Foreign Correspondent was, in a sense, the first Hitchcock movie made in America. His initial Hollywood assignment, under a long-term contract with David O. Selznick, had been the brilliant Gothic melodrama Rebecca (1940), but he always considered that film, closely overseen by the control-freak producer, to be deficient in a key element of his art: “It’s not a Hitchcock picture,” he told François Truffaut. “The story is lacking in humor.”
When Selznick loaned him out for his second assignment to the less intrusive Walter Wanger, he was able to create something more akin to his celebrated British chase films of the 1930s: a mixture of danger, romance, and comedy set against a background of international intrigue. The result seems quintessentially Hitchcockian, rather like a way station between The 39 Steps (1935) and North by Northwest (1959). The narrative formula derives from the earlier film, but certain events foreshadow the later one—for example, when the hero escapes through a window in the Hotel Europe, edges along the high ledge outside, enters another window, and finds himself in a lady’s boudoir (in this case, he’s dressed in a robe and underwear); or when he finds himself alone on the empty flatlands somewhere outside Amsterdam, with nothing in view but a single aircraft circling the sky and slowly turning windmills, one of which is moving in the wrong direction.
For several years, Wanger had been trying to develop a picture based on American news reporter Vincent Sheean’s Personal History, a unique blend of memoir and historical analysis that won the National Book Award in 1935. A gifted writer, Sheean was also an adventurer who witnessed firsthand the major political events of the interwar years, including the spread of Bolshevik revolution, the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, and the violence of the Spanish Civil War (the last of which he covered alongside his friend Ernest Hemingway). In Personal History, he describes his experience of fascist dictatorships, abandoning the conventions of straight factual reportage to predict world war against National Socialism. Wanger, who greatly admired the book, acquired the film rights in 1936 and put director Lewis Milestone in charge of developing an adaptation. A platoon of writers would become attached to the project, but none achieved satisfactory results. In 1938, Wanger hired German-born director William Dieterle and screenwriter John Howard Lawson to make another try, but Wanger’s financial backer, the Bank of America, announced it would withdraw support from any explicitly anti-German picture. According to Hitchcock biographer Patrick McGilligan, Wanger finally gave up, turning the idea over to Hitchcock and allowing him to do anything he wanted, so long as the finished film had something to do with an American foreign correspondent working in contemporary Europe.
Deep at work on Rebecca, Hitchcock asked his wife, Alma Reville, and his talented secretary, Joan Harrison, to develop a screenplay. He and Charles Bennett, the screenwriter of many of Hitchcock’s best British films, later fleshed out the Reville-Harrison treatment, and several others contributed as well, including novelist James Hilton, famous as the author of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and humorist Robert Benchley, who was also cast as a supporting player. The aim from the beginning was to achieve something similar to The 39 Steps, with a hero less like the gentlemanly British types from John Buchan’s novels and more like an average American joe. For the leading roles, Hitchcock wanted Gary Cooper and either Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Fontaine, but big stars in those days tended to look down on thrillers; he had to settle for the easygoing Joel McCrea, who conveys some of the quietly self-effacing humor he would later use so well in comedies by Preston Sturges and George Stevens, and the very young Laraine Day, who was chiefly known for her work in MGM’s Dr. Kildare series of B pictures. Otherwise, except for the vaguely Middle-European quality of a few bad guys, the film feels almost completely English. It’s populated not only by George Sanders, fresh from Rebecca, as the suave London newsman Scott ffolliott (driving at breakneck speed while being shot at by an escaping killer, he explains that one of his ancestors “had his head chopped off by Henry VIII, and his wife dropped the capital letter to commemorate the occasion”), but also by Hitchcock veterans Herbert Marshall, as a charming, in some ways sympathetic villain, and Edmund Gwenn, cast against type as a hired killer.
An important difference from Hitchcock’s earlier chase films, however, is that Foreign Correspondent was made during wartime. Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, and by the time the picture opened in August 1940, virtually the whole of Europe lay at Hitler and his allies’ feet. The Luftwaffe was preparing to bomb London (the bombing began roughly a week after the film’s premiere), but Republicans in the U.S. Congress were still supporting the Neutrality Acts, which had been passed in the 1930s to keep the country out of war. Meanwhile, Hollywood was still worried about taking any political position that might jeopardize foreign markets. Wanger, as his early interest in Sheean’s Personal History indicates, was left-leaning and something of an activist (his 1938 film Blockade had taken the bold step, for Hollywood, of dramatizing the Spanish Civil War and sympathizing with the Loyalists). Hitchcock, too, was instinctively antifascist and deeply concerned about the fate of Britain, where he was being unjustly accused of leaving his country in a time of need. As the production progressed, and the terrors of war became increasingly evident, they both endeavored to at least indirectly acknowledge the conflict and attack the Nazis.
Because of this historical situation, which created an artistic conflict between the demands of commerce and the desire to influence the public, Foreign Correspondent has a somewhat divided quality. When it begins, Alfred Newman’s rollicking theme music and the high-key lighting of cinematographer Rudolph Maté seem out of keeping with an introductory crawl dedicating everything to “those forthright ones who early saw the clouds of war while many of us at home were seeing rainbows . . . those clearheaded ones who now stand like recording angels among the dead and dying.” After that, the war slips away, and we continue in classic Hitchcock romance-thriller mode. We never see a swastika or a Nazi salute, and the villains are called “Borovians.” (They occasionally speak a kind of garbled, backward German, and some viewers have noticed what looks like a cartoon profile of Hitler on the wall of their hiding place inside the Dutch windmill.) It isn’t until an hour into the film, in the far background of one shot, that we glimpse a sign pointing to a bomb shelter; and still later, we see servants hanging blackout curtains over the windows of a town house. By the end of the film, however, war has been officially declared by the British, and McCrea delivers an Edward R. Murrow–like radio broadcast to America from London (written by Ben Hecht and shot after the prerelease version of the film was completed) as bombs fall and the lights go out all over Europe.
The first twenty-five minutes of the picture belong almost entirely to the world of gently satiric comedy and romance. Johnny Jones (McCrea), a carefree news reporter who has recently been in a fight with a cop, is promoted to the job of foreign correspondent because his editor thinks a man of action with no knowledge of politics may be able to figure out what is going on in Europe. Johnny is willing to cover anything if he has an expense account, and wonders if an interview with Hitler might help. (This is one of only two times in the picture when the actual enemy is named.) The editor gives Johnny a British nom de plume, Huntley Haverstock, and sends him to London, where he’s greeted by the American reporter on the scene (Benchley), a recovering alcoholic whose only interests besides Scotch whiskey are horse races and blonde floozies. Johnny attends a meeting of the Universal Peace Party, organized by Stephen Fisher (Marshall), and tries to interview a Dutch diplomat named Van Meer (Albert Basserman, a German émigré whose work in the film earned him an Academy Award nomination). But he’s immediately distracted by the sight of Fisher’s beautiful, idealistic daughter, Carol (Day), and spends most of the time making unsuccessful passes at her, one of them interrupted by a comic Latvian (Eddie Conrad).
Partly as a result of this opening act, Foreign Correspondent doesn’t have the relentless forward momentum and narrative economy of The 39 Steps. We wait for the violent action and adventure, which arrive with a shock when Johnny travels to Amsterdam. The camera, mounted on a crane, moves in a graceful arc over a crowded, rainy city square filled with trams and bicycles, locating Johnny atop a long row of steps leading into a government building. A dignitary arrives by car, ascends the steps, and is suddenly shot point-blank by a man disguised as a newspaper photographer. The sequence is a bit like a Hitchcock version of Eisenstein’s Odessa steps, but, as Raymond Durgnat has noticed, it also has things in common with Joris Ivens’s documentary Rain (1929). A tight close-up shows the victim staring openmouthed at the camera, his face shattered by the bullet; next comes one of the most sinister and witty images of the director’s career: from a bird’s-eye vantage, we see the escaping killer scurrying like a rat through a dense crowd of people holding black umbrellas, some of which bob and sway, marking his path. Johnny’s pursuit of the killer through the ensuing chaos, in which an innocent cyclist dies, is edited with superb lucidity and leads to a dangerous car chase that also serves as a meet-cute reunion between Johnny and Carol Fisher. When the killer’s car mysteriously disappears, we find ourselves in quiet, open country. As usual in Hitchcock’s thrillers, the locale has a picture-postcard quality: Holland is famous for its windmills, so they are not only shown to us but also worked into the plot by means of a running gag—a lost bowler hat, which leads to the discovery of a MacGuffin (“Clause 27”) and a conspiracy to start a war.
The Rembrandt Square set was the largest of seventy-eight constructed for the film, consisting of a full-scale replica of the town hall; twenty-six broad steps leading up to the building; a wide cobblestone plaza; a street big enough to accommodate trams, cyclists, automobiles, and pedestrians; and the most elaborate rain-effects system yet built in Hollywood. The supervising art director was Alexander Golitzen, but most of the design work was probably done by his assistant, Richard Irvine, and by the legendary production designer William Cameron Menzies (also on loan from Selznick), who is given a special credit for visual effects in Foreign Correspondent. Menzies designed sets and camera angles for scores of films, ranging from Douglas Fairbanks’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924) to Selznick’s Gone with the Wind (1939). His influence can be seen here in the Piranesi-like interior of the windmill, with its dark spiral staircase and menacing gears, and especially in the remarkable climactic scenes, when a transoceanic airliner carrying the leading characters is shot down, presumably by the Germans, and crashes into the sea.
Transatlantic travel of any kind in 1940 was in fact quite risky. A ship carrying British cinematographer Osmond Borradaile, who had photographed process-screen material in London and Amsterdam for Foreign Correspondent, was sunk en route home to the U.S. by a German U-boat; Borradaile survived but lost his film, and went back to do the job again. Even without such stimulus to the imagination, Hitchcock had been contemplating oceanic disaster for some time. He thought his first film with Selznick was going to be about the sinking of the Titanic, and here, as later in Lifeboat (1944), he was able to experiment with some of the dangers he had visualized. The air crash was shot with a combination of miniatures, rear projection, a full-size mock-up of an airliner that the camera could track through, and additional sets rigged with powerful gushing water. The aftermath clearly makes use of a huge studio tank and more rear projection, but the floating parts of the airliner are quite convincing, and the wind and waves look truly dangerous (Herbert Marshall, who had lost a leg in World War I, stood in a specially designed tube to protect him when he was submerged). Throughout, the minor characters are individuated just enough to make their deaths seem disturbingly arbitrary. Of course, by the rules of Hollywood, the romantic couple survives, but this gives Johnny an opportunity to defy the Neutrality Acts by tricking the captain of the rescue ship and sending a report to his newspaper.
The production schedule for Foreign Correspondent was estimated at forty-two days but took seventy-one, a full nine of which were spent in the studio water tank. Besides the large number of sets and special effects, the budget involved over three thousand players, most of them extras, and a crew of 560. The cost of all this was astronomical by the standards of Hollywood in 1940: the completed negative cost totaled almost a million and a half dollars, which was more than twice the average budget of Walter Wanger’s previous productions. Comparatively little of the money, however, went to Hitchcock, who at the time was in need of funds because of his relocation to America. He was paid his contracted weekly salary of $2,500 by Selznick, while Wanger paid Selznick $7,500 a week for the use of Hitchcock’s services.
“There were a lot of ideas in that one,” Hitchcock told Truffaut when they discussed Foreign Correspondent in 1962—by which he meant formal ideas, such as the design and editing scheme of the assassination sequence, the clever use of the windmill, and the complicated effects of the airline crash and rescue. There were also some perhaps unintentionally amusing minor details: a dangerous-looking dog that accompanies the chief villain but never does anything, a ticket cashier whose false mustache appears to come loose as he’s speaking, and a gang of thugs who use American jazz as an instrument of torture. The romance between Johnny and Carol culminates in one of the more comically unromantic proposals in movie history: they’ve never even kissed, but during a steamship journey, while sitting on a cold deck swathed in blankets, they each say, “I love you, and I want to marry you.” (The scene was based on the real-life circumstances of Alfred and Alma’s proposal to each other.)
Improbable as it sometimes is, Foreign Correspondent was nevertheless extremely well received by U.S. critics and nominated for several Academy Awards (in competition with Rebecca). It was less universally praised by the English, some of whom probably thought that Hitchcock had deserted them. It still generates the pure excitement and cinematic brio we expect of a Hitchcock thriller, but in 1940 it also managed to deliver an important wartime message to America. One of its admirers was the well-known German cinephile Joseph Goebbels, Reich minister of Nazi propaganda, who managed to get a print from Switzerland. In those days, Goebbels was feeling triumphant enough to offer Hitchcock a grudging blurb. “A masterpiece of propaganda,” he wrote, “a first-class production which no doubt will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of people in enemy countries.”
James Naremore is the author most recently of An Invention Without a Future: Essays on Cinema (2014). Among his other books are Acting in the Cinema (1988), On Kubrick (2007), More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (2008), and the BFI monograph Sweet Smell of Success (2010).