the scene still packs a major wallop after multiple viewings.

All that said, I think my favorite passage in the film comes at the half-hour mark when we first leave the frantic, bustling urban environment that defines the opening movement of the film and pass into the seemingly barren, eerie open countryside of Holland, where those inexorably spinning windmills possess a secret of their own. (If you want to know where “That’s funny, that plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops” sprang from, look no further.) What happens from that point is a brilliant ten-minute sequence that builds atmosphere and tension through a restrained, unnerving sound mix (David Lynch would be mighty proud), a subdued but deeply chilling threat of violence and visual trickery including some subtle but nifty forced perspective and rear projection flourishes. Don’t miss this one!

Nathaniel Thompson

6 Responses Foreign Correspondent (1940) Keeps the Lights Burning
Posted By Doug : May 31, 2017 6:54 am

Nat, bravo-”Foreign Correspondent” is all that you have said, and is indeed a delight. Is Hitch’s original ending floating around in the North Atlantic somewhere?
Laraine Day brightens the picture nicely, as does Benchley being Benchley even in a Hitchcock picture.
And you are absolutely right: I can hear Stewart saying “Huntley Haverstock” with just a slight pause before “Huntley”.

Posted By Blakeney : June 1, 2017 2:46 pm

Great film.I have to put a word in for the wonderful Albert Basserman who grabs your attention in every scene he’s in as Van Meer.

Posted By Melvin Lee : June 2, 2017 12:28 pm

Yes, Foreign Correspondent is a fantastic movie! So why does it constantly fall under the radar? I love the little joke about “Hot Europe” from the neon hotel sign!

Posted By Tolly Devlin : June 3, 2017 6:34 am

Great film. So many things to admire in this film. I aways get a kick out of Edmund Gwenn, Benchley, McCrea & Sanders. I would love to see Hitchcock’s original ending.

Posted By robbushblog : June 15, 2017 3:10 pm

Dadgum! Such a great movie! It’s been a while since I last saw it. I may rectify that tonight.

It was my dad’s favorite Hitch. Maybe I should watch it on Sunday in celebration of Father’s Day.

Posted By Kirk mastacouris : July 14, 2017 10:09 am

When Joel MaCrea climbs back into the windmill through a window, does anyone else see an image of Adolph Hitler in the top right above his shoulder?

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