When Alfred Hitchcock first arrived in America, he was contracted to work for David Selznick. Their first feature was Academy Award winning Rebecca, a psychological drama I admire a great deal. But the best films Hitchcock made in his native England were his magnificent spy movies, and Rebecca has none of that. However, in 1940 Selznick lent Hitchcock to Walter Wanger (according to the essay included in this release, Hithcock was paid his usual weekly salary of $2,500 while Wanger paid Selznick $7,500 per week for the loan), so that Wanger could finally make a film based on Vincent Sheean’s memoir Personal History, which he’d bought the rights to shortly after the book’s release in 1935. And so, in the same year as Rebecca, Hitchcock also made the less-seen Foreign Correspondent, a comic, romantic spy-thriller that might not reach the peaks of The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Lady Vanishes but is certainly in the same range. I love it! And I was thrilled when The Criterion Collection released a new restoration on blu-ray and DVD last month. It was my Valentine’s Day present from my wife :-) .
When the film begins, crime reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McRae) is enlisted to go to Europe to report on the growing instability for the New York Globe. Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport, whom my wife immediately recognized as Dr. Meade from Gone with the Wind), the editor of the newspaper, has been frustrated by his current foreign correspondents’ inability to make any sense. When Johnny Jones seems more interested in ambition and “a good story” than the war, Mr. Powers thinks he’s found the right guy to shake things up and get some good reporting. Mr. Powers dubs him “Huntley Haverstock” (because what kind of foreign correspondent has a name like Johnny Jones).
Haverstock (we’ll call him that now) arrives in England and finds his first assignment is to report on events The Universal Peace Party, ran by Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall). The first event is meant to honor a Dutch diplomat named Van Meer. On the way to the party, Haverstock runs into Van Meer, and Van Meer is gracious enough to share a cab. In a way, the two men become friends, holding some mutual respect.
At the party, Haverstock also meets Mr. Fisher and Mr. Firsher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day). This is first spark of their banter-heavy romance:
Strangely, Van Meer does not show up to the party held in his honor, though Haverstock knows he was on his way. Van Meer was even supposed to speak, but Mr. Fisher apologizes for Van Meer’s departure and says Van Meer will be at a political conference in Amsterdam.
Haverstock goes to Amsterdam to cover that conference as well, and he’s happy to see Van Meer arrive, though — again strangely — Van Meer doesn’t seem to recognize Haverstock.
In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Van Meer is then executed, right amidst all of the umbrella-wielding onlookers:
The mystery and excitements builds, and the chase is on (you can see some of it in the great cover art of this release)! This is the first of three great set-pieces.
Haverstock jumps in a car to chase the assassin. In the car, Hitchcock shows off just how well he can mix suspense and comedy, for there we also find Carol and another reporter, Scott ffolliott (George Sanders). ffolliott explains the double, small fs that begin his name: “One of my ancestors was beheaded by Henry VIII. His wife dropped the capital letter to commemorate it.” And the chase is still on — until we get to a beautiful field of windmills:
The next great set-piece takes place inside one of the windmills, though I don’t want to go further in the plot:
The third great set-piece takes place on a trans-Atlantic flight: the plane carrying all of our characters is shot down! Really, it’s a fun movie, with a soft touch of humor and suspense. Oh, and romance, though that angle is not a strength in this film. I forgive it.
I want to end this review by talking a bit about this excellent edition of the film. Not only is it a beautiful restoration, but it contains a number of extras that were great to dig into and that really contextualized the film. While I always knew this was a war film, I’d never thought much about its release date: 1940. This American picture was release before America entered the war. While most of Hollywood wanted to distance itself from making any kind of statement about what role the United States should be assuming, Walter Wanger strongly felt that the United States should enter the war. Thus, we get our reporter, Haverstock, who is initially disinterested, neutral, but who, by the end of the film, is clamoring this on the radio while bombs are falling outside the recording studio in London:
Hello, America. I’ve been watching a part of the world being blown to pieces. A part of the world as nice as Vermont, and Ohio, and Virginia, and California, and Illinois lies ripped up and bleeding like a steer in a slaughterhouse, and I’ve seen things that make the history of the savages read like Pollyanna legends. [. . .] Hello, America, hang on to your lights: they’re the only lights left in the world.
The film ends with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
I’ve never minded this, though I’m sure many find it unbearably heavy-handed propaganda. I find it bearable heavy-handed propaganda. There’s a great piece on the disc with Mark Harris called Hollywood Propaganda and World War II. In this, Harris talks about Wanger’s stance and also brings up something I found fascinating: that final scene with Haverstock on the radio was added after the last moment, when the film was already in the can. Things were getting worse in Europe in 1940. Filming had wrapped on June 5 and Hitchcock went to visit England. There he heard that it was expected the Germans would bomb London at any time. Hence, this new ending, filmed on July 5. The film — which has been modified to end with London being bombed — was released on August 16, a week before the Germans began bombing London.
I find this kind of trivia fascinating, and it certainly helps me understand the decisions filmmakers make and the role of film in society better.
The release has several other notable extras, including a short but insightful essay called “The Windmills of War,” by James Naremore, a 25-minute radio adaptation of the film starring Joseph Cotten from 1946 (yes, this adaptation moves at a break-neck speed, so fast I wondered if I’d be able to follow had I not known the story), and a piece by Craig Barron on the special effects of the film.
The last feature I’ll talk about here is a full interview Hitchcock did on The Dick Cavett Show in 1972. That was the year Hitchcock’s penultimate film Frenzy was released, but in the interview Hitchcock fondly brings up Foreign Correspondent, telling us how proud he was of some of the effect and how he’d initially asked Gary Cooper to star. Cooper refused and later regretted it. At the end, Cavett asks, “What will you do next?” Hitchcock responds, “I’m looking for another body.”