Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Release Date: August 16th, 1940 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Alfred Hitchcock Actors: Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders, Albert Basserman, Robert Benchley, Edmund Gwenn, Harry Davenport
t the New York Globe, executives are fed up with the lack of information coming from their foreign correspondents. It’s 1939 and something must be going on in Europe, but Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport) has been unable to acquire an honest crime report. Certain of an impending war, Powers tasks John Jones (Joel McCrea) – a newspaperman in the limelight after recently beating up a policeman – to journey abroad as a fresh, unused mind. He needs a genuine reporter, not a foreign correspondent. “How would you like to cover the biggest story in the world?”
Jones’ first assignment is to interrogate Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Albert Basserman) about a treaty designed to prevent Europe from going up in flames (a classic McGuffin, as it motivates the characters but has no meaning – or specificities – by itself). Mr. Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) will be Jones’ senior aid in America, educating him on the complexities of politics overseas, which the reporter hasn’t been following, while Stebbins (Robert Benchley) will be his London liaison. A war correspondent without a war – as of now – Jones is given a new name as well, to open some more doors. And so, Huntley Haverstock is born … and then thrust into the middle of a conspiracy, a switcheroo, a frame-up, and a cover-up.
“There’s something fishy going on around here.” Before there was “North by Northwest” (but after “The 39 Steps”), there was “Foreign Correspondent.” McCrea’s reporter isn’t a “wrong man” in this earlier adventure picture, but he must still solve a mystery, navigate his way out of peril, journey over long distances, and contend with authorities to whom he’s unable to prove his conspiratorial accusations – situations for which he’s certainly not prepared. There’s also a shocking murder in the middle of a public event, an uncommon inclination to snoop, and an iconic setting (a windmill field in Holland, complete with its own randomly soaring airplane, as well as the roof of Hotel Europe and the tower of Westminster Cathedral). On top of that, the film includes components that would eventually play into director Alfred Hitchcock’s later works, such as numerous references to birds, a doppelgänger, a vertiginous staircase, and devious political plots. The Master of Suspense continues to do wonders with timing, too, crafting hair-raising near-misses, split-second avoidances at being caught by the enemy, and the revelations of double-agents.
Here, the strong-minded, exceptionally intelligent woman in the mix (another Hitchcock motif) is Fisher’s daughter Carol (Laraine Day), who seems to be better suited for Jones’ job than he is. She also has a wit far superior to her male counterpart. And in Hitchcock’s familiar patterning, the dialogue boasts sharp, fast-paced, clever flirtations; a romance brews, ripe with laugh-out-loud interactions. Despite being a thriller, the central characters’ love banter and coy routines are entirely reminiscent of a screwball comedy. Even when an assassin is supposed to kill off Haverstock, the scenario is basked in the humor of unexpected salvation – or the comically coincidental failures of an unexpectedly unskilled killer (Edmund Gwenn).
Although this twosome is enough, a second sidekick is included (Scott ffolliott, played by the superbly emotive George Sanders) for additional comic relief (as if Benchley and Gwenn weren’t plenty for a single picture). The amount of levity tends to outweigh the severity, however, giving “Foreign Correspondent” a bit of an uneven tone – as well as a length that it can’t quite sustain. And the extreme coincidences are slightly more than average for Hitchcock’s typically heavily-scrutinized storytelling design. It’s nevertheless nicely handled (it would go on to receive six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture), with an appropriately boisterous, nerve-wracking finale, even if many of its key moments are reshaped and redeployed to greater effect a few years later in “Notorious” (1946).
– Mike Massie