Saturday, February 21, 2015

Stubs – Foreign Correspondent


Foreign Correspondent (1940) Starring: Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders, Albert Basserman, Robert Benchley. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, James Hilton, Robert Benchley. Based on the book Personal History by Vincent Sheean (1935). Produced by Walter Wanger.  Run Time: 120 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Thriller, Drama, Espionage

I find 1940 to be an interesting year in Hollywood. One year removed from Hollywood’s Golden Year, 1939, it is also one year prior to America’s entry into World War II. Hollywood was still exporting films to Germany, even though they had started the War by invading Poland on September 1, 1939. Films varied on their treatment of Europe with few calling out the Nazi regime. There were exceptions, Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), Espionage Agent (1939), The Three Stooges’ short You Nazty Spy! (1940) and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), being among those that clearly drew sides prior to the U.S. declaring war on Germany.

As Europe was edging closer to war in the late 30s, Alfred Hitchcock came to the U.S. under contract to David O. Selznick. Drawn to Hollywood by superior resources of the studios here, as compared to back in England, Hitchcock was pursued by both Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn. Even though there was tension between director and producer, Hitchcock’s first film for Selznick, Rebecca (1940), was a major success, both commercially and critically. The film would win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, beating out a competitive field which included Foreign Correspondent.

Because independent producers like Goldwyn and Selznick made only a few pictures a year, they often lent out the talent they had under contract to other producers and to the larger studios. After making Rebecca, Selznick would loan out his new director to Walter Wanger.

Wanger was a producer who got his start with Paramount Pictures in the 1920’s. His first big success was The Sheik (1921), starring Rudolph Valentino. He would also have a hand in the Marx Brothers first film for that studio, The Cocoanuts (1929). After leaving Paramount, he tried his hand at being an independent producer. For the rest of his career, Wanger would go between being a contracted producer or an independent one. In 1939, he had produced Stagecoach and Eternally Yours, both released through United Artists.

Wanger had purchased the rights to the memoir Personal History, written in 1935 by Vincent Sheean, a reporter who had worked for the New York Herald Tribune. Several attempts were made over the next five years to adapt the story for the screen, but none of them seemed to work until Wanger allowed their stories to diverge from the source material. There were a number of writers who worked on the screenplay, but who did not get screen credit, including Ben Hecht.

Finally with a screenplay to produce and Hitchcock available to direct, the next step in the process was casting. Hitchcock had wanted Gary Cooper and Joan Fontaine, the latter who was also under contract to Selznick. Cooper turned down the role because it was a thriller, a move he would later regret. And Selznick wouldn’t loan Fontaine out.

The title role went to Joel McCrea, an actor who was just starting to come into his own. He had begun working as a stunt double while still attending Hollywood High School. He appeared as an extra in The Enemy (1927) and The Fair Co-Ed (1927) before signing with MGM. There he appeared in his first leading role in The Jazz Age (1929). In the 1930s he moved to RKO where he starred opposite Dolores del Rio in King Vidor’s Bird of Paradise (1932).

Late in the decade, he appeared in Westerns, including Wells Fargo (1937) and Union Pacific (1939). That same year, he would also appear in one of the first pre-World War II espionage films to identify the German Nazis as the enemy, the above mentioned Espionage Agent.

The other lead went to Laraine Day, an actress who had made her film debut only a few years before in Stella Dallas (1937) and who up until then was best known for her role as nurse Mary Lamont in the Dr. Kildare series of films starring Lew Ayres and Lionel Barrymore.

Filming began on March 18, 1940 at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio in West Hollywood, known as “The Lot”. Using some locations in Los Angeles and Long Beach, production ended on June 5th.  Following the end of production, Hitchcock returned to England. When he returned on July 3rd, he brought with him a report that the Germans were expected to start bombing London anytime. Screenwriter Ben Hecht was hired to write the epilogue to the movie and filming took place on July 5th.

The film opens in the editorial offices of the New York Globe. Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport) believes there is a crisis brewing in Europe, but he’s not getting the story from his foreign correspondents. Deciding he needs a crime reporter instead, he calls up Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) from the city room. Jones is a reporter who has shown a willingness to get into trouble to get a story. Giving him the pen name Huntley Haverstock, which he thinks is more akin to foreign correspondent than Jones, Powers sends him to Europe.

Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is rechristened Huntley Haverstock when the editor
of the New York Globe (Harry Davenport) promotes his crime reporter to foreign correspondent.

He meets his first assignment, Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), the leader of the Universal Peace Party, in Powers’ office before leaving aboard an ocean liner for England. There he meets the Globe’s London-based foreign correspondent, Stebbins (Robert Benchley), who has made a habit of doing exactly what Powers claims to hate, submitting government releases as news reports.

Robert Benchley plays Stebbins, the Globe's London-based foreign correspondent.

While Stebbins is meeting a woman at the hotel, Johnny is headed for an event to honor Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), whom he sees getting into a taxi. Van Meer invites him to ride along, but while Johnny tries to interview Van Meer, he is only interested in making idle chit chat about the birds in the park.

Johnny meets Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) and they share a taxi.

At the party, Johnny meets Fisher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day), who works closely with her father. Johnny, however, assumes she’s there to handle the press and makes his attempt at a pass. Throughout the luncheon, Johnny passes notes to Carol, asking her questions like how big of a family she wants. When Van Meer disappears unexpectedly, Carol is called upon to speak in his place and Johnny is duly impressed again by her.

Johnny leaves London to follow Van Meer to a political conference in Amsterdam. Johnny waits anxiously outside for Van Meer to arrive, but when he does, Van Meer has no recollection of who Johnny is, despite having shared a taxi only days earlier.

Van Meer is apparently shot by a man pretending to be a photographer as Johnny watches.

It is on the steps that a man posing as a photographer assassinates Van Meer in front of a crowd of people who have gathered on the steps of the hall. Johnny takes chase, but the assassin eludes him and makes his way to a waiting getaway car. In order to take chase, Johnny tries to commandeer a car, which just happens to have Carol in it and is driven by Scott ffolliott (George Sanders), a reporter for a rival paper. Scott explains the odd spelling of his surname is that the capital letter was dropped in memory of an executed ancestor.

Johnny jumps into a car driven by another reporter Scott ffolliot (George Sanders)
and the woman they are both in love with, Carol Fisher (Laraine Day). Together
they chase Van Meer's assassin through the Dutch countryside.

Despite the fact the getaway car fires at them, the three take chase until the getaway car suddenly disappears when they come to a row of windmills. The police, who are also chasing the assassin, drive past, but Johnny is convinced the getaway car is in the first windmill they see. Johnny notices that the windmill is turning in an opposite direction of the wind and figures it is signaling a plane that is circling overhead.

Johnny sends Carol and ffolliott for help, but stays behind to snoop around. He finds the getaway car in the garage and, after sneaking into the house, finds the real Van Meer drugged in one of the upper rooms. The Van Meer look-alike Johnny had seen was killed to hide the fact the real Van Meer had been kidnapped. The real Van Meer is about to be taken away in the plane.

Johnny discovers the real Van Meer is really alive and being held hostage in a windmill.

Things get tense when Van Meer’s kidnappers come up to his room on the only stairwell and Johnny has no place to go, but out the window. Johnny goes into the nearest town to get help, but it takes too long to get the local authorities to believe him. By the time they get back to the windmill, Van Meer is gone, as is the getaway car. The only man they find on the premises pretends to be a homeless man and tells the police he’d been sleeping there all day.

Back at his hotel room, Johnny is typing up his submission for the paper before he gets ready to take a shower. Wearing his underwear, socks and a dressing gown, he opens the door. Two men dressed like policemen enter and tell him they want to take him to headquarters. Fearing they’re there to kill him, Johnny goes out through the bathroom window and, hugging onto the building, manages to make it across the ledge to an open window. On the way, Johnny touches the E in the neon Hotel Europe sign, reducing the name to Hot Europe. The open window belongs to Carol’s room and she is in the middle of entertaining some world leaders. She is not happy to see Johnny, especially in his dressing gown and almost kicks him out. She decides to help him. Johnny calls everyone from hotel security to room service to his room in an effort to confound his kidnappers. In the midst of the confusion, the hotel’s valet manages to slip in and grab clothes for Johnny and later, he and Carol manage to escape.

Dressed only in his dressing gown, Johnny escapes through his hotel's bathroom window.

Johnny and Carol board a British boat back to England. When they fail to get a cabin, they spend the night out on the deck, even though there is a furious storm in progress. Johnny confesses his love for Carol and asks her to marry him.

When they arrive in London, they go straight to her father’s house. Mr. Fisher is having breakfast with Mr. Krug (Eduardo Ciannelli), one of Van Meer’s kidnappers he’d seen in the windmill. He informs Fisher about this and he tells him to leave it to him to handle as he goes off to a private meeting with Mr. Krug.

Mr. Krug and Fisher, who are in cahoots with each other, decide to hire Rowley (Edmund Gwenn), a “bodyguard” whom they’ve used in the past to get rid of their enemies. Johnny has no idea what Rowley is up to. Rowley convinces Johnny that they’re being followed and they stop at the Westminster Cathedral to try and lose their tail. Rowley then talks Johnny into visiting the cathedral’s tower. After waiting for the crowd to thin out, Rowley attempts to push Johnny over, but Johnny moves out of the way just in time and it is Rowley who plunges to his death.

Rowley (Edmund Gwenn) is hired to kill Johnny, but ends up falling to his death when he misses.

Johnny and ffolliott are both convinced that Fisher is a traitor and they hatch a plot to get Carol out of the city. Carol thinks she’s kidnapping Johnny and drives him out to Cambridge and gets him a room at a B and B. But ffolliott wants Johnny to keep her out of the city until morning, so Johnny tries to book her a room. But when she overhears him making arrangements and thinking he has prurient interests, she flees back to London. 

Johnny and ffolliott plot to kidnap Carol to Cambridge, where
things get to heavy for Carol and she flees back to London.

Meanwhile, ffolliott tries to coerce Fisher into divulging where Van Meer is being kept in exchange for Carol, whom he convinces Fisher he’s helped to kidnap. Just when Fisher is about to capitulate, he hears Carol’s car pull up outside.

ffolliott tries to blackmail Fisher into divulging Van Meer's location.

With Stebbins with him, ffolliott follows Fisher to the hotel where Van Meer is being held. He sends Stebbins back to wait for Johnny and goes into the hotel. The receptionists, fearing reprisals to their families back in Germany, take ffolliott hostage and take him to the room where Van Meer is being interrogated. When Fisher fails to convince his old friend that he needs to tell him the secret paragraph, Van Meer is roughed up until he breaks. Just as Van Meer is being forced to divulge the information the organization wants, an unwritten paragraph in a treaty recently signed, ffolliott distracts the interrogators. He manages to jump out the window, his fall broken by the hotel’s awning. He lands on the street just as Johnny arrives. They go back into the hotel, but Fisher and Krug have escaped. Van Meer, who has been left behind, is rushed to the hospital in a coma.

The hotel where Van Meer is being held.

Johnny and ffolliott are aware of Fisher’s plans to fly to America with Carol the next morning and manage to get passage on the plane. War has been declared between England, France and Germany, following Germany’s invasion of Poland.

On board the plane, Fisher manages to intercept a message for ffolliott and learns that authorities will be waiting for the plane when it lands. Knowing he’ll be tried for treason. Fisher confesses his involvement to Carol. Thinking Johnny has been using her to get to her father, Carol won’t listen when Johnny tries to explain he was just doing his job as a reporter.

The pilots try to react as the plane is being shelled. Germany and the UK were already at war.

Seconds later, the plane is shelled out of the sky by a German destroyer and crashes into the ocean. Only a handful of passengers survive, including Fisher, Carol, Johnny and ffolliott. They manage to scramble onto one of the plane’s wings. Realizing that it cannot support all the weight and everyone, including his daughter, is in danger, Fisher slips off the wing and is drowned.

After being shot down, Carol and Johnny take refuge on a wing of the plane.

The survivors are rescued by an American ship, the Mohican, heading to London. Because of American neutrality, the ship’s Captain (Emory Parnell) doesn’t want them calling in any news about the shoot down. But Johnny, who has Mr. Powers at the Globe on the ship to shore, instead pretends to tell the Captain the story he would be reporting, so the whole story is told.

The film ends back in London. Johnny and Carol are together while Johnny makes a radio broadcast back to the states. London is being bombed by the Germans as Johnny warns America to be vigilante saying as he signs off “Hello, America, hang on to your lights: they're the only lights left in the world!” Pretty heady stuff for a film made in a country that was not yet part of the war.

Life imitates art. Johnny makes a radio report to America about the German
bombing of London. The film was released before Edward R.
Murrow would be reporting on the same event in real life.

While Gary Cooper might have been the first choice to play Johnny Jones/Huntley Haverstock, Joel McCrea is excellent in the role and in retrospect was probably a better acting choice. He exudes American determination and naivety at the same time, which is right for the time. Like Cooper, McCrea shows that he can be both understated and still manage to be heroic.

Following this film, McCrea would try his hand at comedy, working with Preston Sturges on two projects, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942). After that, he would mostly be known for Westerns: The Virginian (1946), Colorado Territory (1949), Frenchie (1950), Stranger on Horseback (1955) and his final film, Mustang Country (1976).

Laraine Day is good as the love interest. Pretty without being exotic, the type of woman an American like Johnny Jones would fall for. She would return to the Dr. Kildare film series: Dr. Kildare Goes Home (1940), Dr. Kildare’s Crisis (1940), The People v. Dr. Kildare (1941), Dr. Kildare’s Wedding Day (1941) and Dr. Kildare’s Victory (1942). She would also star opposite Cary Grant in Mr. Lucky (1943), Robert Mitchum in The Locket (1946) and Kirk Douglas in My Dear Secretary (1948). She would marry Leo Durocher, the manager of the then New York Giants baseball team, in 1948 and was known for a while as “The First Lady of Baseball,” even hosting a 15-minute TV interview program, Day with the Giants, before each New York Giants home game.

George Sanders, who plays rival reporter ffolliott, had worked with Hitchcock on Rebecca. Sanders always seems to play the same sort of character, at least in the films I’ve seen him in. Witty, urbane Sanders can play cunning or cruel. In this film, he actually gets to play the action hero which is something I haven’t seen him do before. I have to say Sanders makes a good comrade and foil for Johnny Jones in Foreign Correspondent.

The rest of the supporting cast is very good as well. Herbert Marshall as Mr. Fisher, Eduardo Ciannelli as Mr. Krug and Edmund Gwenn as Rowley stand out. Albert Bassermann, who played Van Meer, was also singled out by the Academy, receiving, but not winning, a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Robert Benchley, the humorist turned actor, has a small but humorous part as the ne’er do well foreign correspondent, Stebbins.

That’s one of the things I like best about the movie and something you find repeated in Hitchcock’s films. Not only do the minor characters seem to be real three-dimensional, but there is also humor throughout, something you might not expect in a thriller. Rowley, as an example, a hardened killer, takes the time to lift up a school boy on a field trip so he can see the view from the Cathedral tower minutes before trying to push Johnny from it. Who else but a Hitchcock character would have a surname start in lower case, ffolliott, with a good story behind it? And who can forget the Latvian diplomat (Edward Conrad) who shows up in a couple of places in the movie. He shows the international concerns about the pending war, but he also provides a bit of comic relief.

Latvian diplomat (Edward Conrad) provides comic relief to help break the tension.

And while there is humor, there is a sense of reality to the film as well. The world was already at war when this film was made, only the U.S. wasn’t yet involved. In his radio address, Johnny Jones speaks to America the same way that Edward R. Murrow would do later. The film was released on August 16, 1940, Murrow started his broadcasts, London After Dark, on August 24, 1940 and the actual Blitz didn’t start until September 7th. The chilling and powerful ending, calling for American vigilance, still gets to me and I know I’m not the intended audience.

Director Alfred Hitchcock makes a cameo early in the film.

While I feel Hitchcock was one of the great directors, the screenwriters: Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison, chief amongst them, deserve a lot of the credit as well. Let’s also throw in Ben Hecht, who added the Johnny Jones speech at the end.

Johnny looks down on the Van Meer conspirators inside the windmill.

I know I rarely talk about the look of a film, but with Foreign Correspondent I’m going to make an exception. The cinematography and the Art Direction combine nicely here, providing many memorable set pieces, including the exterior and interiors of the Dutch windmills. I really love it when we go inside and not only see the machinations of the equipment, but the thin multi-storied staircases. There is Johnny’s escape route from the fake police, out the bathroom window and out to the ledges of the Hotel Europe. The viewpoint is foreshadowing of the chase on top of Mount Rushmore in North By Northwest (1959), another Hitchcock thriller, nearly two decades later.

The camera provides an interesting point of view while Johnny makes his escape.

Some of the special effects, the home of The New York Globe and the airplane they get shot down on near the end of the film, are obvious models and we all know Hitchcock’s affinity for shooting on a sound stage, but these are minor annoyances and have to be overlooked as they don’t really take away from the movie.

The film was a modest success at the box-office, but actually lost money. While critics thought of it as a glorified B movie, the film did receive six Academy nominations, including Best Original Screenplay (the first year the Academy had this category); Best Cinematography Black and White; Best Art Direction Black and White, Best Special Effects; as mentioned before Best Supporting Actor and Best Picture. Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels took notice, as well, calling Foreign Correspondent, “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.”

I would highly recommend the film. This is a ripping yarn from a master filmmaker, working from a great screenplay with really good acting. There is little not to like and so much to enjoy. The film, if you’re anything like me, will make you laugh and it will make you cry.

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