Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent" anticipates the dangers of today's overseas conflict journalists

Given the attention to the dangers of conflict journalism overseas these days, the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock thriller “Foreign Correspondent” seems oddly prescient.  The film also shows how naïve the American and probably British public really was about the danger building from Hitler in the late 1930s. 
As the film opens, at a fictitious New York newspaper, Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport) talks a star reporter (like in the 50s board game) Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) into going undercover in England, with an assumed pen name (Huntley Haverstock), to find out what is going on in Europe.  In the open scenes, the references to Europe are so vague as to sound irritating. Once he gets there, though, the menace mounts, and it isn’t hard to see that, for example, one of the events to be reported is the pact between Hitler and Stalin.
More specifically, Huntley is supposed to track down peace organizer Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) and his connections to Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Albert Bassermann).  Fisher has an attractive daughter Carol (Laraine Day).  The Howdy Doody treasure hunt leads to Amsterdam.  At about 25 minutes into the film, Van Meer is apparently shot in the face when a gunman opens fire on a crowd.
The chase leads then to a windmill farm, and inside one, where Huntley starts playing spy.  Eventually, he has to negotiate getting back to England, and then on a flight home, which will then be attacked by Naval fire.  The plot gets intricate, but the airplane scene is quite climactic, leading to a raft scene in the water where Fisher sacrifices himself by drowning (anticipating “Titanic”). 
The film shows Hitchcock’s mastery of simple images, here in black and white, such as massed umbrellas, and then the intricate machinery of a windmill, and later the horror of a man plummeting from a church tower (anticipating “Vertigo”). 
Gradually world politics invades.  The news that Britain has declared war on Germany hits the newsstands just before the plane flight. The film was actually premiered shortly before the Battle of Britain and the shelling of London.
At the end, the reporter secretly transmits a message that basically warns America that it will soon have deal with all this.  At the end, the credits play the US National Anthem, the only film I know of that does this.

The film certainly provides a perspective on what should be expected of a "real" journalist or "reporter".
I thought I would mention that TCM recently played “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953), by Howard Hawks, with Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, one of the earlier movies I would see with my parents.  It doesn’t need another review now.  

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