Saturday, November 15, 2008

A fresh, unused mind

One of my favorite underrated Alfred Hitchcock movies is coming up on TCM at 6:00 AM ET tomorrow (November 16): Foreign Correspondent.

A relatively young Joel McCrea (before he got into all those westerns) stars as Johnny Jones, a journalist for one of the New York newspapers, in the days just before World War II. His editor knows that the situation on the other side of the Atlantic is volatile, but doesn't want one of his old, traditional foreign correspondents to report on it: they won't get the real story. What he wants is a fresh, unused mind; somebody who doesn't know the difference between an ism and a kangaroo. That somebody just happens to be Jones, although his name is too pedestrian for a foreign correspondent, so get gets rechristened as Huntley Haverstock.

What awaits our hero is the traditional Hithcock blend of suspense and thrills. Jones meets the Dutch foreign minister Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), just before he is supposed to speak before a peace organization's meeting in London. Jones meets him again in Amsterdam, but this time, has the great misfortune of being an eyewitness to the foreign minister's assassination. Or not -- As Jones is chasing the assassins, he sees his old friend alive, but not well, being held hostage in a windmill. And so the action really picks up, as Jones tries to convince everybody what's going on, all while trying to escape the bad guys.

This is really good Hitchcock stuff, performed by a cast of underrated players who all played a lot of great supporting roles in their careers, but (with the exception of McCrea), never quite got to be the stars of Hollywood A-level material. Closest to McCrea in that regard is the wonderful Laraine Day, who plays the daughter of the leader of the peace movement, and who eventually falls in love with Jones. Sadly for her, she will eventually have to face the fact that her father (Herbert Marshall) isn't quite what he claims to be. Jones, meanwhile, is aided by a British journalist played by a young George Sanders, and is taking over from the newspaper's former correspondent, a dipsomaniac Robert Benchley who has to go on the wagon for health reasons, and absolutely hates it. Perhaps the best of all roles is given to lovable old Edmund Gwenn, who here plays a hired killer (I haven't given anything away; Gwenn is introduced when one of the characters hires him to try to kill Jones)!

Along the way, we see some vintage Hitchcock scenes and camera work. The "assassination" of Van Meer is a typical example; it takes place on a rainy day, and McCrea chases the assassin through a crowd of umbrellas, with the action being photographed from above so that we only see the umbrellas moving. A scene in which Jones has to escape from a hotel room is another excellent one, and there is also the climax, a plane ditching into the Atlantic Ocean that is pretty spectacular by 1940 standards. (Hitchcock later explained that he had hired a pilot to film a steep nosedive over water, and then played this footage on a screen of rice paper while the actors were doing their scene. When the time came for the "crash", the screen was broken, releasing a torrent of water that had been hidden behind the screen onto the actors.)

As usual, there is also the trademark dark humor, much of it courtesy of Benchley. In addition to the humor in scenes of his not being allowed to drink, there is also a tiny line -- you'll miss it if you're not paying attention -- just as Sanders and McCrea are leaving to catch the plane bound to take the bad guy out of the country. As they're rushing off, Sanders tells Benchley, along with all the other practical instructions about dealing with their editors, "Don't forget to cancel my rhumba lesson!" Poor Robert Benchley. But all of this adds up to a tremendously good movie.

Interestingly enough, it was good enough to be honored with a Best Picture Oscar nomination (losing to another Hitchcock movie, Rebecca). What's interesting about this is that at the time, thrillers were considered to be "lesser" movies. Indeed, Hitchcock had wanted Gary Cooper for the lead role, but Cooper turned it down, thinking thrillers were beneath him.

I apologize for mentioning this movie only a few hours before it airs, and when you might miss the posting if you don't read the blog in the evening. Fortunately, however, Foreign Correspondent is available on DVD.

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