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Hitchcock’s war efforts
Alfred Hitchcock’s first two American movies, “Rebecca” and “Foreign Correspondent,” competed against each other as best-picture finalists during the 1940 Academy Awards. “Rebecca” emerged as the Oscar winner. The results left “Foreign Correspondent” an also-ran with six nominations.
I’ve always preferred “Foreign Correspondent”— an immediate success with audiences and certainly the more characteristic movie in the Hitchcock style — as both movie and historical landmark. The historical value seems to ripen over the decades, validating the filmmakers as astute and ingenious propagandists.
Still a newcomer to the United States, Mr. Hitchcock was intent on reconciling the conventions of a humorous chase thriller with the need for Anglo-American solidarity in a war against Nazi Germany. When “Foreign Correspondent” was made, that couldn’t be acknowledged frankly for fear of violating Congress‘ shortsighted Neutrality Act or offending isolationist sentiment in the country at large. It was the movie that proved admirably farsighted.
Mr. Hitchcock had resolved to try his fortunes in the American movie industry as early as 1937. He began an enduring professional shift from London to Hollywood two years later, while bound to the somewhat onerous terms of a contract with producer David O. Selznick. At the time, this celebrated patron was preoccupied with completing and introducing his most ambitious project to date, the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind.” It became a fond joke in Hitchcock circles that the urgency of “GWTW” spared the director a good deal of the hands-on interference the producer ordinarily would have lavished on “Rebecca,” derived from a best-selling mystery novel by Daphne du Maurier.
Emotionally wrung out by the “Gone With the Wind” effort, Mr. Selznick suspended production activities and realized some capital gains after “Rebecca” was released. Though inactive as a production source for a few years, he continued to be a hard bargainer as a deal-making mercenary, willing to lend out the talent he had under contract for handsome markups. Alfred Hitchcock was his prime directing asset. In demand throughout Hollywood and eager to better his prospects in the short and long term, Mr. Hitchcock pursued projects with other producers that required Mr. Selznick’s approval.
The first was “Foreign Correspondent,” which united the director with an experienced independent producer, Walter Wanger, basking in the success of John Ford’s “Stagecoach.” He was not averse to a certain amount of political controversy. Better yet, he was not inclined to skimp on production resources or interfere with directors he trusted.
“Foreign Correspondent” was the costlier show — $1.5 million compared to about a cool million for “Rebecca.” Moreover, “Foreign Correspondent” demanded a more versatile and elaborate system of illusion. Several episodes shifted between London and Amsterdam. The interior of a deathtrap windmill in the Dutch countryside became one of the greatest suspense sets ever built, a three-story masterpiece of shadows and vantage points in which concealment seems impossible but nevertheless is achieved for hero Joel McCrea as he searches for a kidnapped diplomat, a superlative figure of abused helplessness as portrayed by Albert Basserman. The concluding episodes called for mockups of a trans-Atlantic passenger plane, destined to crash into the sea and entomb most of the extras during a stunning sequence, a model of resourcefulness and trick photography for any disaster spectacle.
Although Mr. Selznick consented to an initial Hitchcock-Wanger deal, he withheld his approval from subsequent proposals. As a result, Mr. Hitchcock’s next pictures were made with RKO (“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and “Suspicion”) and Universal (“Saboteur” and “Shadow of a Doubt”). By that time, he also had adapted from European to American settings with considerable distinction.
His trusty British writing collaborators from the 1930s — Alma Reville (also Mrs. Hitchcock), Joan Harrison and Charles Bennett — had been available for the “Foreign Correspondent” screenplay, which took a seemingly outdated political memoir — Vincent Sheean’s “Personal History,” published in 1935 — and revamped it as a Hitchcock chase thriller about European intrigue in the two weeks before war was declared in September 1939. The script interweaves its topicality and political partiality with romantic comedy, throwaway character comedy and a persuasive brand of cynicism, aimed mostly at the devious “peace movement,” that serves as a respectable cover for the most treacherous character, a debonair and not unsympathetic sneak played by Herbert Marshall.
World War II began while Mr. Hitchcock was shooting “Rebecca.” There wasn’t a great deal the filmmaker or his English cast members could do to express their apprehension and futility within the context of that particular ghost story. “Foreign Correspondent” enabled the Hitchcock apparatus to function as patriotic filmmaking professionals in exile — by then augmented by sympathetic Americans. In retrospect, this seems the most clever and eloquent example of pro-war propagandizing made before official American entry as a British ally. National sentiment probably was anti-Nazi and pro-British, but policy was avowedly neutral; the Nazis and Soviets were allies; and Hollywood was still doing business with Germany and occupied Europe. “Foreign Correspondent” begins as a seemingly jaunty newspaper yarn and without sacrificing its geniality concludes as a ringing call to arms, courtesy of a fervent curtain speech composed for Mr. McCrea by Ben Hecht.
Because no good deed goes unpunished, Mr. Hitchcock was unjustly mocked and criticized from London by a number of colleagues who found it expedient to libel him (and other countrymen working in the U.S. when war broke out) as a slacker and deserter. On the contrary, his wartime efforts on behalf of England were admirably discreet, honorable and effective. “Foreign Correspondent” was only the most conspicuous.
His principal accuser, producer Michael Balcon, a former friend, was informed quietly of his ignorance by government insiders, but the ill feeling was difficult to mend. It no doubt contributed to the fact that the Hitchcocks became permanent adornments to America.
TITLE: “Foreign Correspondent”
RATING: No MPAA rating (Made in 1940, decades before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter with systematic ominous elements and occasional violence)
CREDITS: Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Produced by Walter Wanger. Screenplay by Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison, suggested by the memoir “Personal History” by Vincent Sheean. Additional dialogue by James Hilton, Robert Benchley and Ben Hecht.
RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes
DVD EDITION: Warner Home Video
WEB SITE: www.warner video.com
By David A. Clarke Jr.
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