Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
I always forget about Foreign Correspondent (1940) but then I absolutely love it whenever I see it. If it doesn’t scale the heights of Hitchcock’s greatest work, it has some of his bets set pieces and a wonderful, underrated leading performance from Joel McCrea.
Hitchcock had finished Rebecca, his first American film, with David O. Selznick and was tired of the producer’s interference. When producer Walter Wanger approached Hitchcock about making a movie together, it was initially pitched it as a remake or sequel to The Man Who Knew Too Much or The 39 Steps. Adapting an existing story to his own needs, Hitchcock worked with Wanger to turn Foreign Correspondent into the anti-Rebecca, a film containing all the ideas and thrills he had in mind in Britain but never had the money to properly execute. Now he had a giant budget and top-level people, including production designer William Cameron Menzies, who had just finished Gone With the Wind. Hitchcock was consciously setting out to to create the film of his dreams with the seemingly unlimited resources and talent of Hollywood at his disposal.
The film opens with a scroll of worlds, proclaiming “To those faithful ones who early saw the clouds of war…to the Foreign Correspondents this motion picture is dedicated.” That’s a lovely sentiment, except that Hitchcock starts literally the next scene with a newspaper editor who thinks that his foreign correspondents are all terrible, lazy bums. What Europe needs is a “good, honest crime reporter,” he declares, sending beat reporter Joel McCrea to Europe in the hopes that he’ll shake things up. Once McCrea arrives, he finds that the paper’s existing correspondent is nothing but a lazy drunk know knows nothing of the situation (wonderfully played by actor/writer Robert Benchley, an honorary member of the Algonquin Round Table, and a favorite of Hitchcock). So while the prologue might be the kind of thing that the studio insisted upon, immediately we find Hitchcock tweaking those sensibilities.
McCrea immediately stumbles onto an espionage story concerning the kidnapping and fake murder of a diplomat with the key to peace in Europe. The film barely makes sense logically, but it’s wrapped inside a wonderful template of chases and drawn out action scenes, many among Hitchcock’s best. McCrea falls in love with a diplomat’s daughter and survives all manner of mishaps before being shot down over the Atlantic after war is declared, in one of the film’s most impressive sequences.
In a classic Hitchcock scenario, he had to show a plane crashing but didn’t want to resort to model work. Instead, the attack and subsequent crash is filmed entirely from inside the plane; after an establishing shot of the airplane, we never see the plane in mid-air again. Instead we see the alarm among passengers as explosions start to burst, then panic as one of the engines dies and the plane lurches toward the ocean. From the pilot’s point of view we see the engines on fire and metal peeling off the wings of the plane. And finally, in one of Hitchcock’s best technical achievements we see the pilots leap out of their seats as the plane careens toward the ocean and then crashes into the sea, with water breaking through the glass cockpit, all in one shot. Hitchcock had a rear-projection screen made of paper and a tank filled with thousands of gallons of water. He projected footage of water rushing toward the camera, then hit a button to send the tumbling through the screen and into the fake cockpit, resulting in a stunning point of view shot.
Foreign Correspondent has plenty of other great moments, but the other notable sequence is actually a protracted series of scenes that starts in a rainy city square in Holland. The camera finds a crowd waiting with umbrellas to see dignitaries arrive, and then a dignitary is shot. McCrea runs off after the killer, through a series of umbrellas bouncing as the assassin tries to escape through the crowd. Next is a chase scene as McCrea joins up with George Sanders and Laraine Day to chase the killer to a field of windmills (this is Holland, after all). In a textbook Hitchcock touch, McCrea notices that one of the windmills is moving against the wind and realizes it’s a signal. Inside he finds the killer and a group of thugs in a brilliantly staged sequence that sees him crawling throughout the entire windmill to avoid detection. In many films this alone would be a satisfying climax but here’s it’s not even halfway through the movie.
Foreign Correspondent also contains one of Hitchcock’s best jokes in any of his films; at one point McCrea crawls out onto his hotel window ledge in Amsterdam, navigating around the neon sign that reads “HOTEL EUROPE.” At one point he stumbles and bumps into the neon sign, and the “EL” goes out, with the sign now reading “HOT EUROPE.” Zing! Hot indeed!
It’s worth looking at where Hitchcock was in his life at this point; he’d left England in 1939 to come to Hollywood, much to the chagrin of many in the British film industry, who felt he’d abandoned them in their hour of need. Hitchcock would spend much of his career performing mea culpa for this behavior and making Foreign Correspondent was definitely part of it. Films made in American before Pearl Harbor had to tread a thin line; many expats and studio heads were Jewish or had relatives in Europe, and were terrified at the prospect of what was happening overseas, while the general US public and government remained staunchly isolationist. Hitchcock clearly wanted to make a statement, with the the official declaration of war coming over the course of the film, yet it’s a strange mix, resulting in a bizarre scene where a US boat captain refuses to let McCrea tell his story over the wireless because it would violate American neutrality. “Germany” is barely mentioned by name, although there is a jab at Hitler. And while the ending is particularly dramatic, with McCrea in London addressing a radio audience as the bombs begin to fall around his studio, it’s clear that it was a result of compromise as McCrea entreats the audience to “keep the lights on,” yet stops short of exhorting Americans to come to Europe’s aid.
It is however a great example of Hitchcock’s preference for suspense versus shock; he reveals halfway through the film that the villain is the father of the heroine, played by Herbert Marshall. He’s a classic Hitchcock villain, the debonair man above reproach who turns out to have a terrible secret. And by revealing his secret to the audience halfway through the film, we spend the next hour in suspense, wondering how this is going to play out. Will Marshall be found out?! Will McCrea and Laraine Day catch on?
Herbert Marshall is perhaps the film’s MVP in an unshowy yet spectacular performance (as opposed to George Sanders who is always welcome but wasted here in a small role). Not only does Masrahll not tip his hand before the big reveal, but he’s remarkably sympathetic; when he learns that his daughter is in love with McCrea, whom he’s just sent off with a hired killer (played wonderfully against type by the lovable Edmund Gwenn), he instinctively moves to save him before stopping. The look on his face is palpable, as he knows he’s going to cause his daughter pain and heartache. At the end of the film, when the jig is up and Marshall is exposed, the cast is floating on the wreckage of their plane in the Atlantic when it becomes clear that the wing of the plane isn’t buoyant enough to support them all. It’s a groaningly obvious moment, but Marshall sells, as he slides gently off the wing of the plane and sacrifices himself for his daughter’s happiness.
This time around I found myself watching Foreign Correspondent and thinking that it felt remarkably like a template for a James Bond film (with all the international intrigue). Ironically one of the uncredited writers on the film was Richard Maibaum, a contract writer who would go on to write thirteen James Bond films from Dr. No to License to Kill. While writing Foreign Correspondent, Hitchcock told Maibaum, that “I’m not interested in logic I’m interested in effect.” Ironically, Maibaum would go on to shape the course of James Bond films which are almost entirely the opposite; films interested mainly in logic and details.*
Trying to untangle the history of Hitchcock and James Bond is particularly knotty; some sources claim that Ian Fleming sought out Hitchcock to direct a film (probably Thuderball) as early as 1959. Other sources say that Hitchcock knew and loved the books but was unable to get the rights. And the idea that North by Northwest was a major inspiration for the film series, and on and on. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between. With the dual success of North by Northwest and the TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Hitchcock was arguably the most famous film director in the world in 1959-1962. He only took on adaptations that he could change and fit to his wishes; in 1962 when Dr. No premiered, the Broccoli producers didn’t hire an auteur but instead went with Terence Young, a joruneyman director that they could control. The chances of Hitchcock directing a James Bond film seem remarkably slim, if not altogether nonexistent (although Hitch did cast Connery in Marnie).
Yet it’s worth thinking about because of what it shows us about Hitchcock’s approach to filmmaking. On the surface, many of his movies appear to have similarities to Bond films; globetrotting adventures in exotic locales, dapper men squared off against gorgeous women, and secret agent adventures. Yet they’re quite different animals.
Hitchcock was never concerned with plausibles or how something happens; that might seem ridiculous to ascribe to James Bond, where he’s almost cut in half by a laser bream, but the series focuses on problems with technical solutions. The Bond movies love showing how things work: the Aston Martin with a revolving license plate, the sound recorder hidden in a camera, or even an excruciating scene in Dr. No where Bond and Ursula Andress receive a radiation bath for no real reason other than to show off all this cool stuff they built.
The danger Hitchcock is usually personal. Sure, it might involve evil plans or world domination, but it’s always framed as a desperate quest for survival, which makes it something we can relate to. Time and time again Hitchcock returns to a terrifying scenario, where an average person living their life is suddenly arrested or on the run for their life. James Bond films are often the opposite; Bond is a vessel who is so capable that his pain or anguish are not the point; instead it’s literally world domination at stake. We rarely feel bad for Bond (until some of the Daniel Craig series), instead we marvel at him and his abilities, in a way that we don’t with say Cary Grant in North by Northwest.
Hitchcock was more of an auteur and manipulator than anyone who made one of the James Bond films (yes, even Sam Mendes; he is at best fine and at worst terrible. Don’t believe me? Try to watch American Beauty again). Sadly, the more corporate model of filmmaking that James Bond represents has come to dominate modern blockbuster action filmmaking. Any manipulation of an audience is done mainly for horror films (and often cheaply done); a modern action film relies instead in showing you things without context: endless CGI landscapes with no depth or creativity, action stunts performed on wires with no gravity, or a giant robot beating up another giant robot (something I swore I’d never get tired of and yet sadly here we are).
Which is not to say that all the James Bond films are bad; Goldfinger certainly has its charms, and I’ve been enjoying rewatching them as historical curios. Yet they’re unlikely vehicles for huge success, with a wooden unemotional lead who’s never out of his depth. When you watch Psycho, you can instantly see why it became a worldwide phenomenon; it still holds up. Can you really say the same for Dr. No? It’s the antithesis of everything Hitchcock loved about filmmaking and audience identification. No wonder Hitch harbored desires of making a more “realistic” Bond with both Torn Curtain and Topaz; had he made them a decade earlier at the peak of his powers, they could have been incredible films.
As for the rest…well, I spent this weekend with my mom in town for the holiday which took a lot of time and energy. When she left today I discovered I have some form of Tonsillitis. And I have a craft show next Saturday, tons of orders, and somehow have to keep up with this Hitchcock project. So we’re keeping this short today!
In 2017 I’ll be done with this Hitchcock project, which will be a relief. Even though right now it’s one of the only things I do just for the “fun” of it. There’s no financial reward, no glory at the end of this rainbow. I don’t even know if more than ten or twenty are reading this. And that’s okay. I’m doing it for me, not for you. In a strange way, it’s remarkably freeing to sit in a bar or a coffee shop or on my couch and hammer away at the keyboard, the conversations and music around me a white noise, knowing that what I’m writing is for me. I don’t know what 2017 holds, but I hope I can find a way to hold onto that feeling of self.
*Thanks to James Bond fan Andrew Ellis for his help on sorting through some of these issues. His excellent visual art is for sale here.
Foreign Correspondent is streaming on Filmstruck or Filmbox through Amazon. It can also be rented, taken out from the library, or bought in an excellent Blu Ray from Criterion on sale this week!