Foreign Correspondent (1940)


On the eve of World War II, an American journalist, John Jones (Joel McCrea, The Most Dangerous Game), is sent to Europe to find out what are the chances of war breaking out in the near future. During his investigation, Jones accidentally bumps into a coven of nasty spies planning to assassinate a Dutch diplomat.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Give me an expense account and I’ll cover anything.”

This is the second movie Alfred Hitchcock made in Hollywood. The director had just finished the much-anticipated David O. Selznick production Rebecca (1940), but he never had much to say about his first movie in America. In fact, while he was shooting Rebecca, Hitchcock was already preparing what he called a “Hitchcock original” — Foreign Correspondent nicely encapsulates the director’s strengths and virtues.

Perhaps to Hitchcock’s eternal frustration, Foreign Correspondent has been eclipsed somewhat by the director’s still hugely popular Oscar-winning classic Rebecca. Although a direct comparison is not fair, Foreign Correspondent is technically superior in almost every way when compared to Rebecca — this slightly neglected serio-comic thriller is every bit as good as Hitch’s The 39 Steps or North by Northwest.

Producer Walter Wanger (Cleopatra) gave Hitchcock unprecedented artistic freedom and the end result is absolutely stunning. Foreign Correspondent works on many levels: as a spy thriller, as war propaganda, as a picaresque adventure, as a black comedy, as a romantic comedy. The film is loosely based on journalist Vincent Sheean’s 1935 Personal History. The screenplay is credited to Charles Bennett (The 39 Steps) and Joan Harrison (Jamaica Inn), but many writers worked on the script.

Foreign Correspondent is constructed as a series of vignettes in which every segment is more exciting than the one before. At times, it feels like a dry run for the James Bond franchise. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite moment, but I will go with the assassination sequence. There is also a terrific sequence inside a huge windmill (an extraordinary set designed by celebrated art director William Cameron Menzies, Gone with the Wind). The plane crash near the end of the movie is justly legendary.

This is also one of Hitchcock’s most overly political movies. Because his movies tend to be apolitical (Hitchcock himself was tight-lipped about his political beliefs), the film’s propagandist tendencies are interesting to say the least. Concealed in the guise of escapism, Foreign Correspondent is a strong critique of America’s then isolationist tendencies. The film’s protagonist — a symbol of middle-of-the-road Americanism — slowly comes to the realization that apathy is dangerous.

Hitchcock never stopped lamenting that he couldn’t get Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck for the lead roles. In 1962, Hitchcock told French filmmaker Francois Truffaut that Joel McCrea was simply “too easy going.” I disagree. McCrea’s endearing ordinariness brings a sense of verisimilitude to the film’s most fantastic scenes. Laraine Day (The High and the Mighty) is also effective as McCrea’s love interest.

The movie has some of the era’s finest character actors. Humorist Robert Benchley is hilarious as a boozy journalist (he allegedly wrote his own dialogue). German actor Albert Basserman (A Woman’s Face) is great as a diplomat. Since he didn’t speak English, Basserman learned his lines phonetically and nabbed an Oscar nomination in the process. However, Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street) was my favorite. Gwen plays a meekly hit man who has trouble finishing his “job” — Kris Kringle meets Anton Chigurh! The cast also includes Herbert Marshall (The Letter) as Day’s father and, in a rare heroic role, George Sanders (All About Eve) plays a journalist.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

In a canon full of masterpieces, Foreign Correspondent stands out — it’s a great film that happens to be a lot of fun. The film is important too. It demonstrated that Rebecca wasn’t a fluke. This is a wonderful film — it’s brilliantly constructed, with high production values, and a great sense of humor. Foreign Correspondent is a fun-packed thriller, one of Hitchcock’s very best movies. B&W, 120 minutes, Not Rated.

Hitch’s cameo

14 responses to “Foreign Correspondent (1940)

  1. I watch it over and over. So many gems. McCray and Day are perfect and the others in the cast are just as good. Funny of all the times I have watched it I still wait for Sanders to do something bad. Umbrellas, windmills, plane crashing into the ocean. The movie was made before it was ‘proper’ to speak out against fascism but Hitchcock argued and won and the last scene with McCray warning America was filmed and added just before it’s release, It’s preachy but an important kind of preachy.
    Excuse me now, I have to watch it right now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve always liked this one, and have always wondered why it always seems to get a bad rap, or never seems to be grouped with Hitchcock’s best…glad to see there are some fans out there! Like you said, so many different things going on, and so many neat scenes throughout. A fine example of a ‘Hitchcock style’ of film, and like the others above, now you’ve got me wanting to see it again! (I just wish I had that Criterion version)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this film for everything you described, and I agree that Joel McCrea was a good choice, whether Hitchcock thought so or not. Gary Cooper may have done a fine job with the film but there’s something about McCrea that is really appealing–and perhaps his easy-going manner causes some to overlook that appeal. Anyway, that plane crash scene is incredible. I could go on and on.

    Liked by 1 person

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