My love affair with director Alfred Hitchcock began in grade school. I saw his name on some books in my school library. They were anthology books with titles like 'Alfred Hitchcock's Stories of Suspense.' The books were probably offshoots of Hitchcock's successful television shows. Inside were stories of mystery and suspense by the best authors in the suspense genre (Robert Bloch and Daphne du Maurier to name a couple) and there was usually an introduction by Hitchcock (or an editor pretending to be Hitchcock). Hitchcock's famous image would be on the book. Who was this Hitchcock guy, I wondered? Even his name was creepy. Hitch...cock. So then, I grabbed one of the school's Encyclopedia Britannica's and looked him up and discovered he was a film director. The encyclopedia listed some of his film credits and they had strange, macabre titles. VERTIGO, PSYCHO, SPELLBOUND, NOTORIOUS, and FRENZY to name a few. Thus, began my infatuation with Alfred Hitchcock and his amazing films.
If you watch an Alfred Hitchcock film in 2010, they may seem a bit dated, but during his long and illustrious career, Hitchcock pushed the limit in story, sound, editing, special effects, and set design. One of his first films in the United States after early film success in England was the the spy thriller FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940).
Written by Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison, Hitchcock seems to swing for the fences in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, his first of two World War II thrillers he would make (1942's SABOTEUR being the other). It has all the Hitchcock motifs and themes that he started to show in his early career and would explore and use over and over during his American period. Set during the brink of England's involvement in World War II, the story opens with American newspaper publisher Powers (Harry Davenport) sending inexperienced but ambitious reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrae) to London as a foreign correspondent to dig up news on the impending war in Europe. Powers gives Jones a new pseudonym (Huntly Haverstock) and a lead regarding a Dutch politician named Van Meer (Albert Basserman) who is one of two signers on a treaty with Belgium that could prevent war.
As film fate happens, reporter Jones catches a cab with Van Meer in London on his way to a speaking engagement and almost lands his scoop but Van Meer isn't biting. Jones tries again when he follows Van Meer to Amsterdam but instead witnesses Van Meer's apparent assassination. Jones jumps into a car driven by an English reporter Ffolliot (George Sanders) and his friend Carol Fisher (Lorraine Day) and chases the assassins to a windmill hideout outside of Amsterdam. The killers escape but Jones and his new friends stay on the hunt, uncovering a nest of murderous spies, led by the leader of a peace organization (Herbert Marshall), bent on bringing war to England.
In FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT Hitchcock gets to unleash all his favorite themes: the innocent hero who stumbles into a nefarious situation; the suave villain; a bad guy falling from a very high place; and the MacGuffin, a plot device to move the story but that really has no payoff. In CORRESPONDENT, the MacGuffin is the clause in the treaty that has never been written down, just memorized by Van Meer. CORRESPONDENT also has amazing set pieces: the windmill hideout; the assassination sequence in a rainy, crowded Amsterdam square; and a terrifying plane crash in the North Atlantic. CORRESPONDENT is Hitchcock's practice run that he will fulfill beautifully with a somewhat similar NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959).
Actors Joel McCrae and Lorraine Day are decent as the leads but they aren't the big Hollywood stars that Hitchcock wanted (Gary Cooper turned down the reporter role). As Hitchcock became a bigger director in America, he would work with the likes of Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, and Ingrid Bergman.
However, the supporting cast more than makes up for the lack of star quality. Herbert Marshall as Stephen Fisher, leader of the Fisher Peace organization (and ironically the bad guy trying to incite war with England) is the blueprint of Hitchcock villainy. Sophisticated, polite, and a good father yet not against hiring killer Rowley (Edmund Gwenn who would later play Santa Claus in MIRACLE ON 42ND STREET) to kill his daughter Carol's reporter boyfriend Johnny Jones. George Sanders overwhelms Joel McCrae as Ffolliot, a fellow reporter helping to find the real Van Meer and stop the spy plot. At one point in the film, Sanders actually becomes the lead as he infiltrates a hotel where the bad guys are interrogating Van Meer (in a chillingly brutal scene for 1940) while McCrae disappears from the screen for about 20 minutes. For whatever reason, Sanders never became a huge star but he's fun to watch in this. Lastly, for comic relief, Robert Benchley (author Peter Benchley's father) as Stebbins, an American reporter working with Jones, provides laughs between the suspenseful scenes.
For me, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT is a showcase for Hitchcock to American studios to show what he would be capable of. It's an ambitious film with special effects and visual tricks that still amaze me with their verve and ingenuity even today. I also like the pace of the film. Screenwriters Bennett and Harrison jam an awful lot of plot and action into two hours so the coincidences keep the film speeding along. Jones bumping into Van Meer immediately upon arriving in London; the villain Fisher's daughter Carol being in the chase car that picks up Jones after the assassination, and all of the major characters on the same plane to New York and subsequent plane crash may be coincidence but Hitchcock and his team do such a great job of telling this thriller that we the audience are happy to go along for the ride.