Foreign Correspondent is notable for being only the second film Alfred Hitchcock made in Hollywood; it’s also one of the Master’s tauter, more cerebral thrillers. Though a relatively unheralded work, its multilayered tale of international espionage makes it a worthy forerunner to the cineaste-revered classics of the 50s such as The Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest. The relative obscurity of Foreign Correspondent may be partly explained by the success of Rebecca that same year (1940), which won for Hitchcock the only best-picture oscar of his legendary career. Ironically, I think Foreign Correspondent is the slightly better film, being more representative of his historical approach as a director. It may lack its worthy competitor’s fairy-tale-ish literary aura, but it more than compensates by capitalizing on Hitchcock’s characteristically serpentine intrigue, hard-edged suspense, and sardonic humor.
It’s 1940, and Europe is on the brink of war. Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport), editor-in-chief for the New York Globe, is frustrated about his paper’s lack of honest, in-depth coverage about the brewing military tempest across the pond. The trouble: his foreign correspondents. Despite their wealth of experience, they seem incapable of digging up a good scoop on the conflict. Enter John Jones (Joel McCrea), an amateurish lazybones of a reporter who seems more interested in making paper animals than in serving the paper’s interests. He’s earnest, foppish, a bit obtuse. Yes, he’ll do swimmingly, Powers says, but he’ll need a new name, a pretentious nom de plume. Powers’s yes-men agree: “Huntley Haverstock” will do nicely. Little does Haverstock know that his first assignment in England will embroil him inextricably in an investigation of the kidnapping of a Dutch diplomat, Van Meer (Albert Basserman), and a British spy, Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), who’s using his peace organization as a front to mask his traitorous involvement with the Nazis. Fisher’s ultimate aim is to extract an important peace-treaty clause from Van Meer.
McCrea represents one of Hitchcock’s most beloved stereotypes: that of a nebbishy everyman driven onward by an obsessional need to unravel a mystery. McCrea’s unmemorable, clean-cropped appearance and bland personality—like Jimmy Stewart’s in Rear Window and Vertigo—make him the ideal casting selection. Anyone in the audience can almost imagine being in Haverstock’s shoes. At least until we see him tiptoeing across a building ledge to avoid being gunned down by Nazi spies or narrowly avoiding death at the hands of Fisher’s Cockney-accented bodyguard Rowley (Edmund Gwenn), who nearly pushes him off a cathedral tower.
Part of what motivates Haverstock to persevere is his love for a woman who’s as nondescript as he is. With her mannequin-like, sterilized facial features and babe-in-the-woods expression, few gals could have been better cast than Carol Fisher (Laraine Day) as Haverstock’s romantic partner. (For the surname-impaired, I should perhaps also point out that she’s Stephen Fisher’s daughter.) In a way, Carol, who is naturally unaware of her father’s machinations, becomes the pivotal character, functioning as an unhappy pawn trapped between her love for Haverstock and the counterplot to expose her father and retrieve Van Meer. The counterplot is executed by Scott ffolliott (George Sanders)—the zany explanation for the lack of capital letter in his surname is reason enough to watch this film—a British undercover agent who’s posing as a reporter. Sanders is responsible for much of the film’s dagger-sharp dialogue, dropping ironic witticisms with a facility equal to that of the critic Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, one of his best-known roles.
The plot convolutions in Foreign Correspondent function as a microcosm of Hitchcock’s larger commentary on the human propensity to allow passion to subdue reason. Haverstock becomes so blinded by his love for Carol that he almost forgets about her father the arch-villain. And we, too, are tempted to let this charming little love story lead us astray from the film’s primary thrust. Like the naïve Haverstock, we are tempted to let the pleasure of the moment isolate us from the larger concerns of war and politics. It’s the sort of propagandistic ruse that’s a specialty of the “cunning, unscrupulous, and inspired” criminal mastermind spoken of by Fisher.
I like to think of Hitchcock as such a mastermind—sitting in the cutting room, sticking up his beefy middle finger while looking at the audience in his mind’s eye, and throatily chortling to himself and mumbling “I gave you what you wanted.” Thanks, Hitch, for sticking it to us, because Foreign Correspondent ends up succeeding on all levels—the intellectual, the emotional, and the purely entertaining. With its brilliant supporting cast of Brits, keenly written screenplay, and edge-of-the-precipice action sequences (among them a rain-pelting car chase), this underrated gem is not to be missed.
Joe’s Grade: A