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All you’re interested in is having fun with windmills and hotel bathroooms.

Foreign Correspondent
(1940)

(SPOILERS) There are two basic problems with Foreign Correspondent, conspiring to make what could have been a top-flight Hitchcock only second rank. The first is the vague and unconvincing MacGuffin, not simple and graspable enough to put one’s faith in and roll with and thus making the narrative rather obviously deficient between set pieces. The second is Joel McCrea’s lead. McCrea’s likeable enough, and would pair effectively with Preston Sturges a couple of years later, but he manages to inject little sense of urgency into the proceedings. Indeed, during the second half, you’d be forgiven for mistaking a much smoother, more confident, upwardly motivated and action-orientated supporting player for the main protagonist.

Hitchcock explained the MacGuffin to Truffaut, who was doubtless already fully versed in the term, being Scottish, instructing him thus: “The only thing that really matters is that in the picture, the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters”. He added that “the main thing I’ve learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I’m convinced of this, but I find it very difficult to prove it to others”. And I’d generally concur; it matters not at all that it is invariably flimsy and ill-defined. Here, though, perhaps because the film strays into the territory of then current events, with the plot vital to the outbreak of war, that it succeeds in inviting too much scrutiny (so contrasting with the director’s assertion that Foreign Correspondent was “pure fantasy, and, as you know, in my fantasies, plausibility is not allowed to rear its ugly head”).

The plot revolves around the kidnapping of Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), subsequent to which, perplexingly, dramatically and ultra-violently, his double is shot in the face on some rain-swept steps. The bad guys want to extract key information from the real Van Meer, which is fine. But the reason is far too convoluted: “He was one of the signatories to a certain treaty. Now the most important clause in that treaty was never written down. It was just memorised by the two people who signed the thing”. The what? But there’s more.

Van Meer mustn’t talk, as the clause “contains a piece of information that will be very useful to the enemy in the war that breaks out tomorrow, weather permitting”. It’s altogether too much MacGuffin, leaving questions dangling. The MacGuffin needs to be tidy, but this one... For instance, how the hell can the clause be valid if it hasn’t been physically signed? And presumably, for the clause to be meaningful in any way, its details need to be relayed to others? Yes, as Hitch says it is “nothing”, but if it also sounds like outright nonsense, then that’s something. Something bad. Foreign Correspondent’s MacGuffin sounds like a parody of a MacGuffin.

Hitch wasn’t overly happy with McCrea. He’d wanted Gary Cooper, who turned him down and, according to Hitch, later regretted the decision. “I would have liked to have bigger star names” he opined, and felt “he was too easy-going”. Which is fair comment. McCrea is the focus of several top-notch set pieces, but you don’t get the feeling he really “feels” them. The first finds him at the scene of the aforementioned assassination of Van Meer’s double in Amsterdam, with McCrea’s journalist/titular John Jones aka Huntley Haverstock chasing the assassin through a sea of umbrellas. Later, there’s a marvellously tense sequence at a windmill, where Jones finds Van Meer but must keep his presence a secret. This is followed by another in which Hitch works the tension of a frustrated villain, as Edmund Gwenn (his third out of four collaborations with the director) attempts to off Jones at the top of Westminster Cathedral.

In any other movie, such sequences would be more than enough to warrant the picture classic status, but such alchemy also needs the right star in place. If that star had been the incredibly capable, witty and relaxed fellow reporter (well, so he says) played by George Sanders, who does most of the heavy lifting in the second half, maybe Foreign Correspondent would have reached such heights. Of course, it would also have defeated the point, which was a rather blunt-edged propaganda tool designed to persuade America to joining the fray (“Hold onto those lights! They’re the only lights left in the world” broadcasts Jones to his countrymen in the closing scene).

Sanders is the astoundingly named ffolliott (he even has a scene explaining the peculiarities of this name). It was his second role for the director in the space of a year (the other being in the Oscar-winning Rebecca), and it’s a shame he didn’t work more with Hitch. As it is here, he’s the effortlessly superior Englishman, not only a step ahead of everyone, but very comfortable in that knowledge. When Jones announces his suspicion of Fisher (Herbert Marshall), the leader of the Universal Peace Party whose daughter Carol (Laraine Day) Jones is smitten with, ffolliott casually responds that he’s been onto him for a year already. Of the suspicious tramp at the windmill (who denied Jones’ claims of treachery afoot), he says he knew he was a wrong ‘un as he “dirtied his hands with some of that nasty Dutch soil”. And when Jones reluctantly takes Carol to the country as part of fake kidnapping ruse, fellow newsman Stebbins (Robert Benchley, who improvised most of his dialogue) comments how lucky it is that Carol came up with the idea of leaving: “Well as a matter of fact, old boy, I suggested it to her on the phone, about half an hour ago”.

Having had his plan to out the location of Van Meer from Fisher scotched – by the return of Carol – ffolliott then cunningly hangs around outside until Fisher leaves, hears the address he gives the driver and heads there himself. Sure, he is captured (“Pardon me, gentlemen. I represent the Jupiter Life Assurance. Can I interest you in a small policy?”) but he’s disarmingly proactive and remarkably relaxed (sitting down and eating an appropriated banana). He manages to alert the confused Van Meer that Fisher is a bad seed, even if he can’t stop him squealing under torture. And then! He gets in a fight with his captors, leaps out of a window, lands in an awning, and barely stops to alert late arrival Jones before legging it after Fisher.

I have to admit, my interest in the actual plot of Foreign Correspondent had waned by the midpoint, however arresting the set pieces were. But then Sanders strolls in and set things right. He’s enviably forthright (“You conceited, stupid numbskull” he berates a Scotland Yard officer) and leaves McCrea in the dust to mop up telegraphed romantic gestures (“I don’t care how he lived. He died like a hero, to save her and the rest of us” Jones says of Fisher, with the estranged Carol listening in and so making everything right).

I can’t say I was familiar with Day, but she’s entirely accomplished as the female lead. It’s Marshall who really gets the runner-up performance honours to Sanders, though, as a sympathetic traitor who loves his daughter and would do anything – well, forswearing a bit espionage for a foreign power excepted – not to have her hurt. There’s a nice scene where Carol walks in on ffolliott blackmailing Fisher and the two, being very English in manners, instantly change conversation (mirroring an earlier scene in which Jones recognises Eduardo Ciannelli’s Krug). He’s very civil generally: “You use the English language with great delicacy” he compliments Krug. And his confession to Carol is really quite touching.

It’s also worth noting the finale, in which Hitch pulls off a dramatic plane crash from the cockpit point of view in a continuous shot (he achieved this via a transparency screen made of paper); it remains highly impressive, as does the “open sea” sequence that follows with the survivors on a wing, large swells behind them. Does the patriotic rallying of the last two minutes let the side down? Not much more than any number of pictures of that era (especially if you’re familiar with the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes). As far as the director’s output that decade (his peak decade?) goes, Foreign Correspondent is relatively undistinguished, but in its own right, it has much to offer.



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