Saturday, July 14, 2012

Foreign Correspondent

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT        B+                  
USA  (120 mi)  1940  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

I fought for my country in my heart in a very difficult way, because sometimes it’s harder to fight dishonorably than nobly in the open
—Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall)

An often neglected but gripping spy thriller story about sending a new fresh American reporter to London to cover a European war that hadn’t truly gotten started yet sounds like the ideal perspective for Alfred Hitchcock, a British citizen newly arrived in America, with this only his second Hollywood film following REBECCA (1940), which won the Academy Award as Best Picture, both released in the same year.  It’s something of a rousing patriotic effort supporting the British war effort, a daring gesture considering America’s official position at the time remained neutral, but many British nationals felt uneasy about living and working in Hollywood while their country was on the brink of war.  By the time the film finished shooting, the war still hadn’t begun, but when it did shortly afterwards, Hitchcock added the final scene written by Ben Hecht.  While this is a complicated and convoluted story, written by a committee of writers, it’s basically a harrowing, behind-the-scenes thriller of political intrigue and espionage that involves kidnapping and murder in an attempt to obtain government secrets.  In many ways it foreshadows the exposed traitorous activities of NOTORIOUS (1946), but also the way ordinary men can become drawn into matters of international concern, like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), where in each there’s an accompanying romantic angle.  Initially seeking Gary Cooper, he turned down his chance to work with Hitchcock, claiming it was just “a thriller,” a narrative genre not yet in favor with the public, but one whose reputation was enhanced considerably by this director.  What’s perhaps most notable about this film is there are no proven stars, no one to carry the picture, so the often confusing, labrynthian puzzle aspects of the story carry the suspense.   

Joel McCrea is the everyman reporter Johnny Jones sent to cover what was *not* being reported in the newspapers in America, where the newspaper editor Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport) takes an interest when first hearing about him, “Hmmm, beat up a policeman, eh? Sounds ideal for Europe,” but not before changing his name (from his secret files of names) to one more befitting the sound of a foreign correspondent, giving him the ridiculous byline Huntley Haverstock.  Sent to cover a peace movement organization led by Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), which newspapermen cynically think is the work of well wishing amateurs that have little hope of stopping a battle trained army sent on a mission of nation destruction and obliteration, he quickly discovers that the only views he’s really interested in are from the candid and straight-talking daughter of the leader, Laraine Day as Carol Fisher, where screwball comedy perhaps best describes their rapid-fire dialogue that almost completely advances the love interest.  But they continually get interrupted and separated by quckly developing events on the ground, as Johnny witnesses the assassination of Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), an important Dutch diplomat, in a tribute to a similar scene where a man gets shot in the eye in front of a large crowd on the Odessa Steps of Eisenstein’s BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925), where here the gunman is disguised as a photographer and escapes in the rain underneath a crowd of umbrellas with Johnny in hot pursuit, ending in a extended car chase sequence out into the windmills of Holland, where the car they are chasing simply disappears.  One of the best sequences of the film is Johnny’s internal search of one of those windmills where he finds the car stashed, where the geometric structures are so fully utilized, using a heavily stylized interior set design by Alexander Golitzen and cinematography by Rudolph Maté, where he hides in the tight corners and vertical stairways, evading a large operational gear system that suggests Chaplin’s MODERN TIMES (1936), where he actually loses his coat in the gears and has to follow the circular motion to grab it back, where he witnesses a meeting of the kidnapping team, accidentally stumbling onto Van Meer who was supposedly shot, as a double was used to make the world think he was dead, where he has instead been drugged and continually interrogated for secret information. 

Of interest, the Nazi’s are never named or identified as the enemy, nor are there references to Germany’s military advances in Eastern Europe, but the extensive network of criminals all speak German and continually look suspicious.  The intense action apparently brings together the two would-be lovers, who finally succumb in each others arms with instant plans for marriage, where written into the script is Hitchcock’s own eccentric marriage proposal to Alma Reville, his wife for over 50 years.  Of course, by the time Johnny gets police to the crime scene, they have all but disappeared, leaving many to question his version of events.  Their plans to announce their engagement to her father get thwarted when Johnny sees one of the kidnappers working for Fisher, which she identifies as a loyal family employee, which certainly takes some of the steam out of the marriage and ratchets up the intrigue, as Fisher attempts to construct an unsuspecting net around Johnny to maintain his silence, while he seems to be the one behind the dastardly assassination and kidnapping plot, continuing to hide behind his cover as a credible peace movement activist.  Meanwhile, Johnny hasn’t filed a single report of what he’s uncovered since the day he arrived, stymied by his affection for Carol, where in his view, “I'm in love with a girl, and I'm going to help hang her father.”  This moral dilemma pales in contrast to the political events of the hour, as Britain is rapidly advancing into war against Germany.  The source material for the film is Vincent Sheean’s own autobiographical account, Personal History, of when he got his start as a reporter covering the growing political turmoil in Europe.  The complexity of the historical era is beautifully portrayed as a series of government lies, deceits, and betrayals, where the actual studio settings resemble the crowded London subway station, Westminister tower, or Holland’s flat plains, and the many action sequences are a marvel of detail and construction, which continue throughout the film, right down to the last few scenes where Hitchcock films a particularly enthralling TITANIC (1997) disaster-at-sea special effects sequence, enhanced by none other than William Cameron Menzies.  The final added-on scene of Johnny reporting the news in Europe back to America on radio broadcasts while bombs are falling behind him extends the screaming intensity of the madness of war, where the love aspect also recalls Michael Powell’s divinely romantic postwar film, STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN (1946), where a British air force pilot deliriously falls madly in love with the voice of an American WAC air traffic controller after his plane’s been shot down and he’s heading rapidly to the ground in his last few seconds of life.  Now that’s a war romance.            

Note—Hitchcock is seen early in the movie walking in front of Johnny Jones reading a newspaper.

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