Foreign Correspondent (1940): Hitchcock at the Eve of World War II

“This is a big story, and you’re part of it.” – Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent depicts a world on the precipice of World War II, and its thriller toolkit ultimately doubles as an argument for American involvement in the conflict – over a final needle-drop of “The Star Spangled Banner”, no less. Yes, we’re in propaganda territory, but Alfred Hitchcock’s craft is never overshadowed by a political agenda, here, or in two-years-hence, wartime-set Saboteur (1942). Both movies, one depicting the tense moment before the storm of war, one informed by the dreary reality of an ongoing conflict, integrate Hitchcock’s thriller vocabulary into the syntax of broadly defined world events.

We are again presented with an entire litany of Hitchcock’s comfortingly consistent tropes. The constantly disbelieved “wrong man”, the bluntly skeptical woman turning on a dime into devotion, the impeccably mannered and bourgeois traitors to their country with their secret drawing room conspiracies. The cabal of villains even use the same actor for their butler (Ian Wolfe) as they later will in Saboteur!

Charles Tobin in Saboteur, the genteel master of puppets, is humanized by his love for his granddaughter (though he apparently didn’t think to bring her with him on his planned flight to Central America…). Foreign Correspondent preemptively improves on this. Oily slick two-faced baddie Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) has an extraordinary scene opposite the vessel of his own humanization, his daughter Carol, where he essentially gives a confessional. Knowing he faces arrest, he muses that it’s often “harder to fight dishonorably, than nobly out in the open”. After their transatlantic craft is shot down by Nazis, the plane’s surviving passengers find themselves on a part of the wing. Remarkably, Fisher sacrifices himself, like Jack in Titanic, by giving himself to the ocean… so his daughter may live. And just like in Saboteur, hero tries in vain to save the life of the villain, an act worthy of the Doctor herself.

The film’s central romance goes from negative 60 to 60 in a remarkably quick span. A few seconds of indistinct whispering, and foreign correspondent John (Joel McCrea, Sullivan’s Travels) and idealistic Carol (Laraine Day) build an entire engagement. While the two do kiss at one point, there are also coy references to “when you kissed me” off-screen, as this was a time in movie history when the length of kisses was policed.

Now if you want to see Edmund Gwenn, beloved for his Miracle on 34th Street Santa, push a man in anger into the path of a massive truck, Foreign Correspondent is the movie for you. There’s also the impossibly posh George Sanders providing withering support, and Albert Basserman, Oscar-nominated in the role of kindly, world-weary Dutch diplomat Van Meer.

Foreign Correspondent opens on a beautiful model shot of the fictional New York Morning Globe building, courtesy of Things to Come director William Cameron Menzies. It’s a striking sign of a different type of element in a Hitchcock film. That type of artisan effect is also seen in the thrilling moment when the plane wipes out into the water. Cued by the cockpit glass blowing, the retro front projection of the sea transitions into a torrent of water crashing in: A truly theme park-quality illusion. (Menzies’ model of the airship also recalls his own vehicles of apocalyptic war in Things to Come.) But Hitchcock doesn’t always need these tricks to grab the attention; a yokel avoiding a car chase features in an almost Chaplin-esque gag.

The propaganda aspect involves the audience in the story. The kidnapped Van Meer, when soliloquizing on the merits of “the little people”, glances directly at the camera. In the desperate climax, denial of the Nazi clear and present danger is punished as swiftly as in a slasher movie. And as quoted above, Jones says during a London air raid, “This is a big story, and you’re part of it”. The thrillers of this time can’t help but engage with the violent reality around them, or at least the pregnant pause before the plunge into war. The disclaimer at the beginning of the film may parrot the familiar boilerplate words, “the events depicted are fictitious”, etc etc, but that’s only true on a micro level. The War is an omnipresent shadow.

The explicit national interest in these early 40s thrillers is included in moderation. There is still a degree fo escapism, and that is what the inclusion of Hitchcock’s in-house tropes helps to provide. 1940 was also the year of gothic psychodrama Rebecca, nominated for Best Picture alongside Foreign Correspondent and winning over the more political work. This was the dawn of Hitchcock’s famous “American period”, that produced most of his famous works, and Foreign Correspondent engages with that country’s eventual entry into the conflict. So Hitchcock himself, an Englishman starting to make movies for American studios, is in a way the foreign correspondent of the title. While lacking the entertainingly quirky elements of Saboteur, sometimes plodding in its narrative, and driven more by setpieces than always by logic, Foreign Correspondent is still a fascinating integration of typical Hitchcockian espionage into a world on the brink of world war.

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