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The Prototype For Alfred Hitchcock’s American Movies

By  · Published on February 18th, 2014

After directing more than twenty feature films in Britain, Alfred Hitchcock’s big introduction to Hollywood came in the form of two films released only four months apart in 1940, both of which were nominated for that year’s Best Picture Academy Award. The gothic chamber drama Rebecca ended up taking home the Oscar, while the trans-continental wartime adventure Foreign Correspondent eventually became all but a footnote in the Hitchcock canon.

While Rebecca is no doubt a complex, layered masterwork with its fair share of brilliant Hitchcockian touches (check out IndieWire’s excellent take on the film’s lesbian themes), critics and historians have contended that Rebecca was at least as much a David O. Selznick film as it was a Hitchcock entry. In fact, Hitch himself told Truffaut that he didn’t see Rebecca as a Hitchcock picture because of its lack of humor.

But Foreign Correspondent (whose Criterion treatment was released this week) displays a more direct, linear relationship to what would come in Hitchcock’s subsequent career in Hollywood. If we view Foreign Correspondent as the master of suspense’s first American film “in a sense” (as James Naremore puts it in his Criterion essay), then Foreign Correspondent can be seen as mapping Hitchcock’s own trans-Atlantic trek, forming a bridge between his British intrigue and his Hollywood spectacle. And now is as good a time as any to resurrect Foreign Correspondent’s worthy status as a Hitchcock classic.

The film follows NYC-based career-driven but apolitical young reporter John Jones (Joel McCrea) as he traverses from London to Amsterdam and back again to cover Europe’s immanent transition to all-out war. Jones, working under the less hyperbolically American pseudonym Huntley Haverstock, quickly becomes part of the story as he uncovers a conspiracy to gain secrets from a grandfatherly Dutch diplomat, led in part by the father of the British woman Haverstock/Jones has fallen in love with.

The scenario should ring familiar to any Hitchcock fan, with its Nazi conspiracy making it an antecedent to Notorious and a MacGuffin-centered globe-trotting adventure plot worthy of any Cary Grant role. It’s easy to see why producer Walter Wagner thought the director of The 39 Steps would befit such an intriguing mystery.

But Foreign Correspondent’s seemingly predictive Hitchcock moments hardly stop with its basic framework. The film includes an incident involving a character falling from a tall cathedral that evokes Vertigo. Jones at one point hangs desperately from a windmill outside Amsterdam, complete with an overhead shot, as Robert Cumming would off the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur and Cary Grant with Eva Marie Saint off Mt. Rushmore in North by Northwest. The film’s incredible climax, depicting in detail a disastrous plane crash with some truly impressive Classical Hollywood-era practical effects, leads to our cast of characters being desperately stranded on the ocean, which reportedly allowed Hitchcock to realize the potential to make a film as difficult as Lifeboat only four years later. There’s even a moment where Joel McCrea says aloud that he’s being chased because he “knows too much,” a statement seemingly tethering Hitchcock’s British and American careers.

This is, of course, not to suggest that Hitchcock and his team of writers planned out two upcoming decades of classic filmmaking with their reworking of one Hollywood assembly line script, but rather that Hitchcock’s working approach to filmmaking and collaboration had been firmly established by the time he arrived in Los Angeles. He, by this point, knew exactly the types of films he wanted to make: films that, at the very least, didn’t skimp on the humor.

But perhaps one reason Foreign Correspondent is so rarely mentioned along the same lines of Shadow of a Doubt or Rear Window lies in the fact that the film is very much anchored in its time.

Foreign Correspondent hasn’t aged badly in terms of its approach to style or narrative – in fact, the film’s cinematography and practical effects have sustained remarkably well through the decades, and the new transfer of Foreign Correspondent feels more “recent” than some of Hitchcock’s later Hollywood works. But as Selznick is seen as co-author of Rebecca’s adaptation to screen, Hollywood’s pro-interventionist stance before entering the war is palpably present throughout Foreign Correspondent.

Foreign Correspondent was incredibly topical upon release in 1940, having throughout production hastily integrated the most recently-covered war news into its 1939-set narrative. But the film abides strictly by the strict pre-war codes of the Hays Office. Germany and the Nazi Party, for instance, are never mentioned by name; Hitchcock’s shady villains are relegated to speaking German-sounding gibberish while donning tightly arranged garments.

The result is a fascinatingly multifaceted text: at once a tightly woven and enthralling Hitchcock thriller, and in other capacities part of Hollywood’s resonant call-to-arms for an American presence in the quickly escalating war in Europe. Foreign Correspondent’s final moments, featuring the previously apathetic Jones literally calling Americans to get involved over a BBC radio broadcast while a British station is bombed, is as distinct an example as one could find of Hollywood’s efforts to propagate a specific solution to a pervasive global problems plaguing an uncertain present. Foreign Correspondent exhibits touches of both The Lady Vanishes and The Great Dictator.

But Foreign Correspondent should never be relegated to its immediate context as a product of a brief, concentrated pre-intervention moment of advocacy in Hollywood. Despite its Hollywood production value, its foreshadowing of later Hitchcock works, and its classic Hitchcockian formula, Foreign Correspondent is a unique British-American hybrid never to be found equivalently in any of the auteur’s subsequent films. While Jones is as American as an action figure, the film’s setting and supporting players are predominantly British despite the fact that the film was shot in Samuel Goldwyn Studios. Foreign Correspondent exhibits the idiosyncratic humor of The 39 Steps (the revelation of George Sanders’s character’s name will have you in stitches) and the relentlessly brutal setpieces of Sabotage (the film’s plane crash sequence as nearly as harrowing as the excruciating bomb scene in that earlier British film).

Foreign Correspondent seems to find Hitchcock making sense of his new identity as a Hollywood director, tailoring his sensibilities to Hollywood’s grandeur while attempting to retain the signature wit and ruthlessness of his British work. But Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent were also the result of Hitchcock deliberately freeing himself from a dangerous, war-torn Britain. Such was hardly unusual during this era – cinematographer Rudolph Maté, who executed low angle shots in Foreign Correspondent that rival Citizen Kane’s artistry, fled Poland for Hollywood a few years prior.

Yet even though Foreign Correspondent makes an abrupt switch to newsreel territory in its final moments, it’s not hard to imagine Hitchcock himself in McCrea’s role: as someone who witnessed the onset of Britain at war, and uses the capacities of mass media to tell people about it. Foreign Correspondent isn’t just Hitchcock’s first American film proper, but a transitional text that finds Hitch himself in the role of an international correspondent before making Hollywood his own.

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