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Wednesday 30 November 2022

Burl reviews Foreign Correspondent! (1940)


By the turning of the windmill, it’s Burl, here with a bit of Hitchcockery for you! Ha ha, this is Hitch in actionman mode, making a big old wartime crowd-pleaser with plenty of derring-do and get-‘er-done sentiment! It’s not the most finely-crafted picture old Alfred ever made, nor his most suspenseful, nor his most rollicking, but there’s a case to be made that, alongside North By Northwest, it’s the one that most effectively combines all these qualities! Ha ha, and the name of the movie is Foreign Correspondent!

It’s set in a very specific period of time, which I always appreciate in a movie! The thunderclouds of war have spread across Europe, and just about everybody knows it’s coming – and there are some shadowy figures, it seems, who want to hurry it along! But before we meet them, we are introduced to Johnny Jones, the putative hero of the picture, a Big Apple newsman who is the right guy to go find out what’s up in Europe, figures his editor, because (and the cop-phobic Hitch loved this no doubt) he once beat up a policeman!

It seems Hitch wanted Gary Cooper for the role, but he got Joel McCrea from Sullivan’s Travels and Ride the High Country! This disappointed the director, who found McCrea too affable; and you can certainly see why he’d want Coop for a two-fisted role like this! Maybe the fact that they were each known by nicknames made up of the first half of their surnames was an extra attraction to Cooper for the portly filmmaker, but who knows! Anyway, I like McCrea – his affability gives a lightness to the picture that helps keep it aloft, and he’s able to get serious when he needs to, as in the Thing From Another World-style coda!

It’s late August of 1939, and you know what that means - Nazis are about to make their move! When Johnny Jones arrives in England, he finds a dyspeptic colleague played by the great Robert Benchley (who also wrote some of the dialogue, or at least his own); the leader of some kind of peace party, Stephen Fisher, played by Herbert Marshall from The Fly; and Fisher’s beautiful daughter Carol, essayed by Laraine Day from The Story of Dr. Wassell! Malarkey of some kind is going on, and things only get weirder after a diplomat called Van Meer, who is instrumental in whatever chance there may be to stave off the Germans and whom Johnny is supposed to interview, gets himself shot in the face in a surprisingly brutal moment!

Johnny also meets the real hero of the picture, or at least I thought so, a debonair newshound called Scott ffolliott (and yes, ha ha, they address the lower-case double Fs), played by the marvelous George Sanders, whom we recall from Doomwatch and Endless Night, and from his own pithy suicide note! ffolliett is a real cool customer, an adventuresman who, it seemed to me, had as much of Hitchcock’s attention as the hero! After the famous windmill scene – well, relatively famous, probably cracking the top ten or twelve of famous Hitch scenes – and Van Meer has mysteriously returned, still played by Albert Bassermann from Alraune, Johnny is hot on the trail of the story, and so naturally it’s time for the movie to hang with ffolliett for a while! Yes, ha ha, it seems for a while that ffolliett (a relation to ffolkes, no doubt!) is the new hero of the movie, and one is not unhappy to have him!

There’s some great stuff here! Edmund Gwenn from Them! and The Trouble With Harry pops up as a hitman who maybe was a bit past his prime! And there are some terrific mugs in the margins, like Mr. Krug, played by Eduardo Cianelli from Strange Cargo, who tortures poor Van Meer with hot jazz music! The special effects and sets are simply top notch, and the plane-crash climax is a corker!

You can tell Hitch wasn’t too interested in the specifics of the peace process or the ginned up McGuffin here – ha ha, as McGuffins go, this is one of the director’s most transparently immaterial! It’s a weird mix of ripped-from-the-headlines reality and the sort of picture they were making in the lead-up to the war, where the evil country would remain pointedly unnamed, perhaps in the hopes of avoiding any kind of intercontinental rile-up! I suppose that’s because history marched on as the picture was being written and prepared, and all of Fisher’s mournful references to “his country” were left over from prewar days!

It’s a chaotic movie, but all of a setpiece by the end, ha ha! I’ve seen it a couple of times now, and it sure does hold up! The plotting is maybe not completely thought through everywhere, but it’s got it where it counts! I give Foreign Correspondent three and a half phonographs!

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