During times of great turmoil and strife those in power look to artists to rally the people to action. In 1940 the conflict in Europe was boiling over into a full-blown world war while in America Alfred Hitchcock's Hollywood career was limping along. After signing a seven-year contract with David O. Selznick in 1939 what Hitchcock initially believed to be his ticket to bigger budgets and better resources became a cage. When he worked in England he had enough cache to make the pictures he wanted the way he wanted to make them, but in Hollywood it was the producer who was king. Selznick thought of Hitchcock as an artisan, a very skilled artisan but an artisan none the less. Hitchcock's first American picture, Rebecca, earned several Oscar nominations and even won for Best Picture but it was telling that the statuette was awarded to Selznick and not Hitchcock. The method in which Hitchcock made his films was antithetical to Selznick's process. For Selznick the proper way to make a movie was that you shoot as much camera coverage as possible; so a director would shoot so many long shots, medium shots, and close-ups after which an editor would cull from all the material several possible versions of the film, leaving final cut approval to the producer. Hitchcock looked at this process as wasteful. He believed in visualizing a film onto paper first and then shooting, as a result during pre-production Hitchcock would storyboard as much of the film as possible. His exacting method would make it impossible for anyone who dared to interfere with his work by making sure that there was only one logical way to edit the shots together. After Rebecca though both men would take a break from each other when Selznick loaned out the director to Walter Wanger. It would not be the last time that Selznick would loan Hitchcock out to a different studio and each time he did Hitchcock was able to not only flex his artistic muscles but also prove to the naysayers that he was the Master of Suspense.
In 1935 Walter Wanger purchased the rights to Vincent Sheean's Personal History for $10,000 and after five years and 16 writers he got nowhere in adapting the book for the screen. It was only after Wanger finally dropped the idea for a faithful adaptation of the book did the project pick up any speed. Wanger kept the idea of a movie about a foreign correspondent, but because the conflicts brewing in Europe were a sensitive issue for many he decided to make the film a Hollywood style thriller to make the subject matter more palatable to audiences. Hiring Hitchcock to direct was a no-brainer since in England the director had made several Joseph Conrad inspired espionage thrillers like his 1936 film Sabotage and the classic "wrong man" thriller The 39 Steps. After being signed on to direct, Hitchcock called upon Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison, both frequent collaborators of his, to come up with a workable script and working together they helped to create one of Hithcock's most underrated masterpieces.
The screenplay that Hitchcock and his collaborators came up with was a story about an American reporter who ends up uncovering a conspiracy that would ultimately lead to a continent-wide war. The genius of the story is that like in all top notch Hitchcock films the Master of Suspense balances the tense action set pieces with genuinely funny moments. It's a testament to Hitchcock's confidence in blending suspense and comedy by the sheer fact that he not only cast Robert Benchley in a small part in the film, but he also allowed the humorist to ad-lib his lines. And even though the threat of a world war hangs heavy in every single frame of the film Hitchcock is not afraid to lighten the mood with scenes that could have come straight out of a romantic comedy. To get the audience to invest in the story Hitchcock and his writers inject the film with a romantic subplot; a story device seen in previous Hitchcock classics like The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, and his most stylish thriller, North by Northwest, a film which is heavily indebted to Foreign Correspondent.
A possible reason as to why the film has been ignored by the average film fan maybe because the cast is made up of relative unknowns. Yet unknowns or not Hitchcock was right on the money when it came to casting decisions. Joel McCrea is spot-on as the self-confident reporter Johnny Jones. He is no poor man's Cary Grant. McCrea has a difficult job in playing a man conflicted between his duty to report about the impending conflict in Europe and stop those who would fan the flames of war , and his love for a woman whose father is the main instigator in the impending war. McCrea bridges the divide between his duty and his personal emotions by playing Johnny Jones as a man who could care less about the bigger picture. He is not apathetic to the European situation, but rather as his editor says "What Europe needs is a fresh unused mind." Jones is a man who has no interest in politics. He makes decisions and acts on information based on things he can see and can verify as the truth. It is a telling detail that before Jones is hired to be a foreign correspondent he was a crime reporter who was remanded to his desk after punching out a police officer while running after some crooks. This single fact about Johnny Jones presented to us at the start of the film explains the man entirely; he will not let injustice go even if he must make enemies with those who are charged with the responsibility of keeping the peace.
The man that Johnny must go against in the film is Stephen Fisher, played wonderfully by Herbert Marshall. He is suave, sophisticated, loves his daughter, and is the head of the Universal Peace Party. It has become old hat to call Hitchcock a great director, but he was a genius for realizing the potential of making the villain a sympathetic three-dimensional character. By making Fisher a man and not a monster the characters in the movie and the audience watching the film have a more complicated relationship with the antagonist, and when Fisher ultimately sacrifices his life we feel just as much pain as if one of our own friends had perished.
The things that Hitchcock accomplished with this film could not have been realized without the help of so many people behind the camera. Two important names that should be mentioned are the set designer, William Cameron Menzies, and the score composer, Alfred Newman. William Cameron Menzies had a career as an art director that could be traced back to the inception of Hollywood as the nation's film capitol. He worked on several silent pictures and when directors began shooting with color film stock he found new ways to use the color palette to establish a mood or accentuate the inherent drama present in the story. Some standout examples of his work in Foreign Correspondent can be seen in the three most famous set pieces in the picture. The first being the assassination of the Van Meer look-alike. As the story goes Hitchcock and his crew of technicians had to switch back and forth between the smoke machine and the rain machine to get just the right look, and it pays off. Looking back the scene plays almost like a funeral with all the rain, black umbrellas, and even the building where the Peace Party is holding their conference has the look of an ancient temple. And as the Van Meer look-alike walks up the long flight of stairs, stairs seem to always allude to death in Hitchcock's pictures be it in Vertigo, Psycho, or The Birds, an assassin meets the look-alike with a gun and kills him. A chase soon ensues which brings the story to the next set piece in the film, the so-called Windmill scene. The interior set where Johnny Jones discovers the real Van Meer is clearly influenced by James Whale's Frankenstein pictures and it is a credit to his skill as a set designer that Menzies can create a feeling of dread and claustrophobia with a few windmill cogs and a dilapidated staircase. The final great set piece in the picture is the plane crash. The spectacular effect was created by rear projecting onto a rice paper screen some footage that a stunt plane had shot while doing some maneuvers which involved diving towards the ocean and pulling back up before they hit the water. With the footage projected on the rice paper which stood in front of a cockpit set, when the time came for the plane to hit the water a dunk tank behind the rice paper would release a torrent of water and rip through the rice paper and flood the cockpit.
The score composer, Alfred Newman, had an equally important role in making Foreign Correspondent a classic Hitchcock picture. Newman opens the picture with a jaunty and very romantic tune, which will ultimately become the picture's musical theme. And this opening tune prepares the audience not for a tense thriller but a light-hearted comedy or to be more accurate an adventure tale. In film after film by utilizing the contrast of opposites to his advantage Hitchcock has been able to hold the audience's attention. The jaunty musical theme of the picture contrasts with the seriousness of the situation we are observing on the screen. Newman's score lulls the audience into forming the expectation that they can relax and enjoy some light fare, but as the film moves along they become caught up in the story and the score retreats towards the background and is only used to punctuate the action on the screen. The musical score is never used to tell the audience what to feel but rather enhance the drama already present in a scene. Newman's score offers a balance between the light comedy and heavy drama of the story, and allows audiences some breathing space between the suspenseful moments.
Whenever people speak about Foreign Correspondent they inevitably make mention of the film as a propaganda piece. Many look at this fact as a demerit against the picture, but many films even today are laced with an agenda and most aren't as entertaining as Foreign Correspondent is. And maybe this is where the animosity lies. Hitchcock the entertainer tackling a serious social and political issue must have irked many. To have an entertainer be able to rally an entire audience with one movie while all their speeches and campaigning could only accomplish moderate excitement must have made many politicians jealous. The highest compliment Hitchcock might have gotten for this picture came from Paul Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda for Nazi Germany, when he remarked that the film was "a first-class production which no doubt will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of the people in enemy countries." Goebbels and Hitchcock, two very different men, but both knew that a single frame of film could excite people much more than lectures or speeches could ever hope to do. Film has the possibility to make ideas tangible, to create and recreate reality, and because of this vulnerability to the spell of cinema their have been a countless number of people who have been so moved by a film that they have taken action against injustice. This power of the motion picture to take political ideas and mask them as filmic ideals has often been abused, but as we evolve as a society so will the motion picture and maybe someday we can start to live up to the ideals that a good movie can perpetuate.