12/8/10

Hitch on the Hump: Foreign Correspondent (1940)

The word correspondent, much less the term Foreign Correspondent, holds little meaning in today’s world of twenty four hour news populated by an endless procession of talking heads. At one time, these correspondents were American news’ only link to what was happening overseas, and their hastily delivered telegrams and missives shaped public opinion of everything from religion to the growing threat of war. One such correspondent was Vincent Sheean, a journalist for the Chicago Tribune in the 1920’s, he often found himself right in the middle of the rebel factions, civil wars, and political unrest which plagued Europe between the two World Wars. It wasn’t so much luck as Sheean’s determination to get the story. In 1933, Sheean began to write a biography of sorts, Personal History, which recounted his exploits over the last eleven years in Europe, and most importantly, the threat of the rising fascists set to take over the continent. Published in 1935, Sheean’s book caught the interest of producer William Wagner, but after years of trying to cull a successful screenplay from the book, he had only one hope left, a newly immigrated director from England on loan from David O. Selznick, Alfred Hitchcock.

Vincent Sheean
In Personal History’s long road to the Master of Suspense’s hands, it had been run through the gauntlet of Hollywood screen writers. Looking over a few of the uncredited names that worked on the film at one time or another, writers like John Howard Lawson (Bogart’s Sahara), John Lee Mahim (The Bad Seed), Richard Maibaum (13 James Bond films), and future Hitchcock collaborator Ben Hecht spring out. The final credit for the film adaptation given the moniker Foreign Correspondent went to Charles Bennett, who had already penned The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps, and three other Hitchcock films (though this would be his last) and Joan Harrison. Her career as a screenwriter has much to do with Hitchcock’s transition from the British to the American audience beginning with 1940’s Rebecca, and her contribution to Hitch’s career from screenwriting to her position as the producer for Alfred Hitchcock presents. However, if we get into talking about Joan Harrison we’ll be here all day. So expect to be here all day when I finally get around to covering Rebecca. As if that were not enough for the writing credits, Hitchcock also employed writer/actor/humorist Robert Benchley and novelist James Hilton (Goodbye Mr. Chips) to punch up the dialog.

Foreign Correspondent kicks off with New York Globe editor Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport) cursing the ineffectiveness of his man in Europe to dig up a story. He decides that he needs a new kind of reporter on the job, and John Jones (Joel McCrea), who recently punched out a cop to get at a story, is just the kind of reporter he needs. Renaming Jones with the more dramatically journalistic name Huntley Haverstock, he ships the no nonsense American to England for a meeting between Universal Peace Party leader Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) and Dutch diplomat and peace activist Van Meer. Jones smells a story, and soon he is dashing across the continent to follow the action to Amsterdam. There Van Meer is assassinated, but when Jones discovers the diplomat very much alive and being held in a deserted windmill, he only begins to understand the vast conspiracy unfolding around him. To complicate matters, he begins to suspect that Fisher is involved, and Jones has developed feelings of the Peace Party leader’s daughter Carol (Laraine Day).

While Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first film in America, Foreign Correspondent was his first experience with being caught up in the studio system. David O. Selznick who had just lured the director to his studio was just as quick to show Hitchcock who was in charge. Rebecca had been a commercial and critical success, but Selznick didn’t want Hitchcock to get out of hand. So he loaned him out to independent producer William Wagner who capitalized by finally bringing his languishing property to the screen, but Hitchcock received no extra dispensation from his contract or his compensation. He also found himself at a disadvantage being unable to land any of the stars he wanted for his film. For the part of the dashing reporter, he wanted Gary Cooper, but starring in a thriller, then regarded as less desirable pictures, was not something the actor was willing to do though in later years, he would tell Hitchcock personally that he regretted that decision. Barbara Stanwyck, Hitch's choice for the female lead, turned out to be unavailable because of the shooting schedule for Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe where she starred opposite Gary Cooper.

In their place Hitchcock instead got Laraine Day and Joel McCrea. Day, best known at the time for her role as Nurse Lamont in the Doctor Kildare films, lobbied hard to get the part, and after Hitchcock viewed a few of her films he agreed to meet her. The director took a liking to the actress and hesitantly cast her in the role of Carol. Joel McCrea, however, who Hitchcock referred to as “a second class Cooper” had an uneasy relationship with the director throughout filming. Hitchcock thought the actor “too easygoing”, and made no effort to disguise his boredom with McCrea. For his part, the actor often told tales of how the director would doze through whole takes and had to be prompted to call “cut”. However, these stories went unverified beyond McCrea’s complaints. Hitchcock was not an actor’s director to begin with, but he seemed to have a specific displeasure of the two leads commenting later to Francois Truffaut, “I would have liked bigger star names.” That being said, I found McCrea to be full of American brashness and charm while Day was the run of the mill one for me. Uncharacteristically for a Hitchcock film, while Day has some emotional heft included in her role, she fits none of the normal notions of a Hitchcock leading lady.

There are also a good number of supporting performances that make Foreign Correspondent a well rounded and interesting film. Herbert Marshall, who starred in Hitchcock’s 1930 film Murder, impresses as incriminated Peace Party leader. Incidentally, Marshall only had one leg, having lost one in World War I, and special arrangements had to be made for her part in the film’s climatic scenes. George Sanders, who also appeared in Rebecca, is delightful as Jones’ British counterpart ffolliott (the lower case double ‘ff’ is a trait I’ve only seen in ffolks). He also struck me as looking like a cross between Jason Segal and Stephen Frye, but that is neither here nor there. Robert Benchley shows up as Stebbins, a comic relief character for which Benchley wrote all his own lines, and seeing as it’s Christmas I should note the appearance of Edmund Gwynn. While Gwynn is best known as playing Santa in Miracle on 34th Street, here he appears as a hitman who tries to push Jones off the top of Westminster Abby. He would work with Hitchcock again fifteen years later when he starred in the comedy The Trouble with Harry.

Instead of his actors, Hitchcock seemed to throw himself into inventive visual techniques to achieve some of the film’s most stunning sequences. My favorite was the windmill scene where John Jones creeps around a windmill while trying to avoid several groups of bad guys. There’s a great claustrophobic feeling to the scenes, and it is cleverly shot with Jones moving just around of above the assassins’ line of sight. This sequence also features a sly visual reminder when Hitchcock inserted a picture of Adolf Hitler tucked into the scene to remind pre-World War II audiences who the real villain was. The second sequence was an airplane crash complete with flooded cockpit. With clever use of rear projection, a dummy cockpit, and a large tank of water, Hitch managed to shoot the sequence in one shot with no cuts. While it may look rudimentary now, it was just the type of groundbreaking special effects sequence Hitchcock pioneered in so many of his films. Throughout the film the consistent use of interesting angles, thanks to Hitchcock and Polish cinematographer Rudolph Mate, keeps a good balance between the snappy dialog and the deadly serious subject matter. The only portion of the film which comes up short is the score by Alfred Newman (Camelot, How the West Was Won). When I saw his name, I assumed there would be no worries, but the Foreign Correspondent’s score is not bad as much as spectacularly unmemorable.

In many ways Foreign Correspondent was a political film. The ending, a tacked on radio broadcast that predicted those Walter Winchell would broadcast from Britain during the Blitz, was a call to arms. It was intended to rally Americans to the side of their British friends. Just like John Jones had done his part to help the war effort, so must America. The ending, while wrapped up in jingoistic trappings, is inspiring, and eerily prescient. While Jones pleads for American’s involvement, London is being bombed, and that is just what was happening beginning three days before the film’s release. It would still be another year before America would actually be pulled into the World War. For all Hitchcock’s protestations at both the cast and the material, I can’t help feeling that he knew just what he intended to do with his film. Just as John Jones was reporting the dangers of Europe, so was Hitchcock. He saw the specter of war, far more frightening than anything in his lurid imagination, and hoped that his new home in America would come to the aid of his native soil.

Bugg Rating


2 comments:

  1. Do a Joan Harrison post!!
    Although it's been a long time since I've watched FC, I have a vague recollection the tales of its filming interest more than the movie itself. I'll have to revisit though. (I think it's on instant watch!)
    I can't help but lament the lack of Cooper & Stanwyck.
    Hurray for Wednesdays!

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  2. Oh, I've got plenty to say about Joan, and Rebecca is a film that's coming up soon on the to watch pile. So expect to hear a great deal about her then.

    It is indeed on Instant watch, and definitely worth the time for the film making if not entire;y the scenario. One other thing it's worth it for is the sheer number of times McCrae's character says he's looking for a "showdown!"

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