Foreign Correspondent (Hitchcock, 1940)

Foreign Correspondent is Hitchcock’s second American production, after he debuted stateside with Rebecca earlier in the same year. Joel McCrea plays Johnny Jones, AKA Huntley Haverstock, a US reporter who goes to Europe to cover the impending war. Along the way he gets involved with love and spies, in typical Hitchcock fashion.

Some of the setups are gorgeously visual, like this one, which reminds me of the famous tennis scene in Stranger on a Train. European diplomat, and the target of a conspiracy, Van Meer (Alfred Bassermann) climbs the stairs in the rain towards Jones:

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Van Meer is unexpectedly shot (by a nice little camera-gun)-

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– and the ensuing chase, often emulated, takes advantage of the multiple umbrellas. Hitchcock crowds the frame with them so that the only way the viewer can track the progress of pursuer and pursued is by individual umbrellas being pushed up awkwardly. It’s a nice little touch, and in opposition to a more standard chase sequence:

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Like in many Hitchcock films there are several themes or motifs that run throughout. One, for example, is Jones’ hat, which he constantly loses. Another, which the director would most obviously bring back in Vertigo, but also plays a major role in other films, including North by Northwest, is heights. Johnny hangs from a windmill:

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A bare-legged Johnny escapes would-be-killers by climbing out onto a ledge of the beautiful Hotel Europe:

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Johnny is nearly pushed off of the peak of Buckingham Palace:

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This last one, in particular reminds of Vertigo. There’s the ambiguous wide-shot of someone falling-

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-and even a reaction shot to nuns crossing themselves at the horror:

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The heights are maybe metaphor – the world is after all falling into war – but that seems forced. I think, instead, it’s Hitchcock’s preference of finding one main approach to tension (see: window POV in Rear Window, faceless Mother in Psycho, etc) and making that the centerpiece, where all other suspenseful sequences are secondary.

As a side-note, that bare-legged Johnny sequence is a nice bit of reversal – it would normally be a female character showing some leg, but Hitchcock shoots Johnny as the one shyly covering up.

We also see a bit of the psychological Hitchcock here, later to be on fuller display in films like Spellbound. Van Meer, held captive by Fascist plotters, is drugged and under the bright lights of interrogation. Hitchcock cuts from his loopy close-up to his POV, showing the group (including George Sanders in a pretty early role). The reaction shot is pure mood. Bright lights hug the left side of the frame. The room seems darker than it should be, and the characters are arranged in a static tableau, as though in an ominous painting. It’s a pretty, edgy shot, perfectly capturing the warped perspective:

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One of the best points of Foreign Correspondent comes in the person of the villain, who I’ll avoid from naming here to avoid spoilers. Given the subject matter – impending war, and the rather jingoistic and vitriolic approaches to the same subject by many films of the time – the villain (well, one of them at least) is presented surprisingly sympathetically. While in its epilogue Foreign Correspondent still takes a nationalistic fervor route, its treatment of the subject prior to that is refreshing for 1940.


About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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