Awash in the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s first American thriller, Rebecca, it seems inconceivable that Selznick would allow his star director the opportunity to make a movie for someone else. In point of fact, after acquiring Hitchcock’s services but having nothing for him to shoot, Selznick quietly loaned Hitchcock to independent producer Walter Wanger for Hitch’s first big hit, Foreign Correspondent (1940); a taut and timely spy thriller set at the cusp of WWII. Though shot before Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent was ultimately released after the former’s debut.
In hindsight, Selznick may have already been moving away from producing his own movies to assume the roll of a savvy business agent; setting up projects, acquiring scripts, getting talent in front of and behind the camera on board and then wholesale farming out the package deal for a considerable fee and percentage of the finished film’s gross.
Foreign Correspondent is a timely affair, indeed, and as much a propaganda piece as it proved a very personal film for Hitchcock, who had left extended family and close friends back in England who were now facing the advent of another war. The screenplay by Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison is a marvel in concise writing, jam packing the narrative with enough espionage to fill two thrillers, yet maintaining a breakneck pace that never seems hurried or without something meaningful to say.
Foreign Correspondent is the story of Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), a newspaper hound who is sent to Europe to cover the pending political upheaval. Rechristened Huntley Haverstock by his editor, Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport), Jones boards the Queen Mary and is met in Britain by curmudgeonly foreign correspondent, Stebbins (Robert Benchley) who instructs him to play everything low key, including his role as a ‘foreign correspondent.’ But Jones is determined to make good on his assignment. Moreover, he sees this as an opportunity to do something truly important in the war effort.
Finagling a brief interview with diplomat, Van Meer (Albert Basserman), Jones is plunged into the middle of political intrigue when Van Meer is seemingly murdered before his very eyes. A resulting chase across the stark landscape of Holland reveals that the diplomat’s double has been assassinated. Jones is unable to prove these findings however when the real Van Meer once again disappears.
Jones’ investigation is further complicated by two unforeseen circumstances; first - his main contact, Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) is actually a double agent working for Nazi intelligence, and second - Jones has fallen in love with Fisher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day) who knows nothing of her father’s corruptions.
Attempting to confide in Carol, Jones is nearly run over, pushed off a high tower and murdered in a struggle with Fisher’s henchman, Mr. Krug (Eduardo Cianelli). Eventually, the plot to obtain state secrets is foiled and Fisher, along with his daughter and Jones are trapped in a plane that is downed by the Axis en route to Britain. In the resulting flood and deluge Fisher saves his daughter from drowning then nobly commits suicide – leaving Jones free to rekindle his romance with Carol.
Originally, the story that Wanger owned dealt with espionage of a different kind during the Spanish American war. As that conflict had already faded into obscurity by the time this film was set to go before the cameras, Wanger had the premise updated to reflect the dangers of fascism in Europe.
The final sequence – with Jones delivering his patriotic summation of ‘why we fight’ during a London blitz was a tack-on after production wrapped and Hitchcock had already turned his attentions to filming Rebecca. Ironically, Wanger shot this final speech himself – an intervention Hitchcock deplored, though it has remained one of the galvanic moments most readily admired by audiences and easily associated with the film.
Warner Home Video’s DVD exhibits a smart visual characteristic. The B&W image is beautifully rendered with solid contrast levels and a fair amount of fine detail evident throughout. Blacks are deep and solid; whites fairly pristine. Film grain is rendered effectively as grain rather than digital grit – which is often not the case in DVD mastering. Age related artifacts are present but do not distract. The audio is mono as originally recorded and well represented. Extras include a brief making of featurette and theatrical trailer. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)