I’ve heard over the years that Foreign Correspondent is “minor Hitchcock,” which of course begs an understanding of what “minor” means here. In more recent years, however, I kept hearing that it’s not so much minor as simply half-forgotten and undeserving of a second-rate classification.
Finally seeing it, it’s a fascinating film on many levels. As an entertainment, it is most enjoyable to Hitchcock lovers and World War Two film aficionados, but it’s also an intriguing look at Hitchcock’s transition from an English to American director, and a classic example of a “what could have been if only…” film.
Hitchcock was brought to America under the auspices of David O. Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind. While he did a great deal of work under Selznick, including his first, Best Picture-winner Rebecca (1940), Hitchcock was also loaned out a great deal to other producers. His first loan-out was to Walter Wanger, who produced Hitchcock’s next film, also released in 1940, Foreign Correspondent.
The film’s moment in time is more significant than most. Europe had just entered the war, and events surrounding Germany’s various invasions and the question of America’s involvement were changing every week. Some felt that peace was still a possibility, while others saw the inevitability of major war. Wanger wanted constant changes to the storyline and dialogue to keep as current as possible, a process wildly antithetical to Hitchcock’s normal method of visually conceiving the entire film before shooting the first scene; he considered the film essentially finished before the actors appeared on the set.
The story, which could have been electric, instead is “too much this, too little that” as it follows a plot involving peace-mongers who may or may not be what they seem, and who may or may not have killed someone important. The elements of a first-rate thriller are there, but don’t come together throughout more of the film. The last scene, however, is both prophetic and thrilling, as it anticipates the bombing of Great Britain by five days.
But it’s the separate parts that don’t necessarily coalesce that still make the film. The highlight is an extended sequence in a windmill, which should be studied at least for its use of space. It combines the best of his British work (The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes) while anticipating Lifeboat, Rear Window, and others. It’s also a scene that moves the film forward narratively while ratcheting up the excitement level. It’s the best thing in the film, and ranks up there with the best of Hitchcock’s more thrilling set pieces. There are moments in the film that echo Chaplin and look as if they were borrowed from a mid-30’s British film, and little humorous asides that were funnier to the British that have lost their punch as time has passed. Inside joke names abound, especially George Sanders’ character, who has the best name in a Hitchcock film, the revelation of which is one of the best moments in the film. The developing love story, however, filled as it reputedly is with echoes of Hitchcock’s romance and marriage to his wife Alma, is so patently absurd and Hollywood rushed as to be laughable.
While the film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture (which it lost to Rebecca), it hasn’t aged that well for a few reasons. One is simply that it is an uneasy blend of the Hitchcock that was and the one that would be. The other major problem is the actors and the acting. The best actors, unfortunately, take the minor roles. Albert Bassermann as a pivotal but ultimately minor figure in the film was nominated—deservedly—for Best Supporting Actor. Of the four remaining stars, the supporting players—George Sanders and Herbert Marshall—were by far the stronger actors.
The lead role went to likable, moderately talented actor Joel McCrea (The Palm Beach Story, Sullivan’s Travels, The More the Merrier, plus a slew of Westerns in the second half of his career), who functioned well as a lightweight romantic lead at this point in his career. Set against heavyweights like Bassermann, Sanders and Marshall, McCrea’s relative weightlessness seems all the more apparent. He holds the film together only be virtue of being in most of the scenes, not by his screen authority. Looking back, he wasn’t a Robert Donat or a Laurence Olivier. Looking ahead, he wasn’t a Cary Grant or a Jimmy Stewart, either.
Trying hard but making little to no impression is the female lead, 19-year-old Laraine Day (The Locket plus several Dr. Kildare films), who handles her scenes adequately but with little impact. It’s been reported that Hitchcock wanted either Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Fontaine (former star of Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and future star of his Suspicion) for that role. And apparently Clark Gable and Gary Cooper turned down McCrea’s role. Speculating is futile, but one can imagine this would be a stronger film with any of those four in the two leads.
Putting the weakness of the two leads aside, Foreign Correspondent is worth viewing as a time capsule—of America on the edge of war, hovering between isolation, hopes for peace, on the edge of involvement, and of a director moving from the biggest fish in a relatively small pond, imbued with British humor and silent film tropes, to a world-class American director who would change the face of cinema. The story is of its time, uniquely. Some of the sequences, however, especially the scene in the windmill, are forever.