Hitch’s second U.S. film sets the bar for the rest of his career

“Foreign Correspondent” (1940) was recently released on Blu-ray/DVD (dual edition) by Criterion.

By Michael Wilmington

Foreign Corr posterAlfred Hitchcock started his American filmmaking career with a bang, directing a Best Picture Oscar winner and an inarguable classic: his 1940 David O. Selznick-produced film of Daphne du Maurier’s immensely popular Gothic romantic novel “Rebecca.” Though he was under the control of Selznick at his zenith (the year after “Gone With the Wind”), Hitch executed the assignment with near-flawless skill  and panache.

He beautifully dramatizes du Maurier’s romantic tale of a naïve young wife (Joan Fontaine) taken to a mansion by her wealthy new husband (Laurence Olivier), who may have murdered his haunting first wife, Rebecca.

But “Rebecca” wasn’t Hitch’s only 1940 film. Nor is it the one that some Hitchcock critics (and maybe even Hitchcock himself) consider the inarguable classic. Shortly after completing “Rebecca,” and freeing himself from the fealty Selznick felt was owed to du Maurier’s novel, Hitchcock made a second American movie.

This new work was a continuation of the style and technique of the delightfully frightening suspense thrillers he’d made in England in the ’30s: notably “The 39 Steps,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “The Lady Vanishes.”

That second Hitchcock movie was “Foreign Correspondent,” produced by Walter Wanger: a top-notch melodrama of international intrigue and nail-biting suspense that was set in the early days of World War II. Starring the sturdily all-American guy Joel McCrea (Hitch had wanted Gary Cooper) and love interest Laraine Day (Hitch had wanted Fontaine), it was a movie that unabashedly called  for the U.S. to enter the war against Germany, on the side of Hitchcock’s beleaguered homeland Great Britain.

That’s the conclusion McCrea’s pugnacious but immensely likable reporter Johnny Jones (pen name: Huntley Haverstock) reaches after being sent overseas as The New York Globe’s foreign correspondent and witnessing Germany’s murderous espionage and sabotage. As bodies and evidence accumulate, Johnny/Haverstock chases down a Nazi spy ring in England and Holland.

In company with Johnny: the head of an ambiguous peace organization (Herbert Marshall), his beauteous daughter (Day), a suave and plucky British fellow reporter (George Sanders), a kidnapped Dutch diplomat (Albert Bassermann), and assorted spies, officials, killers and bystanders (Edmund Gwenn, Robert Benchley, Eduardo Ciannelli and others). They race from one hair-raising Hitchcockian set-piece to the next; finally culminating in a plane crash, with McCrea and others in the cockpit.

It’s the sort of  convulsively paced, thoroughly engrossing and purely entertaining tale Hitchcock loved to make, with an audience-pleasing flair and imagination that would have been entirely out of place in a faithful classic adaptation like “Rebecca.” But “Foreign Correspondent” was a clear precursor of Hitchcock’s later career and also of the James Bond spy thrillers of the ’60s and beyond, which were partly inspired by his work.

Selznick would not allow Hitchcock to change any of “Rebecca” (except for his habitual joke-cameo appearance). While Selznick has probably been proven right by the film’s 1940 Oscars and continued classic status, “Foreign Correspondent” (which was nominated for six Oscars), has also been validated as the more truly Hitchcockian movie.

It’s full of virtuoso set-pieces, like the windmills that are turning against the wind, the climactic plane crash, the famed umbrella-knocking assassination scene, and other logic-defying moments inserted in defiance of the critics and carpers whom The Master of Suspense dismissively called “The Plausibles.”

Hitch makes his cameo in "Foreign Correspondent."

Hitch makes his cameo in “Foreign Correspondent.”

“Foreign Correspondent” was scripted by Hitchcock’s regular collaborators Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison, with dialogue by James Hilton (the novelist who wrote “Goodbye Mr. Chips”) and the Algonquin Round Table’s resident wit Robert Benchley (who also appears in the cast as a fellow reporter). The source was an actual foreign correspondent’s memoir, “Personal History” by Vincent Sheean.

One of the uncredited writers on “Foreign Correspondent” was Richard Maibaum, who was later the main Bond series screenwriter. Besides Maibaum, the remarkable gallery of uncredited writers on the project includes Ben Hecht, Harold Clurman, John Howard Lawson, John Lee Mahin and Budd Schulberg, or almost everyone in Hollywood, it seems, but William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Of course, there was the script-shaping genius of Hitchcock himself (and of his wife Alma): Hitchcock, who of all non-actor movie directors, is perhaps the most visibly present in his films. We sense him in and behind nearly every shot.

But he’s more present in “Foreign Correspondent” than in “Rebecca.” Freed for the moment from Selznick (they would make two more pictures together), Hitch charts the major direction he would follow right up to the end of his career: the ingenious set-pieces, the games with the audience, the personal touches and brilliant identification devices.

He also produced a film proselytizing for America’s entrance into the war with the Allies and against the Nazi juggernaut that was admired as propaganda by no less an expert than Joseph Goebbels himself.

Criterion’s extras include a 1972 interview with Hitchcock by Dick Cavett and a 1946 radio adaptation of “Foreign Correspondent” with Joseph Cotten.

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The Noir File: Dark treats from Preminger, Dassin and Lang

Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are one of film noir’s great couples.

By Michael Wilmington & Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All movies below are from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1950, Otto Preminger). Thursday, Dec. 27, 1:15 a.m. (10:15 p.m.).
While investigating a murder, a smart but sometimes savage Manhattan police detective named Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) accidentally kills an innocent suspect (Craig Stevens). Dixon tries to cover it up, but his relentless new boss Lt. Thomas (Karl Malden) keeps pushing the evidence toward an affable cabbie named Jiggs (Tom Tully). And Dixon has fallen in love with Jiggs’ daughter, model Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney). Gary Merrill plays a crook/gambler.

Scripted by Ben Hecht from William Stuart’s book “Night Cry.” If you want to know what film noir is all about, check this one out.

Thursday, Dec. 27

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Black Widow” (1954, Nunnally Johnson). Crime among the Broadway elite, from one of Patrick Quentin’s mystery novels. Not much style, but the cast includes Van Heflin, Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney, George Raft and Peggy Ann Garner.

4:30 a.m. (1:30 a.m.): “Night and the City” (1950, Jules Dassin). In shadow-drenched, dangerous London, crooked fight promoter Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) double-crosses everyone he encounters as he tries to outrace the night. The night is faster. This is a top film noir, a masterpiece of style and suspense. From Gerald Kersh’s novel; with Gene Tierney, Herbert Lom, Francis L. Sullivan and Googie Withers.

Sunday, Dec. 30

8:15 a.m. (5:15 a.m.): “Bunny Lake is Missing” (1965, Otto Preminger). Bunny Lake is an American child kidnapped in London, Carol Lynley her terrified mother, Keir Dullea her concerned uncle, Anna Massey her harassed teacher, Noel Coward her sleazy landlord, and Laurence Olivier the brainy police detective trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The most important of those pieces: Was Bunny ever really there at all? A neglected gem; based on Evelyn Piper’s novel.

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “Ministry of Fear” (1944, Fritz Lang). Ray Milland, just released from a British mental institution, wins the wrong cake at a charity raffle and becomes ensnared in a nightmarish web of espionage and murder. The source is one of novelist Graham Greene’s “entertainments.” Co-starring Marjorie Reynolds and Dan Duryea.

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The ‘pulchritudinous and punctual’ Marilyn Monroe sings Happy Birthday, Mr. President … and more

After reading about Marilyn Monroe and watching some of her movies over her birthday weekend, I felt like sharing these video clips.

 

Marilyn sang on Saturday, May 19, 1962, for President John F. Kennedy at a celebration of his 45th birthday, 10 days before his actual birthday (Tuesday, May 29).

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Marilyn sings in “Some Like It Hot,” from 1959, directed by Billy Wilder.

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Marilyn sings “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the musical “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” directed by Howard Hawks and choreographed by Jack Cole. To read more about Cole and his career, visit dance critic Debra Levine’s wonderful arts meme.

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And, while reading about Marilyn, I was struck by her insightful notes on Fox’s final cut of “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957, Laurence Olivier): “I am afraid that as it stands it will not be as successful as the version all of us agreed was so fine. Especially in the first third of the picture the pacing has been slowed and one comic point after another has been flattened out by substituting inferior takes with flatter performances lacking the energy and brightness that you saw in New York. Some of the jump cutting kills the points, as in the fainting scene.

“The coronation is as long as before if not longer, and the story gets lost in it. American audiences are not as moved by stained glass windows as the British are, and we threaten them with boredom. I am amazed that so much of the picture has no music at all when the idea was to make a romantic picture. We have enough film to make a great movie, if only it will be as in the earlier version. I hope you will make every effort to preserve our picture.”

In the end, no changes were made to the picture.

From “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe” by J. Randy Taraborrelli

(Note: Film noir horoscopes will return next month.)

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