Friday, November 21, 2008

Foreign Correspondent (Walter Wanger/United Artists, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When Charles and I got to watch a movie, I picked out Foreign Correspondent because I’d wanted to see it ever since we ran Espionage Agent, the movie made the year before at Warners with the same star (Joel McCrea), at least one supporting actor (Martin Kosleck) and similar sequences taking place in rainstorms, but Espionage Agent was directed by the hacky Lloyd Bacon and Foreign Correspondent was directed by Alfred Hitchcock — and that makes all the difference. Foreign Correspondent was the sixth and last film on which Hitchcock worked with Charles Bennett, who was to Hitch what Dudley Nichols was to John Ford or Robert Riskin to Frank Capra — the writer with whom the great director worked out his style and who had a lasting influence on him even after their direct collaboration ended. Bennett co-wrote the script with Hitchcock confidante Joan Harrison, with Lost Horizon author James Hilton credited with “dialogue” — as is Robert Benchley, who plays the alcoholic foreign correspondent for the New York Globe live-wire reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), rechristened “Huntley Haverstock” by his editor, replaces and whom Hitchcock allowed to write all his own scenes.

Foreign Correspondent was produced by Walter Wanger for his independent company, releasing through United Artists, and as a contract director for David O. Selznick (another independent producer distributing through UA) Hitchcock was loaned to the film. Foreign Correspondent actually began as Wanger’s attempt to make a movie based on real-life foreign correspondent Vincent Sheean’s memoir, Personal History, which Wanger bought as soon as it was published in 1935, but after four years and 16 scripts nobody had figured out how to turn Sheean’s rambling memoir into a feature film. Hitchcock and his two writing collaborators, both of whom had long histories with him, solved the problem basically by throwing out all of Sheean’s book and keeping only the basic situation of a foreign correspondent, newly arrived in Europe, stumbling across a classic Hitchcock MacGuffin — a secret clause of a treaty that was never put down on paper and exists only in the memory of Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Albert Bassermann, who knew no English and learned his part phonetically — when working with a German director like Fritz Lang or a Germanophone director like Hitchcock, this wasn’t a problem; when Bassermann worked with George Cukor on A Woman’s Face, his co-star Conrad Veidt — German by birth but fluent in English — translated Cukor’s directions for him) — the sort of thing that, as Hitchcock pointed out in interview out of interview, is all-important to the characters and totally unimportant to the audience.

Jones gets the job of European reporter when his editor, Mr. Powers (Henry Davenport), gets disgusted at the recycled official handouts his previous London correspondent, Stebbins (Robert Benchley), is giving him. Powers rechristens Jones “Huntley Haverstock” in his editorial office, with Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), head of the Universal Peace Party, in attendance. “I’ve never witnessed the christening of an American newspaperman before,” Fisher says in Herbert Marshall’s most marvelously sardonic tones. “Maybe we should break a bottle of champagne over his head.” Haverstock née Jones gets sent to London with instructions to get an interview with Van Meer, whose strategy for getting rid of intrepid newspapermen is to babble incoherently about birds and weather — when Our Hero isn’t shaken so easily, Van Meer asks him point-blank, “What American newspaper are you with?”

Haverstock follows Van Meer from London to his native Netherlands, incidentally meeting and falling in love with Fisher’s daughter Carol (Laraine Day), and witnesses Van Meer being shot to death at an outdoor gathering in a torrential rainstorm. He traces the killer to a windmill which, anticipating by 19 years the crop duster that was dusting a barren field in North by Northwest, he spots one of the windmills turning against the wind and realizes it’s a signal for a plane to land and pick up the assassin. (This was inspired by Hitchcock’s desire to incorporate the trademarks of every country in which a key sequence takes place: he thought the Netherlands were known for windmills and tulips, and he worked a windmill into the script. He also had the idea to have a single drop of blood fall on an otherwise pristine white tulip, but gave it up because this was a black-and-white film and he didn’t think the shot would work without color.)

He also discovers the real Van Meer being held hostage in the windmill — the one who was publicly assassinated was a double recruited by the bad guys — though by the time he’s able to alert the Dutch police and penetrate the language barrier, the baddies are gone. Later on Haverstock forms an alliance with a British reporter, Steven ffolliott (George Sanders) — in his most sardonic tones he tells Haverstock that an earlier member of his family was executed by King Henry VIII and in protest the family ever since has de-capitalized its last name — who briefs him that Stephen Fisher, supposedly a peace activist, is in fact head of the Axis spy ring that kidnapped Van Meer, faked his assassination and intends to torture him to get him to tell them what’s in the secret treaty. (It’s so like Hitchcock, with his relentless drive to cast actors against type, to make George Sanders a good guy and Herbert Marshall a villain.)

In another scene that anticipates one in a later, much better-known Hitchcock film, Fisher offers Haverstock the services of Rowley (Edmund Gwenn), ostensibly as a bodyguard to protect him but really as a hit-man to kill him — and in a scene almost uncannily premonitory of the end of Vertigo 18 years later, Haverstock and Rowley confront each other at the top of the Tower with various nuns in attendance (a High Church service is going on at the cathedral below) and one of them falls to his death below — and it’s only later that we learn for sure it was Rowley: Haverstock was alerted to the situation and jumped out of the way just as Rowley was about to push him off the Tower, and Rowley’s momentum carried him over the edge instead. Haverstock and ffolliott stage the kidnapping of Carol Fisher in an attempt to get her dad to release Van Meer — naturally, in the one noble aspect of his character, he’s carefully concealed his double life from her and she’s innocent and a genuine believer in his pretend “peace” movement — and when that plot fails all the characters get on the last Clipper plane from London to New York.

The plane is shot down by a German boat and crashes into the water, where Fisher nobly lowers himself from the floating wing that is keeping the other principals afloat and alive, and an American captain rescues the rest but refuses to allow Haverstock to phone in his story. He’s allowed to make a call to his family to let them know he’s all right, and he uses the privilege to call “Uncle Powers” and turn in his story anyway, and in an after-the-fact ending written by an uncredited Ben Hecht and stuck onto the film just before its release, Haverstock makes a stirring propaganda speech from a London radio studio to the folks back home urging the U.S. to arm itself and get ready to fight on the Allied side.