Filmsite Movie 

Review
Foreign Correspondent (1940)
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Background

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 resembles his earlier British films: The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1937). Originally, the screenplay was 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 many other uncredited scriptwriters.) It was touted as "The Thrill Spectacle of the Year!"

The propagandistic tale of international intrigue from United Artists, involves 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 (August, 1939). He becomes embroiled in the duplicitous activities of a peace organization operating as a spy ring. The film is best remembered for a number of memorable scenes, including a political assassination in the rain on the steps of the Amsterdam Town Hall, and a trans-Atlantic clipper plane crash. In his customary cameo, Hitchcock appears early in the film. Wearing a coat and hat, he walks down the street while reading a newspaper, passing Joel McCrea.

The under-rated, 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). In the same year, Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director for the Best Picture-winning film Rebecca (1940) - his first American film. 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

Naive but self-confident American reporter-hero Johnnie Jones (Joel McCrea) (with a very formal pseudonym Huntley Haverstock) accidentally becomes involved in an international subversive spy ring. He witnesses the daring assassination (faked with a decoy) of a leading Dutch statesman and diplomat Mr. Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) right before his eyes on a broad flight of steps in rainy Amsterdam. The assassin is disguised as a press photographer - his gun concealed by his camera. As Johnnie pursues him, his rain-drenched escape can be followed through a mass of black umbrellas that bob up and down as he pushes his way through the spectators in the crowded public square. He chases the assassin through the streets, dodging bullets.

In another classic scene in a huge simulated Dutch windmill setting [the interior set is reminiscent of the film Frankenstein (1931)], Jones notices that one windmill begins to turn the wrong way - mysteriously against the wind - a signal. He is tipped off to the operations of a spy ring, that has kidnapped, held hostage, and tortured the real Van Meer.

Returning to England, there are some terrifically suspenseful moments in a murder attempt on Jones' life on the observation deck of the tall tower of Westminster Catholic Cathedral. The would-be murderer Rowley (Edmund Gwenn) falls to the pavement instead, to the sounds of the Requiem Mass being chanted in the cathedral.

The most spectacular and convincing scene is one of pandemonium aboard a trans-oceanic clipper airplane bound for America that is diving and about to crash. The crash itself is seen from the view of the cockpit (over the shoulders of the two pilots) as the plane dramatically smashes into the surface of the water. Water rushes into the cabin through the windows of the plane. Passengers struggle for air and try to escape as the aircraft fills with water, and some survivors make it out to the already crowded wing. Villain Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) who is aboard the plane heroically attempts to save others from the stormy seas.

In the conclusion, Johnnie, who has returned to London, is caught there during a blitzkrieg. He makes a passionate plea via radio in the dark for the US to end its neutrality and intervene in the war against the Nazi enemy, in a challenging call to arms to a "sleeping" America [this was Hitchcock's contribution to the British war effort]:

It's death coming to London...It's too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come. It's as if the lights were all out everywhere, except in America. Keep those lights burning there! Cover them with steel! Ring them with guns! Build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them! Hello, America! Hang on to your lights. They're the only lights left in the world.