Monday, November 14, 2005

Melting Pot: Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent"

Foreign Correspondent (1940, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

"All that noise you hear isn't static—it's death coming to London. Yes, you can hear the bombs falling on the streets and on the homes…Don't tune me out. This is a big story, and you're part of it. It's too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come. It's as if the lights were all out everywhere, except in America. Keep those lights burning there! Cover them with steel! Ring them with guns! Build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them! Hello, America! Hang on to your lights. They're the only lights left in the world!"

— Johnny Jones (aka Huntley Haverstock), Foreign Correspondent

Jones: You see, I love you and I want to marry you.
Carol Fisher: I love you, and I want to marry you.
Jones: Well, that cuts our love scene down quite a bit.
Fisher: Do you mind?
Jones: Not at all.

— Foreign Correspondent

Polemics and sentimentality — they're the two magnetic poles that constitute the standard political/wartime thriller. This year alone we've been exposed to at least two prestige productions that make hay from that paradigm, The Interpreter and The Constant Gardener. Different as they may seem on the surface, the similarities between these two films are fascinating enough to deserve a separate entry (soon, I hope). Both soak rhetoric in melodrama, the dish of choice for artists and propagandists alike. Sweeping statements meant to stir the audience's righteousness (Political repression is bad! Exploitation of poverty-stricken innocents is bad!) are wedded with soap-opera theatrics, just in case these ideals are too abstract for Joe Public. Thus, "intimate" human drama (lost or betrayed brothers and wives, confessions of personal complicity inextricably linked with moral and political guilt) seals the deal. How does that old saw go? "Real stories about real people"?

Of course, Sir Alfred Hitchcock was too savvy a filmmaker to give himself over to those clichés — at least, not without a fight. As befitting a director who delighted in keeping audiences off balance and on edge, Hitch always walked the tightrope when it came to plugging into political fears or character perversities. His cinema was the throb of 20th-century paranoia and anxiety, minus the real-world specificity and gory psychological underpinnings. Plot would be breezily disregarded as anything but a device to motivate his setpieces (see "MacGuffin"). Likewise, although he was a romantic through and through (for proof, see Vertigo or Notorious), he was less interested in intimacy or drama than he was in manuevering his characters like chess pieces, delighting in Freudian squirm rather than Chekhovian revelation. Watch some of his great love scenes (the Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman clinch in Notorious, or James Stewart's disoriented embrace of Kim Novak in Vertigo), which are filmed and edited more like murder scenes. Or as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint put it bluntly during their tryst in North by Northwest:

Eva Marie Saint: Maybe you're planning to murder me, right here, tonight.
Cary Grant: Shall I?
Eva Marie Saint: Please do.

Nowhere is that edge between Hitch's stylized, individual perspective and standard thriller conventions keener than it is in Foreign Correspondent, a film that itself was made on the precipice of history. As fate would have it, London was bombed by the Nazis within a week of the film's premiere (the story ends, prophetically enough, with a radio broadcast during an air raid), and the film skyrocketed to success and numerous Oscar nominations — quite an achievement for a director who shied away from "topical" stories. The rough outline reads like vintage Master of Suspense, but with a plot "ripped from today's headlines": Quick-witted but naive city reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is recruited to serve as the New York Globe's foreign correspondent, and wrangle the scoop from diplomat Van Meer (Albert Basserman), who is said to hold the key to the imminent war in Europe. All goes awry when Van Meer is apparently assassinated, and Jones must get to the bottom of the affair even as he makes goo-goo eyes with Carol Fisher (Laraine Day), the daughter of a genial peace organization leader (Herbert Marshall) who may be hoarding a conspiracy or two.

As you would expect from a Hitchcock picture, there are setpieces galore, and Foreign Correspondent contains some of the most dazzling showstoppers in the master's ouevre. There's the assassination sequence in the rain, simultaneously paying homage to Eisenstein's "Odessa steps" passage in The Battleship Potemkin and one-upping it with the image of clustered umbrellas jostling with alarm as the murderer escapes under their cover. There's the wordless, eerie episode in which Jones infiltrates an enemy hideout in a windmill, the suspense drawn out through masterful camera angles as he uses every available space in the cramped surroundings to hide. There's the interrogation/torture scene in which Van Meer sees his tormentors as a rogue's gallery clustered behind the oversize presence of a sun-bright lamp. And finally, there is the plane crash at the movie's climax, in which the ocean waters smash through the cockpit and into our laps (even today, it's a startling effect).

The scale of these moments is bigger than anything Hitchcock had previously attempted, and foreshadow the bold chases and predicaments that would characterize his later American productions, particularly North by Northwest. Likewise, its earnest patriotism (i.e., the speech quoted at the top of this essay) is pure Apple Pie. On the other hand, the film is also a tonal tip of the hat (or bowler hat, in this movie's case) to England, where most of the action is filmed. It's worth remembering that Hitch tackled this project after the "prestige" production Rebecca (1940), his first Hollywood picture. While it garnered nearly every Academy award of note, Rebecca was not a happy experience for Hitchcock, who basically had control of the film wrested from him by producer and Tinseltown überlord David O. Selznick. Foreign Correspondent, on the other hand, offered the master a chance to revisit his happy hunting grounds of spies, skulduggery, and suspense. Thus we're treated to a fascinating dichotomy: in many ways the film harkens back to the witty, almost whimsical joviality of his early English films, in which heroes are always in mortal peril, but never truly at risk. In effect, the momentousness of the film's events (we are talking about World War II, after all) is undercut as our hero breezes through his adventure, sneaking around hotel rooms clad in a bathrobe, trading banter with the fiery Carol, even escaping the clutches of an comically ineffective assassin (the indispensible Edmund Gwenn) with little difficulty. In this sense, flyweight Joel McCrea is perfectly suited to his character — we don't buy him for a moment as a heavy-duty protagonist, but we can accept him as the fast-talking innocent who doesn't necessarily get it but gets the girl anyway. (Hitchcock wanted Gary Cooper for the role — one wonders how the lanky, somber Cooper would have actually fared.)

In keeping with this playful vein, forged identities, mistaken identities, and doppelgängers abound. Jones adopts the pseudonym Huntley Haverstock — a name as "stiff Brit" as one can get — as well as a bowler hat, but in a running gag, he continually misplaces the latter. There are two Van Meers, if one counts the imposter. The British aircraft our heroes ride is mistaken for a bomber, and summarily blasted from the sky. In this topsy-turvy world, the respected leader of a peace organization is the one in cahoots with the devil (it's indicative that we never find out out who the bad guys truly are, or where they're from). But in Hitchcock's universe, relations and allegiances continuously shift. Herbert Marshall's Fisher is the nominal heavy, but his concern for his daughter's well-being elicits our sympathies. On the other hand, what to make of English newspaperman Scott ffolliott (the ever-urbane George Sanders), who drops into the plot unannounced? One moment he's a committed good guy looking to expose the evildoers' schemes; the next he is blackmailing poor Fisher by threatening duress against his daughter. In contrast to the us-against-them rhetoric of films of that period, this is unusual stuff.

Foreign Correspondent isn't the tightest of movies, no surprise given the exigencies of filming in that period, and the fact that over a dozen screenwriters labored over it. This is especially apparent in the film's mid-section, where Sanders enters the mix. Ironic and purring, he all but steals the movie away from McCrea, whose love story with Day bogs things down while Sanders schemes and extorts and kick-starts the action. It is almost as if Hitchcock is saying, This American is a jolly fine lad, but truth be told, I prefer the Englishman. Nevertheless, if one sets aside the flag-waving finale, the emotional capper of Foreign Correspondent may well be the moment in which American and Brit work together: Jones and ffolliott, rescued from the sea by a "neutral" U.S. war vessel, are forbidden by the American captain to reveal what has transpired. But the ever-intrepid Jones bellows the scoop to his editor (posing as an uncle on the phone), right under the captain's nose, as ffolliott nonchalantly feeds him lines and innocent questions. Their cheeky interplay crunches the film's narrative into a breathless one-minute news headline (and says a thing or two about allied cooperation). The intersection between his precocious early classics and his more deeply felt masterworks, Foreign Correspondent stands as Hitchcock's genial salute to his pet themes, and it pulls off the remarkable trick of turning World War II into a MacGuffin — that might not sit well with today's irony-free audiences (or at least irony-free when it comes to wars), but it certainly didn't bother the allies back then, or even Harry Hopkins in the White House, who sent a telegram to the director praising Jones' final speech. Welcome to America, Hitch.