Hitchcock hits the ground running, producing this second picture within the same year as ‘Rebecca’. ‘Foreign Correspondent’ is a solid little film, flitting between the kind of light comedy envinced by other newspaper movies such as ‘His Girl Friday’ (although not nearly as frenetic as this Howard Hawks classic) and a much darker tone of kidnapping, murder and international political intrigue.
Joel Macrea plays Johnny Jones (‘J.J.’ to you) who is brought in for a special mission as a foreign correspondent after he has been cooling his heels with some newspaper origami after beating up a cop. He is sent to England to meet and interview a European Minister named Van Meer (Albert Basserman), a man who it is said can divert the inevitability of the Second World War single-handedly through various political machinations. As a disguise, J.J. is renamed Huntley Havistock (his bags restencilled ‘HH’) and there is a quick family goodbye montage which results in his new bowler hat (because we all wear them here) being mislaid – a running gag throughout the picture. As the ocean liner pulls away to the tune of ‘Rule Britannia’, the director ensures we know exactly where we’re going, hammering it home with a shot of Big Ben. Yes, got it – we’re off to England!
He hooks up with a local U.S. reporter, a drinking womanizing old dog called Stebbins (played by Robert Benchley) and sets off for a luncheon accompanying Van Meer himself whom he has met quite by chance climbing into a taxi (HH walking close to his rotund director who strolls casually by reading, fittingly, a newspaper). They arrive at the luncheon and the film’s tone is rapidly established – witty banter between HH and his new found female ‘friend’ Carol Fisher (Laraine Day) – he clumsily annoying her by insulting her father who is hosting the event (this is Sir Stephen Fisher, played by ‘Murder!’s Herbert Marshall) and the organisation he represents as ‘well-meaning amateurs’. Again, it’s a good instance of marrying the light with a serious subtext, and very well handled it is too. HH is confused when Van Meer is announced as not being able to make the luncheon and then he’s bored by the prospect of listening to Fisher’s daughter speaking – initially not realizing it’s the attractive Carol, a great dolly move to him when he finally twigs it’s her and another smooth move to her as she digs at him and his ‘amateurs’ line. Carol’s speech is derailed by the copious love notes HH has already sent her, he attempting to save her with a puny round of applause.
We are then catapulted to Holland and there follows a quite marvellous sequence: the umbrellas in the rain scene* involving a Van Meer double not recognizing HH and then getting shot by a press ‘photographer’ (his gun held next to his camera – ‘Van Meer’ shot in the face and tumbling backwards down the stone steps).
This is great – Hitchcock pulls out crane moves and fast cutting to sweep you into the action and the ensuing car chase into the country, HH luckily diving into a car wherein Carol is with George Sanders (playing the curiously named Ffolliott). They speed to the country and it’s windmills everywhere (let’s not be shy of stating where we are). HH susses one windmill’s blades going the wrong way and he’s on the hunt(ley). A propeller plane zips around and the ensuing scene presages the classic crop dusting scene from 1959’s ‘North by Northwest’ – an isolated innocent trapped in the open with danger all around (although in this case he has a windmill in which to hide).
There’s a neat little thing as HH creeps about and he looks out of a small window where two more evils are approaching – it looks like either they shot this and positioned the approaching guys perfectly in position or they had a little projector screen outside the window, nicely done all the same.
It’s genuinely suspenseful and again balances the humour with real intrigue. This whole windmill suspense scene is fantastic – really good sense of the geography of the building as HH creeps around and finds the real Van Meer who is off his napper on some administered drug. HH’s coat gets caught in the windmill’s mechanism but he still manages to secrete himself. It’s a wonderfully shot and edited scene with great gentle menace to the music (courtesy of Alfred Newman).
The balance between drama and humour is illustrated once again when two nasties come to get HH in his rooms at the Hotel Europa. He ducks into the bathroom for a fast shave (a neat through the keyhole shot of the two villains), HH then climbing out the window and shuffling his way along to Carol’s room.
She threatens to throw him out but is already succumbing to his charms. HH’s bathwater floods his room – he calls the hotel staff who muddle around and confuse the villains enough to allow a hotel porter time to grab an outfit for HH. It’s a perfect example in the film of a dramatic moment being underscored by humour and romance (HH and Carol peering out of her room in sync in a blatantly comedic moment). This is one of the main charms of the feature and a skill the director hadn’t exhibited to this extent previously (‘Rich and Strange’, for all its simple charm, didn’t really balance this level of mixed tones).
When the falling in love couple return to England, huddled together like two Old Mother Hubbards on a rainy deck, it’s both lovely and romantic. They go straight to her father’s and just – again – as you’re getting comfortable Hitchcock spins it again by having one of the (very suspicious) bad guys enjoying a cosy breakfast with daddy Fisher. HH’s face is a picture as he realizes the implications of this and dreads that his hoped for future father-in-law is in cohoots with kidnappers and murderers – and international war-mongering Johnny foreigners to boot. HH tips off daddy and Fisher goes to confront Krug (Eduardo Ciannelli) and it is revealed to us that Marshall himself is batting with the black hats. Marshall is superb in this, never letting his guard down for a second.
‘They combine a mad love of country with an equally mad indifference to life…they’re cunning, unscrupulous and…inspired…’ – Marshall delivers a speech in close up that is fantastic when underscored by our knowledge that he’s talking so reverentially about himself as the criminal mastermind – all the better that he be cast as this evil character who believe in his own goodness (and a good case of an actor working against type – something that will occur more and more in Hitchcock’s work). When HH goes off with his new Fisher approved bodyguard Rowley (come on down Edmund Gwenn!) Carol cries and her father realizes he is not only playing with countries and war and politics and murder but with his daughter’s happiness…
Rowley is great and within a minute of meeting his new ward he attempts to shove him under a truck! Fantastic how this story twists on a penny to another tone. Gwenn’s is virtually a cameo part here as he persuades HH to give a mythically tailing taxi the slip by legging it up an enormous church tower. Hitchcock utilizes vertiginous shots downwards as the tension rises – Rowley waiting for everyone else to leave before he gives him the shove – a man falls and we see a newspaper cutting (humorously showing a dotted line arc downwards to show the direction of the falling man). HH is obviously all well to continue his quest. A really marvellous little set piece.
I really like the way that the newspaper editor Stebbins, in the middle of a lengthy dialogue scene between HH and Ffolliett, just picks up the phone, listens for about 3 seconds and then just says ‘no, tell him it’s ridiculous’ before hanging up. He then tries to bet on a race that’s already been run via another phone call. Really quite random but good little side gags going on that work against the simultaneous exposition dialogue.
There’s a nice little love rivalry between HH and Ffolliott for Carol’s affections – the latter gent being big about it and seeing HH has the advantage and dutifully stepping aside. Laraine Day as Carol is very good, and pretty. Ffolliott and HH fake Carol’s kidnapping to try to exert pressure on dad, he torn between his politics and his love for his daughter. Sanders is a good smooth pretend heavy/villain with an air of threat that works really well. The scene between him and Fisher is moodily lit in a noirish way – deep shadows playing across these faces. Dad pretends to write the location of Van Meer but Carol suddenly appears, foiling Ffolliott’s ploy.
The experimental and dramatic lighting really comes to the fore in the sleep deprivation Van Meer scene, the villains (and the sleek Ffolliott who has coolly wandered into the hiding place under gunpoint – he then eats a banana, brilliant) lit in deep shadows with the intense lights in the left foreground to keep the poor old man awake.
It feels genuinely quite evil as they try to prise the secret of the ‘hidden clause’ out of him (this is the movie’s MacGuffin) – he’s a tough old buzzard and won’t cave in. Offscreen, they torture him and eventually he cracks – the camera slow tracking to Ffolliott as he reacts to the inflicted pain. A fight breaks out and action man Ffolliott jumps out of the window, breaking his fall on an awning down below – really great exciting scenes with a dark heart and undercurrent of genuine violence (and staircases galore in these scenes).
Another great set piece/shot is the move to the aeroplane window where Carol and dad are seated. Hitchcock employs a model plane to start his camera move, cleverly intertwining this with the really thing and matching the move as he goes through the window.
Tremendous**. And then the director tops his own ingenuity when the plane – also carrying HH and Ffolliott – starts getting blasted from the sea! It’s brilliant – one stick in the mud, oldish lady refiusing to life jacket up and promptly getting shot dead – merciless and marvellous. Eventually the plane, its engine in tatters, crashes into the sea in a breathtaking sequence – the sea water cascading into the cockpit. Wow! They thrash around in the ocean in a pretty convincing wild sea until Fisher does the honourable thing and slips into the sea to help not weighing down the wing they are using to stay afloat. Yes it’s rear projection and probably shot in a water tank outside London somewhere, but it’s really well done and shows off production values and a technical standard the director seemingly didn’t have the resources for in certain previous pictures.
There’s a frankly silly shot as one of the guys uses his binoculars to spot a ship approaching – its reflection in the lenses. This kind of shot will serve the director well in the later ‘Rear Window’ but seems a little ‘I can do this so I will’ rather than really necessary.
The closing scenes of the film, over-the-top in their patriotism though they are, are strong and moving. HH relays the whole story to his publisher via a hidden telephone from the US ship that rescues them – its captain banning him from doing so, for official secrets reasons, but the press won’t be muzzled, oh no! The closing scene sees HH giving a rousing and fairly exaggerated radio address to rouse England to war – as the lights flicker and bombs fall, he carries on boldly. The End title appears over an image of a proud and defiant American eagle.
‘Foreign Correspondent’ is a very good watch and highly recommended. It’s not totally typical Hitchcock but he manages to balance action, adventure, comedy, romance and proud patriotism into an engaging and exciting yarn. The performances are uniformly superb and the cinematic techniques fluid and inventive. I prefer this to ‘Rebecca’ – his first American movie – and would urge you watch it.
* see ‘The Untouchables’ for stolen version – sorry ‘homage’ – of this sequence
**this is the replicated De Palma shot from ‘The Untouchables’.