Sunday, October 12, 2014

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

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.

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