A cinematic look at the history of motion pictures, viewing and studying the films chronologically based on release in order to best understand how each where impacted by their times and in turn impacted the world. In observation we can detect how each motion picture added to medium and helped cinema evolve and impact the world as an art, form of entertainment, and capsule of history.
War approaching the United Kingdom was a very real threat taking place
in 1940 and in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Foreign
Correspondent audiences received a fictionalized look at the terrors that
was actually at the door steps of his home country. Nazi Germany was on a march
to become the most powerful empire in Europe, even the world, and many citizens
in free nations of the western world watched in horror as Adolf Hitler’s
stranglehold grew bigger. In this, Hitchcock’s second America picture, we see a
thriller surrounding issues of the then modern world as talks of war was on the
lips of all Europeans while Americans watched on from a distance.
Foreign Correspondent is a
thriller about an American reporter who is sent to Europe to cover the rumors
of war, but finds himself into the middle of international conspiracy and
espionage as the threat draws closer. Joel McCrea plays Johnny Jones, a crime
reporter, sent to Europe to give a fresh look into burgeoning war and given the
pen name of Huntley Heverstock. His first assignment is to cover the Universal
Peace Party, where the disappearance of a Dutch diplomat, Van Meers (Albert
Bassermann) send Haverstock on an adventure discovering a secret ring of
international spies and conspiracy to bring the war upon England. Along the way
Haverstock meets a love interest in Carol (Laraine Day), the daughter of the
Peace Party leader Stephan Fisher (Herbert Marshall) who turns out to be the
man behind the kidnapping and staged his assassination of Van Meers. Haverstock
survives an attempt on his life and even a dramatic plane crash due to Nazi
shelling to both save Van Meer and try to stop Fisher, who in the end sacrifices
himself to save his daughter, who has fallen in love with Haverstock. The film
concludes with Haverstock addressing American radio audiences while the first
Nazi bombs begin to fall on London warning listeners of Germany’s rise of evil
as the picture fades outs.
The picture is very enjoyable thriller taking place in the early years
of World War II when battles beyond the movie where actually coming to fall at
the doorsteps of allied nations of Great Britain and the United States, both
nations attempting to be neutral as long as they could in the world. The film
uses the eyes of a fresh crime reporter with no interest in international
happens to take the audience on a journey to discover the confusion of politics
and war in Europe were many counties tried to avoid altercations that were
inevitable. Director Alfred Hitchcock, a master of suspense, uses his unique
blend of uncertainty and adventure to bring intrigue to a political drama.
The tale of Foreign Correspondent
goes back to the purchasing of journalist Vincent Sheean’s memoir by producer
Walter Wanger in 1935, who found great trouble in making a suitable adapted
screenplay from the book. Wanger gained the services of British director
Hitchcock to concoct only his second American produced picture, the first being the
critically acclaimed Rebecca, helping
to shape some assemblance of a story inspired by the memoir. After several
rewrites by several writers the newly titled Foreign Correspondent would become a story of a reporter thrown
into serious situation he could have never guessed was coming.
To star in the picture was Joel McCrea and Laraine Day as the willing
reporter and his new love interest who turns out is the daughter of the enemy. McCrea
filled in when Hitchcock was unable to get his first choice for the role of
Jones/Haverstock, Gary Cooper. McCrae was a leading male performer reaching
near his peak on screen providing Hitchcock with the All-American charm and
demeanor that was needed to play a reporter who was a novice to the story he
was covering; a bit cynical, but very determined to get what he needed.
Laraine Day was already a recognizable face from her numerous
appearance in many Dr. Kildare movies
with Lew Ayres for MGM, even in her short time since arriving in Hollywood. She
brought with her an innocence and strong headedness that allowed her to be a character
that fought for good, but discovers is directly related to the villain. Both
stars were not huge names, but very formidable actors proving that good movies
do not need the biggest name actors to be very good films.
Herbert Marshall’s performance as Stephan Fisher, the suave peace
politician that turns out to be the man suppressing peace so that war takes
enemies by surprise, is close to masterful. The English actor was both
reassuring and devilishly evil all at the same time in a very quiet way. His
performance perhaps is the finest of the picture even though Albert Bassermann
would be nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
McCrea with Bassermann
Bassermann, who played the kidnapped diplomat Van Meer, was a German
character actor that knew very limited English. In many cases Bassermann had to
learn his lines phonetically for his performances just to get his roles. His
difficult role as the diplomat who is kidnapped and tortured to a state of
delirium is very strong and provides the great personality to the role of a
stately man diminished by evil enemies. Knowing he was not fluent in the
English language makes his Academy Award nomination an amazing feat.
The wonderful supporting cast continues with George Sanders, who worked
with Hitchcock before in Rebecca, the
gifted Robert Benchley, and even an appearance by Edmund Gwenn. Sanders’ roles
as Scott ffolliot (yes, that is two small F’s) provides a spring board to which
McCea’s character gets to bounce ideas and thoughts off of and ultimately aids
in the final adventurous scenes of the picture. Robert Benchley was a popular
humorist of the time who had made many comedic appearances on screen, usually
in observational shorts that poked fun at everyday life. Here he provides a
dose of reality as a jaded reporter, the polar opposite of Haverstock. He also
delivers intelligent humor usually in smart one-liners about his life which
actually makes this supporting role a rather tragic character you wish we could
spend more time with to get to know. Edmund Gwenn, a lovable supporting actor,
plays an unlikely henchman you fails at attempting to kill Haverstock before he
gets too close to discovering Fisher’s plans.
Like much of his work Alfred Hitchcock proves to be a wonderful
architect of cinema storytelling. From the way the plot seems to effortlessly
play out in perfect timing to the creation of brilliantly staged shots.
Hitchcock seems to be more in touch with what is pleasing to a viewer’s
cinematic subconscious than most filmmakers of the time.
Take for example the assassination scene. Most filmmakers would do a
rather simple set up where a one man shoots another then runs through a crowd
in a getaway segment. Hitchcock puts the scene in the rain, not just for the
dramatic effect of the rain, but it puts the happenings of the assassination in
a sea of umbrellas. After the gun shot Hitchcock films the killer running
through the crowd from above, with us mostly watching the movement of umbrellas
as the killer elbows his way through the crowd underneath them. It gets across
the same idea if he filmed on a clear day with no just a normal crowd, but this
style adds a sort of art to the scene as the umbrellas are impressions of the
people underneath, but we do not see it allowing our imagination to fill in so
much, which is remarkably pleasing as a viewer.
As the bombs are falling on London.
The film would open in August 1940, but in England in October just a
week before bombs actually did fall on London; once again, art and life
interacting with each other, this time tragically. The picture would be well
received by audiences and critics being nominated for six Academy Awards,
including Best Picture which went to Hitchcock’s other production Rebecca. The film continues to stand up
very well with contemporary audiences as this war time thriller continues to
bring viewers to the edge of their seats.