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Silver screen Hitch Silver screen Hitch
by Asa Butcher
Issue 8
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Film
Foreign Correspondent
Alfred Hitchcock
1940
One of the drawbacks of living in the 21st century is that you don’t get to see movie classics regularly on the big screen. Multiplex cinemas are happier showing the latest blockbuster than the films that are the foundations of Hollywood, but you do get lucky on occasion.

I am a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock, yet I had never seen any of his work in a cinema until Foreign Correspondent appeared at a small cinema in Helsinki. The film isn’t one of his greats and I had barely heard of it, but the opportunity was too good to miss. The cinema was half-full and we had just removed our coats when the film began. There were no trailers for mobile phones and no warnings against piracy; only the film that we had paid to see.

Foreign Correspondent is 65-years-old this year and the quality of the reel certainly reflected that. Some scenes were cut short by a few seconds, scratches poured down the screen like torrential rain and the film vanished into darkness for one short period, although when it returned the actress on-screen spookily commented, “What was that?” One positive note was the sound quality; naturally, it wasn’t Dolby or THX, but we heard every word spoken.

This was Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film, the first being Rebecca that was made earlier that same year and won him his only Academy Award for Best Picture. The story follows Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), a New York crime reporter, who is sent to Europe because his editor feels a war is coming and wants more than the boring reports currently being submitted.

The twisting plot requires your full attention but the fundamental idea is Jones has to discover whether Europe is going to war. A famous diplomat is kidnapped because he knows a secret peace treaty clause that will help an invading army, although throughout the film there is never any mention of Germany or Nazis. Jones uncovers the kidnapping and his life is under threat from that moment.

Hitchcock has crafted a number of thrilling scenes in Foreign Correspondent that still manage to excite six decades later. The first is the windmill sequence that has you holding your breath as Jones slips past the spies all over the windmill; the next is two assassins in his hotel room, so the reporter escapes out the window along a high-storey ledge; and the last scene of a plane being shot down is excellent, especially for the 1940s.

Joel McCrea as Johnny Jones is very charismatic and performs the ‘American in London’ part very well, as well as always losing his hat, while the interaction with his love interest Laraine Day is beneficial to the plot for once. Hitchcock had a reputation for treating his leading ladies badly and Laraine would probably agree after filming the ‘crashing in the sea’ sequence. The entire cast were fun to watch, especially the James Mason look-alike Herbert Marshall and the quintessentially English George Sanders.

Charles Wagenheim has a brief role as the assassin hired to kill Jones and he was a character I would love to see in his own movie, although my research shows that Wagenheim appeared in almost 150 movies and nearly all were uncredited. Albert Bassermann was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal of the Dutch diplomat Van Meer, which was outstanding considering he couldn’t speak a word of English and learned all his lines phonetically.

Foreign Correspondent received five other Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Effects and Best Writing. The screenplay by Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison is filled with drive and some cool dialogue, such as:

Johnny Jones: I’m in love with you, and I want to marry you.
Carol Fisher: I’m in love with you, and I want to marry you.
Johnny Jones: Hmm... that cuts down our love scene quite a bit, doesn't it?

It was great finally watching a Hitchcock film on a big screen and I hope to catch more in the future. There was something very gratifying at laughing and hearing others laugh at humour from 65 years ago and still be infected with the same excitement as those audiences back in the 1940s.

By the way, Hitchcock’s cameo comes early in the movie.

   
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