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Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Hitchcock Draws Off Front Pages

Foreign Correspondent (1940) Is Suspense Prelude To War

Here's a timeliest of Hitchcock films, also his most political, even controversial, at time of initial release. 1940 was thought premature by many to be calling out Germany for bad acts, let alone fly of banners to draw the US into war. Heat was rising in government corridors to smoke out H'wood scare mongers who seemed intent on Euro intervention. They're wrong in retrospect (easy for us to say from hindsight, of course), but think of national react to prospect of taking up arms after mere couple of decades since a last shooting conflict. There had been stir enough over us horning into Nicaragua during early 30's, and besides, according to Foreign Correspondent scribe Charles Bennett (in his recently published memoir), the German-Americans Bund was twelve million strong. Rewrites and pro-intervention producer Walter Wanger took Foreign Correspondent past initial thriller treatment to wake-up call for all hemispheres. Present-day kick comes from windmills, plane crash, and Santa Claus Gwenn trying to push Joel McCrea off a steeple, but to crowds of seventy-seven years ago, Foreign Correspondent was of sterner stuff, and lots felt Hitchcock abused Yank hospitality trying to suck us into his native country's war.

To evidence of what fears Foreign Correspondent struck, above is Shea's Buffalo first-run ad, a potent mix of real and imagined peril. The feature is naturally highlighted, big business a cinch thanks to content torn from headlines, a newsreel of which, the "Jersey Powder Blast," shows wreckage sure-enough sabotage could wreak. Many thought German spies responsible for the blast, others citing pure accident. Investigators couldn't prove either way. It was nonetheless scary instance of explosion and casualties without apparent cause, paired with a movie where spies pursue similar mayhem against countries soon to be our allies. No matter how much we enjoy and appreciate Foreign Correspondent today, it cannot and never will deliver the punch as felt by Buffalo folk who got it first on eve of war and partnered with newsreels to fairly shout "It's All True!"

We read of caution applied to scripting and sales. No film in 1940 sought to pick fights in Europe, or encourage ones here, but then ... there was Confessions Of A Nazi Spy the year before, and Chaplin wearing his famous mustache Hitler-style (another reason he could never be the Tramp again?). Ads for Foreign Correspondent pulled punches the film would not. Joel McCrea's character was a "soldier-of-fortune ... a character as irresistible to today's fan as a Bengal Lancer or a Beau Geste was to yesterday's public." High adventure against Euro backdrop was limit to which promo would commit. Amidst "modern Arabian Nights drama," this foreign correspondent was a "knight-errant." Fact to note: Many more people saw a movie ad than saw the movie itself, a moment's glance during leaf through a newspaper sure to stop at any attraction that might promote war. An edgiest of topics in 1940, for all knew that if we joined the fight, family number would be sharp-reduced. A peacetime draft was looming as Foreign Correspondent took to screens.

Publicity tabbed Alfred Hitchcock as "the customer's director." How prescient those words, even as the writer could not have known AH would retain that distinction for thirty and going on forty more years. Hitchcock was declared an enemy of clichés. Most knew him, even in this only second of American films, for always-delivery of the unexpected. Note Buffalo's declare that "thousands are coming back a second time." Big splash and part-reason for returns was whale of a plane plunge, that to be a most talked-about movie moment of the season. Go back to 1940 and I'll bet every office and schoolyard buzzed with it. Those effects are horrifically realistic. The thing still wallops today. Hitchcock set-piecing may have had a first full-bore application here. We who were around in 1968 have yapped ever since about the Bullitt chase. Did customers from 1940 onward treasure Correspondent's plane drop as much?

Hitchcock and co-writing Charles Bennett designed Foreign Correspondent as purest fiction, a pastiche of stuff that had worked in British thrillers on which they collaborated. Stakes seemed higher than before as international events caught up with their imaginings. Hitchcock's reluctance to take politics head-on kept him out of deeper water then, and helped Foreign Correspondent to date less since. This story could as easily be set before the first war, or anytime between I and II. Spies never stop spying after all, and mischief will be made among nations whatever the larger canvas depicts. Restraint applied here was not unlike what we'd get in Cold War thrillers played at safe temperature. Whatever devices Hitchcock used in Foreign Correspondent could be (sometimes were) recycled as late as Torn Curtain and Topaz, if to less satisfactory effect. Foreign Correspondent, for years at a disadvantage because of shifting ownership and often indifferent prints, is back to first-run majesty thanks to Criterion Blu-ray, extras to further light the way toward placement of this among upper-rung AH.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

LOVE IT, article and movie.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

I'm guessing to many the term 'under-rated Hitchcock thriller' is an oxymoron... seems just about all his efforts have some supporters. But until recently, that phrase certainly fit FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT. Terrific show, just wonderful! Deservedly Oscar nominated for Best Picture. Maybe undeservedly lost to REBECCA! Interesting that you allude to the spy craze of the sixties, when Sir Alfred struggled with entries in a genre he help invent!

11:29 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

It's my opinion that Chaplin couldn't be the "Little Tramp" character any longer (after a last gasp in 1936) because sound was indisputably here to stay. Given that, the little tramp COULD NOT SPEAK and remain a universal character. Chaplin's high-pitched English accent doomed any chance the tramp could speak and remain the tramp everyone knew and loved.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first still has the sinister and wonderful Eduardo Cianelli who made the most of his every role! I've read that in real life he was a very nice family man!

3:20 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I don't know if Hitchcock was interested in espionage as a genre as much as it was something mysterious and evil that could bedevil his lone heroes. Hitchcock's shadowy baddies ranged from lone killers to entire regimes; a frequent theme is victims being unable to convince the police these baddies even existed. FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT fits in that mold as the hero's job is to convince the world something exists.

6:02 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Laraine Day is just the prettiest thing!

Curious to Stinky that Hitchcock never worked with or adapted Eric Ambler (although he did write an intro to one of Ambler's novels), since there seem to be so many thematic similarities, as they might say in the film schools.

This one's a lot of fun.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Good question Stinky. What makes it even more baffling was that Ambler was married to long time Hitchcock producer, Joan Harrison.

3:42 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...


I have emailed you in the past-for some reason, I have trouble posting comments. Loved the article on Foreign Correspondent. One comment mentioned Chaplin couldn't be the "Little Tramp" after 1936 Modern Times, however I recently read in several sources that he came to believe that he had been mistaken.

Most recently Wes D. Gehring’s “Movie Comedians of the 1950’s” talks about subsequent to the completion of Limelight, Chaplin started work on a "Little Tramp" film. He had been working on (and may have completed a script with James Agee). Gehring doesn’t summarize it, but states it would have been similar to in spirit to Umberto D. Once refused a re-entry visa to the United States because of his alleged communist sympathies, Chaplin backed away from the project not working on anything for several years until A King in New York.

Joe McGrenra

6:27 AM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

This one has been running in heavy rotation on TV since it premiered on CBS' "Premiere Playhouse'' in 1950. It was part of the "Masterpiece'' package of United Artists owned films that included STAGECOACH, TO BE OR NOT TO BE, I MARRIED A WITCH, YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE and HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT.

3:59 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That must have been a great 1950 viewing night. No wonder so many people stayed home for their entertainment.

4:06 PM  

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