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By early 1940, Europe was being divided and decimated by the Nazis but the official U.S. policy was still one of strict neutrality. Despite the fact that the British government urged their most famous native, Alfred Hitchcock, to remain in America during this time, the director desperately wanted to contribute to the British war effort so he sought out a property that would allow him to make a pro-Britain statement. The subsequent production, Foreign Correspondent (1940), is the story of an American correspondent (Joel McCrea) in Europe who becomes committed to the fight against fascism during his investigation of a kidnapped Dutch diplomat, a situation that requires him to travel from London to Holland.
The source for Foreign Correspondent was Personal History, Vincent Sheean's autobiographical account of the growing political turmoil in Europe. Producer Walter Wanger had recently purchased the book for $10,000 and Hitchcock hired Charles Beaumont and Joan Harrison, both previous screenplay collaborators of his, to mold the material into a workable screenplay. When they were finished, very little remained from the original book with the exception of the opening scene in Holland. Ironically, even the completed screenplay of Beaumont and Harrison was drastically altered with Hitchcock bringing in a total of fourteen writers (including Robert Benchley and novelist James Hilton) before he arrived at a final version. Still, Foreign Correspondent was an enjoyable production for Hitchcock because he was on loan-out to Walter Wanger at United Artists where he was given free reign and not under the close scrutiny and autocratic rule of his regular employer, studio chief David O. Selznick. Huge creative differences existed between Hitchcock and Selznick and the director would later get his revenge on the producer with an in-joke in Rear Window (1954); The murder suspect (Raymond Burr) in that thriller bore a startling resemblance to the heavy set mogul.
Originally, Hitchcock wanted Gary Cooper for the title role in Foreign Correspondent with Joan Fontaine as his leading lady but eventually settled for Joel McCrea and Laraine Day. Although some critics viewed the film as a glorified B-movie after the lush production values of Hitchcock's Selznick films, Foreign Correspondent actually cost more to produce than Rebecca (1940), partly due to some very elaborate special effects.
Years later, during an interview with French director Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock admitted that the whole film grew from a few visual ideas of his own, "We started out with the idea of the windmill sequence and also the scene of the murderer escaping through the bobbing umbrellas. We were in Holland and so we used windmills and rain. Had the picture been done in color, I would have worked in a shot I've always dreamed of: a murder in a tulip field. Two characters: the killer, a Jack-the-Ripper type, behind the girl, his victim. As his shadow creeps up on her, she turns and screams. Immediately, we pan down to the struggling feet in the tulip field. We would dolly the camera up to and right into one of the tulips, with the sound of the struggle in the background. One petal fills the screen, and suddenly a drop of blood splashes all over it. And that would be the end of the killing."
Aside from the assassination that occurs in a crowd of photographers and that sequence in which the turning of a windmill reveals an important clue to the mystery, the most famous and costly scene in Foreign Correspondent is the spectacular plane crash. Regarding this sequence, Hitchcock told Truffaut "there's one shot so unusual that it's rather surprising that the technicians never bothered to question how it was done. That's when the plane is diving down toward the sea because its engines are crippled. The camera is inside the cabin, above the shoulders of the two pilots who are trying to pull the plane out of the dive. Between them, through the glass cabin window, we can see the ocean coming closer. And then, without a cut, the plane hits the ocean and the water rushes in, drowning the two men. That whole thing was done in a single shot, without a cut!....a lot of the material for that picture was shot by a second unit on location in London and in Amsterdam. This was in 1940, you see, and the cameraman who went over the first time from London to Amsterdam was torpedoed and lost all his equipment. He had to go over a second time."
While it's not in the same league with similar Hitchcock thrillers like The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), Foreign Correspondent was enjoyed equally by the critics and the public and even managed to garner five Oscar nominations including Best Supporting Actor (Albert Bassermann), Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. Hitchcock was also nominated for Best Director that year - for Rebecca.
A final note of irony: While Hitchcock's anti-fascist message is evident throughout Foreign Correspondent, it was later reported that Nazi official Joseph Goebbels found the film very entertaining.
Producer: Walter Wanger
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Robert Benchley, Charles Bennett, Harold Clurman, (uncredited), Joan Harrison, Ben Hecht (uncredited), James Hilton, John Howard Lawson (uncredited), John Lee Mahin (uncredited), Richard Maibaum, Budd Schulberg (uncredited)
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen
Cinematography: Rudolph Maté
Costume Design: I. Magnin
Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Original Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Joel McCrea (Johnny Jones), Laraine Day (Carol Fisher), Herbert Marshall (Stephen Fisher), George Sanders (Scott Ffolliott), Albert Bassermann (Van Meer), Edmund Gwenn (Rowley), Eduardo Ciannelli (Mr. Krug), Martin Kosleck (Tramp), Ian Wolfe (Stiles).
by Jeff Stafford