Flix Picks is a new semi-regular feature that explores the depths of my Netflix queue and allows me the chance to catch up with some older films that I’ve not yet seen.
You can count me as one of the many cinephiles in the Alfred Hitchcock fan club. I’ve seen a wide array of his films, although mainly the more well-known titles. So, in an attempt to widen my knowledge on the Master of Suspense, I recently caught up with Foreign Correspondent, a slightly less talked-about film in his canon. As usual, thanks to my handy-dandy Netflix account, it was an easy find.
Set during the days leading up to WWII, Foreign Correspondent tells the story of Johnny Jones, a crime reporter who’s editor assigns him to Europe after becoming fed up with vague reports from other correspondents. Despite a lack of experience in foreign affairs, Johnny (now under the pen name Huntley Haverstock) charges onward to find some breaking news in the “European crisis.” His first assignment leads him to Stephen Fisher, leader of the Universal Peace Party, at an event held by Fisher in honor of a Dutch diplomat named Van Meer.
Johnny gets more than he bargained for when he eventually witnesses Van Meer getting shot in front of a crowd. Immediately, Johnny, along with fellow reporter Scott ffolliott and Stephen Fisher’s daughter Carol (aka the love interest), follow the assassin to a windmill in the countryside. From there Johnny becomes involved deeper and deeper into a world of spies and espionage. As far as plot points go, I’ll stop here since part of the fun in films like this is to experience the twists and turns yourself.
Foreign Correspondent has the reputation of being one of the many films that called on America to enter WWII, like Man Hunt or The Mortal Storm. What Hitchcock manages with this film is to not only make a piece of propaganda for the war effort, but also a straight up entertaining thriller. The result may have had more of an impact than many politically-charged speeches of the time. Reportedly Joseph Goebbels called it, “A masterpiece of propaganda, a first-class production which no doubt will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of the people in enemy countries.” If that’s not an endorsement on the power of cinema, I don’t know what is! Yes, certain aspects of the film may come across as cheesy now due to the rhetoric, especially the end. Looking at it through a historical perspective, though, I was fine with those elements – at least forgiving of them, anyway.
For the most part Foreign Correspondent plays not like political rant, but sort of like a James Bond movie – without the fancy gadgets. For example, there are some thrilling set pieces that still work nicely today. In particular, there’s a plane crash and its aftermath that blew me away in terms of the technical achievements involved with the sequence. I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised, though, since Hitchcock always tried to remain ahead of the curve when it came to effects work. The result of he and his crew’s efforts is a chilling and visceral scene. Also, the aforementioned assassination was brilliantly staged and photographed in the rain. (In fact, special attention should go to cinematographer Rudolph Mate who scored an Oscar nomination for this film.) In addition to the action, the film certainly has its share of gags, in typical Hitchcock fashion. Some of the most fun stems from a couple of botched murder attempts on Johnny. In other words, if you enjoy your humor dark, then you’ll probably be on board. From there, the only other element you need is a Bond Girl equivalent (check) and you’re set.
There aren’t too many big name actors in the film, which could explain why it’s not as well-known today. Joel McCrea stars as Johnny and turns in a solid performance as a somewhat naïve reporter in over his head. Laraine Day plays Carol, the love interest, who not-so-shockingly falls for Johnny. I thought she was fine in the part, although she’s not given much to do. Faring better is George Sanders as ffolliott, who maintains a great presence throughout the film. It’s worth noting that Albert Bassermann earned a Supporting Actor nomination for his work as Van Meer, a rare achievement for a genre film. Hitchcock makes his usual cameo, of course.
Despite thoroughly enjoying Foreign Correspondent, I think a few aspects hold the film back from being a true classic among Hitchcock’s work. For instance, the relationship subplot comes across as a convenience of the screenplay more than anything else. The two leads get together entirely too quickly and without much reason. I suppose that’s par for the course when it comes to spy-related films, but I couldn’t help but think the relationship aspects wore a bit thin. Additionally, I found a problem with a section of the film where Johnny, our main character, becomes much more passive in the plot. For awhile the other reporter, ffolliott, starts calling the shots, which seemed like an odd shift in focus. Also, I thought the villain of the piece could have been a bit more dynamic. These problems were relatively minor, though, and didn’t diminish my overall experience with the film much.
Overall, if you’re a fan of Hitchcock, WWII movies, or thrillers in general, I’d say give this one a shot. It delivers on the elements expected from a thriller and pulls them off very well for the most part. While it may not equal films like North By Northwest or Notorious in Hitchcock’s body of work, there’s plenty to enjoy in Foreign Correspondent.