(Check out my previous film noir essay here: Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent)
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 thriller, Foreign Correspondent, was his second American film, but his first truly Hitchcockian film for that market. He arrived in the U.S. in 1939 at the request of Hollywood producer David O. Selznick and almost immediately jumped into work adapting Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca. Also released in 1940, the two films battled it out at the 1940 Academy Awards with Rebecca receiving 11 nods to Foreign Correspondent‘s 6. Between the two pictures, only Rebecca won any, Best Picture (then known as ‘Outstanding Production’) and Best Cinematography Black and White, both of which it won by beating stiff competition (Foreign Correspondent among that competition on both counts).
The cinematography in Rebecca was definitely deserving of the best cinematography nod as George Barnes’ work on that film was ethereal and gothic, and supremely affecting artistically and viscerally. However, the cinematography on Foreign Correspondent is top-form as well, with an even tone throughout what seems to span dozens of locations or sets. The cinematographer of that film, Rudolph Mate, was to become a film noir staple in the coming years though he began his career in Europe working on the classical films of Carl Dreyer like Vampyr and Le Passion de Jean d’Arc, and Fritz Lang’s fantasy film Liliom, before making his way to the American scene where he would direct the classics Gilda and The Lady From Shanghai before moving on to direct his own picture, including the film noir staple D.O.A. Mate’s Academy nod would be the first in a five-year run of five consecutive years for work on films by both Korda’s King Vidor, and one Sam Wood (with who I am unfamiliar).
In the film, Joel McCrea plays our American Everyman John Jones, a rough and tumble crime reporter in New York known for altercations with cops and the Underworld crowd alike. His boss has too many academics and soothsayers in his employ in Europe and Great Britain in a crucial time when war seems eminent. They find it difficult to find the facts and send them back to HQ, so the boss decides to send an average Joe (or John) type to do the job and settles on John after finding that he actually assaulted a cop the previous week (Hitchcock never liked cops and was always afraid of them throughout his life after a curious incident in his youth when his father sent him with a note to the local police station. There they followed the note and put the young boy in a prison cell for five minutes and left him there, making certain he knew the real potential downfall of committing crimes and stepping away from the straight and narrow.). John Jones gets his effects together, his tickets and passport, has a going away party, and arrives in Great Britain to begin work as a foreign correspondent, soon to turn war correspondent.
Once there, Jones goes to press meetings for Peace Organizations, one of which is headed by Stephen Fisher and his daughter Carol Fisher. Jones and Fisher develop a rapport and her friend Scott ffolliott (yes, I spelled it correctly) and Jones develop a working relationship as well. When Jones goes on his first assignment to the Netherlands, the Dutch politician and peace advocate Mr. Van Meer is Jones’ next assignment. But before he can get an interview with the man, he is assassinated by a photographer with a gun on the steps outside of the meeting hall. Jones, Carol Fisher, and ffolliott track the killer and discover a network of spies, eventually connecting the event to Carol’s father.
War is announced as Germany begins air raids above British soil and London, and the principal characters depart for America aboard a light passenger jet. Stephen Fisher and his daughter Carol make amends, and even Jones and ffolliott are admirably well-disposed to the man they will have to arrest for treason once they touch down. But as they fly over the Atlantic, an American warship mistakes them as a German bomber and shoots them down, only learning too late in the process that they are Brits and Americans onboard a commercial airplane (how they screwed that up I have no clue, but in some things on celluloid we must suspend our disbelief). Lives are lost and sacrifices made, but eventually the ship picks them up and brings them back to London (they had traveled less than two hundred miles across the Ocean thus far) where John Jones becomes a real war correspondent, and in the film’s final moments gives a great propaganda oration, ala Edward R. Murrow, on radio as the city is bombarded by enemy incendiaries.
The film is an extremely effective spy and political thriller, as well as being a powerful piece of propaganda for the war effort. Even Nazi Germany’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels called it a great work of propaganda that will likely boost the esteem and strengthen the wills of his own regime’s enemies. Besides being a powerful political document of sorts, it an auteur work of at least three great artists within the medium of cinema, including the greatest maker of thrillers who has ever graced the screen in Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest cameramen and cinematographers of the period in Rudolph Mate, and production design work from the great art director William Cameron Menzies (whose other works include designs on The Wizard of Oz, For Whom The Bell Tolls, Things To Come, The Thief of Baghdad, and Duel in the Sun).
It was Hitchcock’s first true Hitchcock film in the states as Rebecca was a gothic affair with thriller elements, but with few of the elements that constitute a the Hitchcock brand: spies, the wrong man, doubles, the macguffin, and humor alongside drama. Foreign Correspondent by contrast is about spies and political intrigue, the man who is assassinated as Van Meer turns out to have been a double of Van Meer killed to make it appear as if Van Meer were dead, the peace treaty secret clause (Clause 27) is the macguffin, and the characteristic humor is sprinkled effectively throughout but especially in the scenes when Carol and John first meet, as well as in the moments when he first escapes his would-be murderers in the Hotel Europe. And in the sense that it is the first characteristically Hitchcockian film in Hollywood (as opposed to the much more Clouzotian Rebecca) it is an achievement worth celebrating and looking back upon fondly.
[Next up: To Have and Have Not]
[And a later Hitchcock film essay here: Strangers on a Train]