The Film Noir Odyssey
Writer: Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison, with additional dialogue by James Hilton and Robert Benchley
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders, Albert Bassermann
Cinematography: Rudolph Mate
Music: Alfred Newman
Studio: United Artists
Release: August 16, 1940
“Foreign Correspondent” is a hodgepodge of different genres which don’t go together, baffling tonal shifts, gigantic plot holes and it has the wrong character as its protagonist. That said, it’s a pretty good movie.
Though he has no real knowledge of the politics of Europe, reporter John Jones (Joel McCrea) is assigned to cover the oncoming war overseas. He heads there and immediately finds himself in the midst of conspiracies within conspiracies – a friendly diplomat named Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) is seemingly shot to death on the steps of the embassy but that was a body double – the real Van Meer is being held hostage until he reveals certain government secrets. Also wrapped up in the madness is the woman John falls in love with named Carol (Laraine Day), her father Stephen (Herbert Marshall) who is the head of the Universal Peace Party, and the incredible reporter Scott ffolliott (George Sanders), whose last name is not misspelled, I promise.
Unlike other thrillers by director Alfred Hitchcock, this film was crafted partially as entertainment but partially as a propaganda piece by producer Walter Wanger in order to rally support within America against the rise of fascism overseas. To the film’s credit, it rarely feels that way while you are watching it until the final epilogue. That said, when you step back and think about a bunch of the creative decisions in play, you can see it more clearly.
The biggest example of this is the choice to make John the lead instead of Scott. The film goes to lengths to underline that John knows nothing about what’s going on overseas before sending him into the action, almost as if the filmmakers are shaking viewers while screaming “He’s just like you! Identify with him!” Once in Europe, John makes one or two smart decisions (most notably noticing the windmill spinning in the wrong direction), but in general is an idiot who argues against every smart decision made by other characters. He’s not the stupidest Hitchcock hero (that would be Ingrid Bergman’s character in “Spellbound”), but he’s pretty damn close. Also… frankly… he’s kinda boring. McCrea is a good actor, but the role gives him nothing to do, to the point where the character subtly breaks the fourth wall at a certain point to comment that his romance has happened super fast with no chance to build the relationship.
The filmmakers seem to realize this, and once the second act begins, John disappears from the movie for giant stretches of time – sometimes 20 minutes – even though he’s the hero of the movie. Even they seem bored with John. In his place, the film leans into Scott’s character, who is smarter, wittier, wilder, cooler and just better than John in every way. Sanders seems to be having a ball playing the character, and his enthusiasm is infectious – the moment he jumps out of a sixth story window, lands on an awning and tears his way through, straightening his suit upon landing on the ground, is some kind of perfect.
Scott is the better character, but apparently John was the better way for the audience to get into the story. This imbalance between the characters underlines the issues with the script, which shifts wildly from screwball comedy to brutal horror… sometimes within the same scene. Those tonal shifts are partially a leftover from Hitchcock’s British thrillers, where the tone would often vary, though never this much. But I suspect it is also partially a symptom of the multitude of writers who penned the film – there are two credited screenwriters and another two credited for the dialogue, but apparently another three are uncredited but did major work. Knowing that and knowing Wanger rushed the movie into production, it’s easy to see why it flip flops like it does.
I know that I’ve been knocking on the film for a bunch of paragraphs now, but I also need to underline that (though these are major problems), the movie is actually a lot of fun. Once it gets moving during the rainsoaked assassination setpiece, which is one of the best sequences Hitchcock ever filmed, things remain fast-paced and enjoyable. It’s hard to complain about the problems when things are moving so quickly that your issues are already in the rear-view by the time you process them. The climactic plane crash is also incredible and features incredible special effects for 1940 – the sequence is shockingly harrowing and emotionally resonates more than you’d expect.
Also Santa Claus himself, Edmund Gwenn, plays a ruthless assassin… so that’s awesome.
Hitchcock was working with ace cinematographer Rudolph Mate, who would lens classic noir “Gilda” before becoming a director himself and making movies like “D.O.A.” and “The Dark Past.” I give him a lot of credit for helping the narrative hiccups by making the film visually smooth throughout. There are a couple scenes between Scott and Stephen in shadowed rooms where the Dracula filter is used on their eyes that are sublime to watch.
I like “Foreign Correspondent,” and suspect as time passes the problems will drift from my memory while the great set pieces and Sanders’ aces performance will remain. It’s a delightful marriage between the British Hitchcock and what would become his American aesthetic… just try not to pay too much attention to the film’s hero.
Awards: The film was nominated for six Oscars and lost all of them. For Best Picture (also nominated was “The Letter”) it lost to fellow noir “Rebecca.” Bassermann lost Best Supporting Actor (also nominated was James Stephenson for “The Letter”) to Walter Brennan for “The Westerner.” It lost Best Original Screenplay to “The Great McGinty.” It lost Best Black-and-White Art Direction (also nominated was “Rebecca”) to “Pride and Prejudice” and Best Black-and-White Cinematography (also nominated was “The Letter”) to “Rebecca.” Finally, it lost Best Special Effects (along with “Rebecca”) to “Thief of Bagdad.”