The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: Johnny Jones is an action reporter on a New York newspaper. The editor appoints him European correspondent because he is fed up with the dry, reports he currently gets. Jones’ first assignment is to get the inside story on a secret treaty agreed between two European countries by the famous diplomat, Mr. Van Meer. But things don’t go according to plan, and Jones enlists the help of a young woman to help track down a group of spies.
Jason: Okay, I got a total kick out of Foreign Correspondent. I liked this film a little better than Rebecca, at least for pure enjoyment. It took a little while to get going, but once it did, I thought it was a real rip-snorter for its time. The movie feels to me much more like a Hitchcock film than Rebecca. This feels like the film that Hitch probably had in mind as his first American film—a story in the tradition of The 39 Steps or Young and Innocent, in which our innocent main character finds himself thrust into a chaotic and twisty-turny adventure of intrigue and romance. And it’s the first of his movies that really feels American. Whereas Rebecca felt totally British, this one feels very American (even though a lot of it is set in Europe), and it’s American right through to the patriotic, tacked-on propaganda ending.
James: Sounds like we both got a kick out of this one. Like you, I didn’t think it picked up for a while. I wrote in my notes that the setup in this one took longer than any other Hitchcock film I can think of. While I think that helps the characters, it doesn’t help the overall action of the story. I think the beginning certainly could’ve been trimmed. And like you mentioned, what was with that propaganda at the end? It wasn’t necessary.
Jason: For me, the war buzz, including the propaganda at the end, really gave the movie an urgency and a wonderful sense of time and setting. One of the things that really characterizes this movie is its preoccupation with war. The entire film seems nervous about it, on the brink. At several points, characters say things like, “Do you think war is coming?” But even though the film was made in 1940, when the war was really just starting, the tone feels optimistic to me, even heroic. There’s a lightness and sureness to the tone that’s amazing to me. This could have been some kind of dour, fearful movie, but Hitch makes it a bright, suspenseful joyride. The film starts in a newspaper room that’s absolutely buzzing about the war, and I like how when we meet our hero Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), he’s this loafer making silly paper cutouts, all lazy with his feet up. I immediately “got it” that he represents American isolationism—that is, the fact that America dragged its feet for a long time before finally stepping into World War II.
James: I like how the sense of the coming war boxes in the action. It makes the action more tense because there are greater implications than just in this man’s life. You touch on this when you say Jones represents America dragging its feet, and I sensed that throughout. He was America, basically.
Jason: It’s funny, as soon as Jones—soon to be renamed Huntley Haverstock by his editor—learns about Van Meer (Albert Basserman) and the secret treaty, I knew that was going to be the film’s MacGuffin, and I knew I was in for a fun ride. And the comparison to The 39 Steps is appropriate. I wasn’t sure we were going to see another story like this until North by Northwest, so this feels like a total lost gem to me. Seeing Charles Bennett’s name again as screenwriter was also a clue that this was going to be a fun one. (I also thought it was interesting that this film was loosely based on a war memoir titled Personal History, but Hitch and Bennett departed so radically from the text that they ended up retitling it as an original idea.) Once Jones is in Europe, he just starts getting deeper and deeper into this crazy mystery, and finding himself in the midst of one elaborate set-piece after another. What did you think of the MacGuffin in this movie, in general? Do you think the fact that Bennett wrote the screenplay made this one of the more “classic” types of MacGuffins?
James: I didn’t much care for the “secret clause 29” MacGuffin in this one. I think it’s because it wasn’t the reason the action started. Or not exactly. Jones didn’t even know about the clause when the action started, right? Now that I think about it, I don’t even know when that was first mentioned. I guess it worked as far as the MacGuffin goes, but it didn’t mean beans to me at any point.
Jason: Listen to that—“it didn’t mean beans to me at any point.” You just perfectly described the MacGuffin.
James: I understand that’s the point of the MacGuffin, but in other films it’s what starts the action. It’s an integral part at least at the beginning. And for the briefest of seconds, you want to know more about it: “Just what the hell is XXX?” In this one, I didn’t even really know there was a clause he was looking for. Or rather, I knew about the clause, but didn’t know it was what everyone was looking for.
Jason: Anyway, I guess the story really starts going in Amsterdam, where Jones meets our heroine Carol Fisher (Laraine Day) at the peace summit, and also meets, and loses, Van Meer. That dinner sequence is pure Hitch, with Jones thinking that the daughter of Mr. Fisher (Herbert Marshall) is the mousy type on the other side of the table. And we see all the notes that he’s sent her (“How about breakfast?” “How about lunch, then?”), and she gets flustered. (“The female of the speeches is deadlier than the male.”) Classic stuff.
James: Actually, I thought that scene was way too corny for this film, the way he fawns at her when she’s talking.
Jason: Huh, I like the speech scene. Yeah, it’s cornball, but I think it sets the right mood. I love the way she flips through all the notes, which are mixed up with her speech.
James: It’s one of only three moments I didn’t like (another being the propaganda at the end).
Jason: But the moment that really fired me up is the scene in the rain, on the courtyard steps, with all the umbrellas. I mean, what an amazing sequence. The moment Van Meer is shot by the photographer actually startled me. That gore must have been a shock in 1940. There’s a real urgency and edge-of-the-seat quality to the whole chase that follows, running through the umbrellas and into the street. It’s so well filmed with the rain pouring down, and the mix of process shots and crane shots and urgent editing. I watched the scene twice, it was so well done. This is by far the most accomplished chase scene in any Hitch film so far.
James: I was surprised by that murder on the steps, too. As in Rebecca, it seems that stairs are bad.
Jason: You know, I hadn’t even paid attention to the symbolism of the stairs! Good catch. I was too wrapped up in the plot at that moment.
James: Unfortunately for me, I chose to watch the trailer first, and the trailer showed that scene almost in its entirety. Oh well, I was still shocked by the graphic nature of the scene. But the umbrellas—boy, what a way to start the chase. And I loved the whole chase scene, particularly the moments you mentioned. I wrote in my notes about the umbrella scene: I wonder if this is the first film to use that trick. It’s so well done. I’m not sure another film has managed to capture the feeling so perfectly, but many, many, many have tried.
Jason: I thought it was hilarious that when Jones jumps in the car to follow the assassin, we meet Herbert ffolliott (George Sanders, from Rebecca) and get all that nonsense about his last name while in the midst of the chase. “How do you pronounce that, with a double F?” asks Jones, and ffolliott answers, “No, just straight Fuh.” And of course, we get a lingering shot of Carol’s ass as she climbs in the back seat. What are your thoughts about the ffolliott character? I think this role was better suited to Sanders than his role in Rebecca . . . I guess I like him better as a sarcastic good guy than a sleazy bad guy.
James: I thought Sanders did a fabulous job in both roles, actually. The only problem with the Rebecca role is that he wasn’t set up properly for me. It didn’t feel 100 percent genuine that he would turn into a sleazeball since I didn’t know that was his character until the end. But I felt both characters had a certain sarcasm to them.
Jason: There were a few surprise moments in this film that actually make me sit up straighter, you know? Moments when I reacted with a laugh or an “Oh my god!” The whole chase scene in the rain is one of them—particularly the unexpected assassination on the steps. The next one is the scene in the windmill, after we find out that the bad guys have hidden there and are using the windmill to send signals to aircraft. (By the way, the process shots of the windmills across the plains were pretty damn good.) The hide-and-seek scene inside that windmill is absolutely incredible, from the way Jones evades the notice of the villains to the shock of finding Van Meer alive in the attic. The sequence is filled with innovative angles, looking up and down, giving the scene a shadowy gothic feel. I was so into the movie at this point. The suspense just keeps mounting in there, the way Jones’ jacket gets caught in the windmill gears, the way the villains keep looking in his direction. I mean, Hitch had me in the palm of his hand. Speaking of windmills, I read that Hitch likes to take full advantage of his films’ settings, and so that’s why we get windmills in Holland—that’s what the country is known for, after all.
James: Yeah, you’re right, I hadn’t mentioned the windmill scene in which he’s hiding because I was totally into that one from start to finish and didn’t want to pause the scene to make any notes! That was a tense, fun scene. I kept saying to myself, “What the hell is he doing? He’s going to get caught!” And you know what, I actually thought he was going to be noticed. It’s not that often that I fear for the lives of the characters onscreen. Usually you know they’ll make it out okay. But here, I thought for sure he was going to be found out.
Jason: Yeah, that windmill sequence is a thing of beauty. It really encapsulates Hitch’s favorite theme of the innocent man thrust into a web of international intrigue. It’s filled with suspense and shock, and even confusion introduced by the language barrier, which we saw in Secret Agent and others of his wartime films.
James: That was a tense, fun scene.
Jason: Another “shock” scene occurs after Jones has spirited Carol away from her suddenly shady father, and ffolliott goes to Fisher to demand the whereabouts of Van Meer. Fisher, seeing that he’s been bested, writes something on a piece of paper, and in walks Carol! I was like, “Oh no!” And then the great punch line when ffolliott opens the note outside and finds that it reads, “Sorry, I heard my daughter’s car coming.” Fantastic! Man, what a moment! (By the way, Herbert Marshall, who played Mr. Fisher, also played Sir John in Murder!) The part that confuses me about that whole sequence, though, is why she gets angry with Jones at the hotel when he books a second room. Why would she think that improper?
James: I think she mistook it as meaning Jones had kidnapped her and was leading her on about being romantically interested in her just to get her away from her father. I know this just because in the next scene she suddenly thinks Jones doesn’t really love her. Why a kidnapper would want two rooms is beyond me, but that’s most definitely the reason.
Jason: Okay, I see where you’re coming from with the booking of the two rooms. That makes sense. That explanation makes her behavior very interesting and sexually forward: “Oh, he doesn’t really love me and want to ravage me. It’s all a ruse.”
James: I love the action in this film. It’s fast paced, but also dangerous because we never know who’s in on the mystery. There were points where I thought Fisher, Carol, and ffolliott were all in on it. I particularly liked when Fisher hires Rowley (Edmund Gwynn) to kill Jones.
Jason: Yeah, Rowley the assassin. Gwynn would go on to play Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. He’s great in this. I love the shots of him coming straight at the camera, hands raised to push. When the figure falls from the cathedral, was there any doubt that it was this poor fool? I like that when he first pushes Jones in front of the bus, Jones is suspicious until Rowley says he actually pushed him out of the way of the bus, and Jones says, “Oh, thanks, then! Quick thinking!”
James: That character is really well done. He’s both interesting and frightening. And the tension about what he’ll do next, when and how. I loved it. I was expecting him to make his move at every step but it kept drawing out until I couldn’t take it anymore.
Jason: Did you notice the rampant bird imagery? Birds are all over the damn place, and Van Meer is constantly mumbling about them: “Oh, look at those birds . . .” Even when we see him in the windmill, all drugged and defeated, he’s mumbling, “They’re going to take me away in a plane, like a bird.” And he’s watching what appears to be a wounded bird on the ledge. A few times, he muses about “little people who give crumbs to birds . . .” Almost as if he feels the approach of war (chaos) and he’s fearful for the innocent public.
James: Yeah, birds are everywhere, and I loved it. Especially when Van Meet says (in the taxi) about the birds, “They’re a good sign at a time like this.” No more than 5 minutes later, he’s kidnapped. Very ominous now that we know to look for them.
Jason: What was with Jones losing his hat so many times?
James: I have no idea about the hat other than the fact that it sets him apart as an American at the beginning when he steps off the train. Other than that, who knows? But that boy also loses his hat at the top of the church tower (another great scene involving a church). Now that I think about it, something important happens each time he loses his hat. The first one in the car with Van Meer, the guy is kidnapped. The time near the windmills, he discovers the truth about Van Meer not being dead. When the boy loses his hat at the top of the cathedral, Jones barely manages to survive the push. Hmmm. What others are there?
Jason: I noticed some dialog, too. There just seemed to be a preoccupation with them.
James: I’ve just found that the Spoto book gives an idea about the hats. I didn’t catch the line that gave it away, and I’m not even 100 percent sure I believe it. But it does make sense.
Jason: Okay, I’ve just read the Foreign Correspondent chapter in the Spoto book, and I was surprised to see the whole section on the hats. It’s obvious in the film that Hitch is getting at something, and I’m not sure the book pegs it. According to Spoto, “a facile sense of respectability and merely polite diction are no defense, no ’cover’ in wartime.” I guess that sounds okay, but I wonder if Hitch was reaching for something else.
James: Oh, another great bit of dialog occurs when Jones escapes in his bathrobe. Carol says, “I like you more with your clothes on.” Jones retorts, “Ah, an intellectual type.” Classic.
Jason: I really enjoyed the shipboard romance scene between Jones and Carol, the way it sort of makes fun of itself. They both say they love each other and want to get married right away, and Jones says, “That cuts our love scene quite a bit, doesn’t it?” And I read in my Hitch bio that Hitch himself proposed to Alma aboard a ship, so there’s a little autobiography there. Anyway, it’s a fun, abbreviated love scene that works for the film.
James: I always have problems with romance in old movies. I mean, these two haven’t known each other for 60 minutes total and they’re getting married? Sure, those romantic scenes are great fun, but I find them hard to swallow at times.
Jason: You’ve mentioned the quickness of romance in Hitch’s films before, back in the silent films, and it’s something that bugs you more than it bugs me. I still think it’s a product of the times. I think audiences were expecting the romance and so forgave the quickness of it. To Hitch’s credit, he seems to always portray the man and woman at odds with each other first, which always leads to some humor. To me, there’s just some things you have to accept in the cinema format of the 1940s. But you’re right, when you compare a romance such as Gone with the Wind to the one in Foreign Correspondent, the romance here is woefully inadequate as far as buildup, but then, in this film the romance is very much secondary.
James: The other spot in this film I didn’t like was the fruition of the MacGuffin where Van Meer is going to tell Fisher what he knows. The scene is too long, and it doesn’t feel right when everyone in the room watches the old guy talk. I like the scene, but there’s something not quite right about the man mumbling to himself.
Jason: Actually, I gather that this scene was instrumental in winning Vasserman an Oscar nomination. I agree that from a modern perspective the scene goes on a tad too long, but it is well acted. In fact, I really like this whole scene, beginning with the “torture by jazz” opening to the falling-dummy climax. And the way we see that the henchman—Monseiur Krug (Edward Ciannella)—has a big scar around his neck as if he’s been hanged. And the way Van Meer is tortured offscreen, and we just see ffolliott’s disgusted reaction shot. And the knowledge of the precise MacGuffin—“the secret clause 29 in the treaty.” All cool.
James: Don’t get me wrong, that torture scene is great in every way except one. I just didn’t like the fact that all these bad guys (and ffolliott) are just staring at Van Meer as he mumbles on and on. It even bothered me that from Van Meer’s point of view, they’re all grouped together in some dark corner in the back of the room, when in reality they’re scattered around the room . . . ffoliott near one corner, and Fisher near another. Sure, you could say that the whacked-about Van Meer sees them as clustered because he can’t see that well, but I still don’t buy it. But as you stated, that scene is great for other reasons.
Jason: I guess there was a little awkwardness in the blocking.
James: Of course, the coolest thing about this film is its ending. Wow. That must’ve been epic back then. Even the trailer mentioned it was the biggest ending ever shot. That was huge. And the cut between the model airplane window to the inside of the plane is really well done.
Jason: Yeah, man, that plane-crash sequence is spectacular. I was amazed by the pull-in on the model in the sky and how absolutely fluid the movement is through the window to the live action. Amazing. The process shots through the window, the explosions of the bombs, the woman dying from shrapnel . . . very suspenseful. And when the plane hits the water, I was reminded of something James Cameron might do today. Audiences of the time must have been in awe. The way the water rises so quickly, and people drown. As always, I tried to put myself in the shoes of the 1940 audience, and it must have been thrilling. Afterward, when the survivors are floating on that wing, I wondered if it might have been the genesis of Lifeboat.
James: Dang, my mind keeps going back to that ending. Amazing. I just read in the books how that was done, and I’m still blown away. Even by today’s standards, that was a great scene.
Jason: In the DVD featurette, it was cool to see how the shot of the water rushing into the cockpit was achieved. It was a process shot onto paper, which is ripped away by a real cascade of water. You get to see the sequence slowed down so that you can see the mechanics of it.
James: You know what else I liked about this one? Again, Hitchcock makes the bad guy a likable character. He’s someone the lead has a drink with or talks to in a friendly manner. But even more so in Foreign Correspondent, he’s a caring father who gives his life for his daughter. He’s the bad guy, but he has good-guy qualities. That’s something I love about the Hitchcock villains.
Jason: I remember you mentioning Hitch’s tendency to multilayer his baddies, in earlier films. It’s a good point. It really adds a lot to this story that Fisher is a devoted father and goes through a kind of redemption in the end. Good point. He’s definitely an ambiguous villain.
James: One thing that really jumped out at me in the reading was that Foreign Correspondent could be considered the male counterpart to The Lady Vanishes. Interesting.
Jason: The way I read it is that Van Meer can be seen as the masculine equivalent of Froy. That’s fascinating, and of course it’s obvious once you read it.
James: Interesting that Benchley (who played Stebbins, the reporter) is the father of Peter Benchley, who wrote Jaws.
Jason: Apparently, Benchley starred in a lot of comedic short films of the day and really hit it off with Hitch. He wrote most of his own lines. I like that Stebbins provides comic relief but he’s really a sad, pathetic character.
Jason: I’m sure you noticed the Hitch cameo, reading the newspaper in that process shot? And wearing a hat?
James: This one was easy to spot.
Jason: I have some remaining notes about this film. First of all, it’s interesting that Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwick rejected the film, much to Hitch’s dismay. (Hitch always wanted stars, didn’t he?) But thrillers were looked down on at the time. I really think this movie would be a classic if it had starred some recognizable names, but with its “second-tier” talent, it’s become kind of forgotten.
James: I find it ironic that an action flick was considered a B movie back in the day, but now, big-name actors all want to be in the summer blockbuster. Or at some point in their career they certainly do.
Jason: Also, I think it’s important to recognize the contribution of production designer William Cameron Menzies, who really added a ton to the film’s look. He’d just won an Oscar for Gone with the Wind.
James: Was this the first time Hitch worked with Alfred Newman?
Jason: I think it is the first Newman score. (A bit of trivia: Alfred Newman composed the 20th Century Fox fanfare.)
James: This is the first film that I actually noticed the score at all, and I think it certainly helped the feature. One thing I found interesting from the documentary is the comparisons between the score on this film and Rebecca, where Selznick all but forced Hitchcock to use loud, intrusive music to get a point across, but in this one the score is a companion to what’s on the screen. More subtle.
Jason: You make a good point. And we also need to draw a comparison between interventionist Selznick and hands-off Walter Wanger, who had “rented” Hitchcock from Selznick. I think Hitch felt a lot more freedom under Wanger, and it was a more collaborative relationship than combative. The result is that Foreign Correspondent is a more pure Hitchcock movie, and Rebecca is a studio picture—even though it’s a great one.
James: Needless to say, I enjoyed Foreign Correspondent greatly. I’d put this right in line with The 39 Steps, which for me was just a hair behind Rebecca. I couldn’t find any fault in Rebecca, and while this one certainly was fun, there were a few nitpicks overall.
Jason: The amazing set-pieces and action sequences put this one right up there with The 39 Steps for me, possibly surpassing it. The set-pieces in this film just blew me away.
James: I look forward to watching this one again. It certainly is a fun ride. Since this is the first time we’ve seen this film, I wonder how we’ll enjoy it the second time. I bet we’d see even more Hitchcock elements. I know there are probably funny lines I missed.
Jason: You know, I was reading my Hitch bio the last few nights and I came across some interesting biographical stuff that happened between Foreign Correspondent and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Apparently, two of the many projects Hitch was looking into at this time were Greenmantle, a sequel to The 39 Steps that would star Robert Donat, and an American remake of The Lodger. Unfortunately, the Greenmantle project proved too expensive (the author of the book asked a huge price for the property), even though that would have been awesome. Thereafter, he focused on The Lodger, but after a while, and because of Selznick intervention, the project devolved from a film prospect into an experimental radio series called “Suspense.” But then Selznick said no to radio too, wanting Hitch to focus on film. So Hitch left the project, and “Suspense” became its own hit that lasted many seasons. Even so, this was the beginning of the Hitch label “Master of Suspense.”
James: Wow, that’s an impressive number of good tidbits. The more I hear about Selznick, the less I like him.