Filmsite Movie 

Review
Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
Background

Foreign Correspondent (1940) Foreign Correspondent (1940) is another of director Alfred Hitchcock's spy thrillers. It was his second American film (and hired out by David O. Selznick to independent producer Walter Wanger), one that closely resembled his earlier British spy thrillers: The 39 Steps (1935, UK) and The Lady Vanishes (1938, UK), although more attuned for US audiences. Originally, the screenplay was loosely based on Vincent Sheean's best-selling autobiographical memoir Personal History, but then it evolved into an original story/screenplay (crafted by screenwriter Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison). (Additional dialogue was added to the screenplay by novelist James Hilton and Robert Benchley and over a dozen other uncredited scriptwriters.) The elaborate sets created by production designer William Cameron Menzies were remarkably realistic.

It was touted as "The Thrill Spectacle of the Year!" One of its taglines contrasted the goals of the two leads: "HE...WANTED HIS STORY!" - "SHE...WANTED LOVE!"

The propagandistic tale of international intrigue from United Artists, involved a hard-headed, but relatively inexperienced American crime reporter and foreign correspondent caught in the political turmoil of Europe just before the outbreak of World War II (in the late summer of 1939). He became embroiled in the duplicitous activities of an international peace organization operating as a subversive Nazi spy ring, although there were no depictions of Hitler, the Nazi's 'Heil Hitler' salute, or the swastika. The settings began in New York, and proceeded to London, then Amsterdam, and finally full circle back to London (and to New York via telephone). After the conclusion of filming in late May 1940, and before the film's release, Hitchcock learned of the anticipated bombing of London (the Luftwaffe's blitzkrieg), so a new final scene was written (by Ben Hecht) and reshot.

The film was best remembered for a number of memorable scenes or set-pieces, including a political assassination in the rain on the steps of the Amsterdam Town Hall (and the assassin's escape trail shot from a high-angle and visible through a sea of umbrellas, copied by Claude Chabrol's Le Boucher (1970, Fr.), and Brian De Palma's The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)), a mysterious Dutch windmill (with Nazis hiding inside) where the reporter's trenchcoat was momentarily caught in the gears of the windmill, a thwarted assassination attempt on the observation deck of Westminister Cathedral's Tower, and an incredible trans-oceanic clipper plane crash into the Atlantic.

There were a number of light-hearted jokes in the film, e.g., (1) the film's running joke about the American correspondent's embarrassing loss of his distinctive and respectable English bowler hat three times - it was stolen, left in a cab, and blown off in the wind, and (2) a rattled pedestrian trying to cross a busy village street. In his customary cameo, Hitchcock appeared early in the film. Wearing a coat and normal American fedora-hat, he walked down a London street while reading a newspaper, passing Joel McCrea.

The film's MacGuffin was a secret Clause 27 in a peace treaty between Holland and Belgium, memorized by a Dutch diplomat, one of only two signatories of the treaty. As a result of his knowlege, the Dutch "strongman" was kidnapped after a faked assassination attempt by a secret spy organization, and the film revolved around trying to locate and save the diplomat, who was allegedly the key to maintaining peace in Europe in 1939.

The under-rated, semi-neglected but enjoyable film didn't receive any Academy Awards, but it was nominated for six Oscars: Best Picture (producer Walter Wanger), Best Supporting Actor (Albert Bassermann who learned all his dialogue phonetically), Best Original Screenplay, Best B/W Art Direction (Alexander Golitzen), Best Special Effects (Thomas T. Moulton and Paul Eagler) and Best B/W Cinematography (Rudolph Mate). Joan Harrison became the first screenwriter to be nominated in two different categories in the same year: for Rebecca (1940) (Best Screenplay) and for Foreign Correspondent (1940) (Best Original Screenplay).

In the same year, Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director for the Best Picture-winning film Rebecca (1940) - his first American film (Foreign Correspondent was Hitchcock's second film in 1940). He had wanted Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck (and Joan Fontaine) in the lead roles, but had to settle for Joel McCrea and Laraine Day.

The Story

After the opening credits, a scrolling upward prologue of text dedicated the film to "foreign correspondents":

To those intrepid ones who went across the seas to be the eyes and ears of America... To those forthright ones who early saw the clouds of war while many of us at home were seeing rainbows... To those clear-headed ones who now stand like recording angels among the dead and dying... To the Foreign Correspondents - this motion picture is dedicated.

[Note: The opening scrolled introduction warned of "clouds of war" in Europe, while Americans were seeing "rainbows" - a possible criticism of The Wizard of Oz (1939) and of Hitchcock's own producer David Selznick. Selznick International Pictures had served as the production company for Rebecca (1940), and Selznick had loaned Hitchcock out to Walter Wanger Productions for this film.]

In the newsroom offices of the New York Morning Globe with a spinning metal globe-shaped sculpture atop the tall skyscraper, a camera zoomed into one of its windows, into the busy publishing offices. One of the cable editors, Mr. Bradley (Charles Halton), received a cable-gram from the foreign news office in London, and reported it to Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport), the Globe's editor-in-chief. It was dated August 19, 1939 - auspiciously just about two weeks before Germany's unannounced invasion and occupation of Poland:

According to high official, it is believed absolutely no chance of war this year account of late crops. Stebbins.

Powers was fuming about the falsity of Foreign Correspondent Stebbins' unsatisfactory report: "I could get more news out of Europe looking in the crystal ball....Europe about to blow up and all I can get out of my foreign staff is a daily guessing game. I want some facts, Mr. Bradley!...Any kind of facts. There must be something going on in Europe beside a nervous breakdown." When Bradley offered to be sent to Europe, Powers rejected him because Bradley was an intellectual economist and not a hard-nosed reporter:

I don't want any more economists, sages, or oracles bombinating over our cables. I want a reporter! Somebody who doesn't know the difference between an -ism and a kangaroo. A good, honest crime reporter. That's what the Globe needs. That's what Europe needs. There's a crime hatching on that bedeviled continent.

Powers suggested locating a tough American city-desk reporter named Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), who made a name for himself reporting on a recent payroll robbery, and beat up a policeman in the line of duty. Powers conjectured: "Sounds ideal for Europe." Johnny Jones was summoned by the impatient Powers to his office. At his desk, the insubordinate Jones was expecting to be fired, and was idling away his time by making paper cut-out patterns or snowflakes. Once in Powers' office, he revealed that he was grossly uninformed and uncaring about any "European crisis" or "impending war." And Jones was a bit touchy about being asked questions:

If you're gonna fire me, you can scrap the intelligence test. It's perfectly okay with me. I can get a job on any other newspaper in town within an hour. So long.

On the spot, the naive but self-confident Jones was assigned, with an expense account, to cover the "biggest story in the world today...Europe!" He was the perfect individual, unbiased or possibly ignorant - "not exactly equipped" and with a "fresh, unused mind." Jones was instructed to report on straight news, not as a correspondent but as a true news reporter. Powers instructed his new-hire to interview leading Dutch statesman and diplomat Mr. Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) - the "keynote" to understanding the European situation:

Powers: Mr. Van Meer, when questioned by our oracle, Mr. Stebbins, refused to open his mouth. 1,200 words cable told to the fact that the great Van Meer had nothing to say. You know what that kind of stuff is doing? It's driving our readers crazy with frustration.
Jones: Who's Van Meer?
Powers: Keynote to the European situation today. Listen Jones, if Van Meer stays at the helm of his country's affairs for the next three months, it may mean peace in Europe. If we knew what he was thinking, we'd know where Europe stands.

Van Meer was "Holland's strongman" and "one of the two signers of the Dutch treaty with Belgium." Powers instructed Jones on his first assignment, to interview Van Meer: "Talk with him, find out what's in that treaty, and what he thinks is gonna happen. Facts!"

In Powers' office, Jones met with one of the Globe's urbane contributors, the suave Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), the respectable head of the Universal Peace Party and a close confident to Van Meer. Both men were working to prevent Europe from "going up in flames." Powers advised that the Globe's new "foreign correspondent" change his name to the very formal pseudonym or nom de plume, the posh-sounding Huntley Haverstock, in order to be more believable (and identified as an English gentleman).

After assembling his credentials (passports, photos, visas, permits - and new initials H.H. stenciled over his trunk to cover over J.J.), Jones was booked on a Cunard White Star Lines' Queen Mary voyage to England. During a brief montage of his going-away party on board in his ship's cabin, Jones was bid farewell by his saddened mother (Dorothy Vaughan) and other family members. His newly-purchased derby hat was absconded by his young nephew during the departure.

Jones (wearing a regular hat) arrived in London (signaled by a view of Big Ben), and he obviously stood out at the Victoria train station - populated by gentlemen with umbrellas and derby hats. Derby-wearing Stebbins (Robert Benchley), the Globe's London correspondent who had been working for the Globe for 25 years, met Jones as he disembarked. He admitted that he was slack in his reporting - only sending back drab press releases:

They haven't caught onto me yet...All you do is cable back the government handouts and sign 'em: 'Our London correspondent.'

In a nearby bar, Stebbins ordered a glass of milk, confessing that he was an alcoholic (and under doctor's orders to be on "the wagon for a month"). A cable, dated August 25, 1939, from Powers in the New York office informed Jones that he was required to attend a luncheon (sponsored by the Universal Peace Party) the following day and engage in an "excusive interview" with Dutch statesmen Van Meer.

Jones was staying at the Carlton Hotel in London. Looking ridiculous in his white nightclothes, he was trying out his new purchases in front of a mirror: a derby hat and umbrella. Outside the hotel, Stebbins briefly met Jones on his way out of the hotel to the luncheon. The womanizing Stebbins was caught in a lie - he claimed he had another appointment - "lunching with old man Clark" of the International Press, but was interrupted by a young blonde floozie.

[Note: On the sidewalk, director Hitchcock made his customary cameo appearance, passing by Jones while reading a newspaper.]

Jones turned as he heard Van Meer's name as he saw the diplomat approaching a streetside taxi. The two shared a taxi-cab ride to the luncheon held in the Savoy Hotel. During the trip, Van Meer evaded Jones' questions about the Polish situation, the Dutch treaty with the Belgians, and England's response to the Nazis. He also avoided any speculation about Fisher's Peace Organization and hopes for peace. Van Meer would rather talk about the fine London weather in August and feeding the birds in the park. Exasperated by the time they arrived at the Savoy Hotel, Jones forgot his derby hat in the cab. But he was able to directly ask for Van Meer's opinion about "the possibility of a general war." Van Meer responded with only one despondent comment: 'My boy, I feel very old and sad - and helpless." At the coat-check counter when he turned in his umbrella, Jones reached for the non-existent derby on his head - realizing that he had forgetton it and left it behind somewhere ("I did have one").

In one of the banquet halls of the hotel, Stephen Fisher stood next to his dark-haired daughter Carol (Laraine Day) as they discussed the impending war in Poland, and circumstances beyond everyone's control. Carol revealed her spunk and determined nature to avoid war and find a peaceful solution in Europe:

Gentleman: Nobody wants a war, and yet...
Carol: Then we don't have to have it, do we?
Gentleman: You must understand, Miss Fisher, that often circumstances over which we have no control...
Carol: Oh yes, those very convenient circumstances over which we have no control. It always seems odd, but they usually bring on war. You never hear of circumstances over which we have no control rushing us into peace, do you?

While mingling with the assemblage of international guests, Jones again met Stephen Fisher who reminded him of his name change: "The Jones that became a Haverstock." He was also introduced to talkative Britisher Mrs. Appleby and a round-faced Latvian diplomat (Edward Conrad) who only grinned and couldn't communicate. To Carol, Jones introduced himself as a "foreign correspondent." After some banter back and forth, and mistakenly believing that she was a publicist (but not knowing that her father was the reknowned Stephen Fisher), he asked for a statement about the "league for peace and understanding" - the group hosting the luncheon. He tactlessly implied that it was composed of a group of amateurs unable to compete with the forces urging war:

What is it that makes him or you think that an organization like this made up of well-meaning amateurs buck up against those tough military boys of Europe?

They were interrupted with an announcement about the serving of lunch. He suggested that she sit with him at the press table ("Nobody ever listens to the speeches at the press table, and we could talk"). He divulged that his real name was "Jones" - and because she had already been so insulted by him, she curtly dismissed him after giving him her own false and ordinary name ("Smith").

After everyone was seated at circular dining room tables, Jones at Table # 19 noticed that the feisty female 'publicist' was seated at the head table. He passed over a dozen flirtatious love notes (asking for a date) to her during the meal, but she rejected them. The program began with Stephen Fisher's unanticipated announcement that the luncheon's guest of honor, Dutch diplomat Van Meer, couldn't attend and had sent a telegram to notify the gathering of his absence. Jones reacted with surprise as he listened to the reading of the telegram - with the sight of an empty chair:

Deeply regret. Called away suddenly owing to unforeseen circumstances. And I will be unable to attend your meeting as planned. I am with you and your work with all my heart. I could not have said more had I been there.

Fisher introduced his idealistic daughter Carol Fisher as the luncheon's substitute speaker. At first, Jones showed boredom, then shock followed by a frown when the "publicist" rose to speak. During her talk, she specifically addressed Jones' insulting accusation that the peace organization was composed of mere amateurs - pointedly directing her comments directly at him and other "professionals":

What I can do possibly is to clear up a few misapprehensions that seem to have crept into the public discussion of this movement, and revise some of the epithets that have been applied to us by some who have not gone as deeply into the matter as they might. For example, I've heard it viewed as a group of well-meaning amateurs.

[During her line, one of the journalists at Jones' table quipped: "The female of the speeches (not species!) is deadlier than the male."]

Now, I'm sure there's some of you here today who think of us as such. And I should like to ask anyone who has called us well-meaning amateurs to stand up by his chair and tell me just why a well-meaning amateur is any less reliable than a well-meaning professional at a moment like this. But I'll not take the time. I think the world's been run long enough by the well-meaning professional. We might give the amateurs a chance now. But what I really want to do is to give you a very brief idea of just, just how far-reaching our amateur plans are - and just why we ask for your support - professional or amateur.

However, she became flustered at Jones' grimacing, grinning, and smiling in the audience. Not knowing that the copious notes on the table were mostly from Jones, Carol's father pushed them over to her and she became even more agitated and distracted from her talk's subject. After she drew a blank on her next sentence, Jones filled in the silence (to help her avoid embarrassment) by inappropriate applause - drawing gasps and consternation from other attendees.


Next Page