US / 120 minutes / bw / Wanger, UA Dir: Alfred Hitchcock Pr: Walter Wanger Scr: Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, James Hilton, Robert Benchley (plus several others uncredited) Story: Personal History (1935 memoir) by Vincent Sheean Cine: Rudolph Maté Special production effects: William Cameron Menzies Cast: Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders, Albert Basserman (i.e., Albert Bassermann), Robert Benchley, Edmund Gwenn, Eduardo Ciannelli, Harry Davenport, Martin Kosleck, Frances Carson, Edward Conrad, Ian Wolfe, Samuel Adams, Charles Wagenheim.
On the eve of war in Europe, Powers (Davenport), editor of the New York Morning Globe, is weary of the lackluster reports emanating from London and his correspondent there, Stebbins (Benchley). He demands that one of the paper’s crime reporters, Johnny Jones (McCrea), be sent to Europe to dig up dirt. First, though, he gives Johnny a posher moniker—”Huntley Haverstock”—and introduces him to one of the people he should interview once he’s in London, Stephen Fisher (Marshall), leader of the Universal Peace Party, which is seeking even at this late stage to avert the outbreak of hostilities.
Once in London, Johnny meets Stebbins and, on his way to a peace meeting at the Savoy Hotel that Powers has told him to cover, opportunistically shares a cab with Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Basserman), a key figure in the peace movement who’s scheduled to address the meeting. They arrive together but, when it comes to Van Meer’s turn to speak, Fisher, as the meeting’s chairman, announces that Van Meer has had to cancel his appearance because of urgent duties elsewhere. Though puzzled, Johnny soon forgets the matter because the substitute speaker is Fisher’s daughter Carol (Day), whom Johnny met in the foyer beforehand and for whom he has fallen hard.
His next assignment is to Amsterdam. As he waits outside the hall, he sees Van Meer approaching; however, the man is assassinated by a supposed press photographer (Wagenheim), who flees. Johnny gives chase, commandeering a car in which it proves that Carol’s a passenger, the driver being her friend, another journalist, Scott ffolliott (Sanders). They follow the getaway car out into the countryside, where it seems to disappear. Convinced the assassin and his accomplice have hidden in a nearby windmill, Johnny sends Carol and Scott for the cops, himself creeping into the structure and discovering that the plotters have secreted the heavily drugged Van Meer there; the man whom Johnny saw shot down was an impersonator (Adams). Johnny slips away from the windmill but, by the time he brings help, the bad guys have disappeared, taking Van Meer with them and leaving only a fake tramp (Kosleck), who claims the mill has been deserted all day.
Johnny (Joel McCrea) creeps into the windmill . . .
. . . and finds the drugged Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) there.
Back in Amsterdam, two men claiming to be cops call on Johnny in his room at the Hotel Europe. Smelling a rat, he climbs along outside ledges to reach Carol’s suite, where his bathrobed presence causes dignitaries like Mrs. Appleby (Carson)—erroneously named in the credits as “Mrs. Sprague”—to get quite the wrong impression. Although furious with him, Carol is by now falling for him; and on the rainswept deck of the cross-Channel ferry back to England they propose to each other.
The couple (Laraine Day and Joel McCrea) plight their troth.
When they reach Carol’s home, however, they find that Fisher is entertaining supposed diplomat Monsieur Krug (Ciannelli), whom Johnny recognizes as one of Van Meer’s captors in the windmill.
Johnny’s parlous escape route from the phony cops.
Johnny (Joel McCrea) and Carol (Laraine Day) check the coast’s clear.
Alerted of the situation by Krug, Fisher tells Johnny his knowledge is sufficiently dangerous that he should have a bodyguard, and produces one Rowley (Gwenn) to serve this purpose. Johnny’s not keen (“Oh, forget it. . . . Listen, Mr. Fisher. I’ve covered beer mob killings and race riots since I was a tot without even carrying a rabbit’s foot.”) but eventually accedes. In fact, Rowley is a cheery Cockney hitman—a far cry from Gwenn’s most famous role as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)!—who does his best to kill Johnny before botching an attempt at the top of the tower of Westminster Cathedral and himself plummeting to his death.
Cheeky Cockney hitman Rowley (Edmund Gwenn) prepares to shove Johnny under a lorry.
A body plummets from high on Westminster Cathedral . . . but whose?
By now it’s clear to the two journalists, ffolliott and Johnny, that Fisher’s the traitor at the heart of all this. Concerned for the safety of Van Meer, ffolliott hatches up a scheme to fake the kidnapping of Carol and use her as leverage; reluctantly Johnny goes along with the idea. But through a misunderstanding Carol concludes that Johnny’s agenda is to seduce her like a cheap floozy and the scheme falls through. Even so, ffolliott is able to follow Fisher to the slum hotel off the Tottenham Court Road where the spies are holding—and torturing—Van Meer to try to get from him the contents of a peace treaty’s secret clause, never committed to paper. (This is one of Hitchcock’s more blatant MacGuffins.)
The climax of the movie comes when the transatlantic clipper aircraft taking Fisher, Carol, ffolliott and Johnny to the US is shot down by a foreign destroyer. The survivors huddle together on a floating wing, waiting for the USS Mohican to reach them; realizing the wing is overloaded, Fisher throws himself into the waters to save Carol. She has the assurance that, as he explained to her on the plane, he’s not technically a traitor because he’s not in fact English: a patriot to his own (unnamed) country, he’s been fighting an undercover war . . .
There are some great setpieces in this movie. Although the shooting down of the plane and the struggle to survive amid the tumultuous ocean waves is the most obviously dramatic, it’s arguably overshadowed by the extended sequence inside the windmill: Johnny ducks and dodges, repeatedly getting out of sight of the bad guys only in the nick of time, interviews the woozy Van Meer, then must repeat the process in order to escape the building . . . and all the while the massive cogs and other machinery of the mill keep creaking and thudding ominously, as if eager to pull the intruder into their ponderous workings. Johnny’s hair-raisingly vertiginous progress along the Hotel Europe’s high window ledges is a sequence that stamps itself readily on the mind, as does that in which Rowley bides his time for the right moment to shove Johnny over the balcony of the Westminster Cathedral tower. Also powerful is the scene in the seedy hotel bedroom where Fisher’s thugs are torturing the mild, gentle, almost ethereal old gentleman Van Meer: we see nothing of the brutality, but understand it all too well from hearing Van Meer’s cries of pain and seeing the horrified expressions on the faces of the observers, not just the captured ffolliott but even some of the conspirators.
The watchers of Van Meer’s torment.
The plot doesn’t make a vast amount of sense. This is in part because we’re never quite clear to which country it is that Fisher, Krug and the others owe their allegiance; this was presumably part of Hollywood’s policy at the time not to risk offending the Nazis. But we also don’t know quite what the mysterious treaty was to which Van Meer was a signatory, nor how it could possibly forestall war, by now mere hours away. And what exactly is the aim of the nefarious Fisher and his (we assume) completely bogus Universal Peace Party? Are they trying to foment war? Or to sell Britain out to the enemy? Or are they perhaps even pacifists who’ve concluded that the odd murder or assassination here and there is ethically permissible if it helps prevent the far vaster carnage to come?
Eduardo Ciannelli as the odious Monsieur Krug . . .
Herbert Marshall as the smarmy Fisher.
And, just this once, George Sanders (as journalist Scott ffolliott) isn’t a stinker . . . although we keep expecting him to be!
The movie’s end—as Johnny, Carol beside him, broadcasts from London to the US while bombs fall all around—is a clear propaganda exercise, an attempt to persuade Americans to come to the rescue of their allies, the Brits, before it’s too late; in reality it would be well over a year after the movie’s release until, pursuant to the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, the US joined the Allied endeavor.
This excellent romantic thriller has occasional noirish moments with cinematography to match—such as the sequence in the windmill—but its view is ultimately optimistic: there’s no sense of any doubt about the eventual victory of the good guys, true love finding a way, and so on: we peer into the abyss, but only briefly. (Of course, we’re saying this with hindsight in the knowledge that the Allies eventually won the war. At the time, the movie’s ending almost certainly seemed far grimmer than it does to us today.)
Foreign Correspondent was nominated for six Oscars but came away empty-handed.
On Amazon.com: Foreign Correspondent (Criterion Collection) (Blu-ray/DVD). As is pretty obvious from the screengrabs, I was watching not this but an old VHS!