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FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (director: Alfred Hitchcock; screenwriters: Charles Bennett/Joan Harrison/Ben Hecht/dialogue by James Hilton & Robert Benchley/based on the memoir Personal History by Vincent Sheean; cinematographer: Rudolph Maté; editor: Dorothy Spencer; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Joel McCrea (Johnny Jones/ Huntley Haverstock), Laraine Day (Carol Fisher), Herbert Marshall (Stephen Fisher), George Sanders (Scott ffolliott), Albert Bassermann (Van Meer), Robert Benchley (Stebbins, tipsy London newsman), Edmund Gwenn (Rowley), Eduardo Ciannelli (Mr. Krug), Harry Davenport (Mr. Powers), Edward Conrad (Latvian); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Walter Wanger; Warner Home Video; 1940)
“highly entertaining with many great set pieces.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Alfred Hitchcock’s propaganda spy thriller was his second American film. Originally, it was based on Vincent Sheean’s best-selling autobiographical memoir Personal History, but screenwriters Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison crafted a much different story and screenplay (very little remains of the original). Novelist James Hilton and Robert Benchley and some 14 other uncredited scriptwriters played a part in writing the new screenplay. It was highly entertaining with many great set pieces, showing a good ear for comedy, and though not one of H’s best films it still has some unforgettable scenes such as a mysterious Dutch windmill used as a Nazi hideout, a blood-curdling assassination attempt on the observation deck in Westminster Chapel and a trans-Atlantic clipper plane bound for the States that crashes in the sea after shot down by a Nazi destroyer (shot in the studio). It concludes with an urgent radio speech by the heroic character played by Joel McCrea telling of the necessity of freedom loving America to join the war effort as London is being bombed by the Nazis (it was filmed shortly after the London blitz).

In 1939, brash American crime reporter Johnny Jones is given the formal pseudonym of Huntley Haverstock (Joel McCrea) and sent by his publisher Powers (Harry Davenport) at the Globe to London to be a foreign correspondent. Jones is chosen because he doesn’t follow politics but has a nose for getting a story, something Powers is not satisfied with from his experienced foreign correspondents as he exclaims: “What Europe needs is a fresh unused mind.” Powers assigns Haverstock to get the scoop on Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), someone who has signed a secret peace pact with Belgium. The publisher wants Haverstock to find out what’s in the treaty, how Van Meer thinks England will react and if he thinks war is inevitable. Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) is the head of an international peace group that Van Meer is in accord with. His pretty daughter Carol (Laraine Day) also is a key member of that well-meaning amateur peace group, who is chased after by the love stricken Haverstock. In Amsterdam Van Meer is shot by a fake photographer in the rain on the steps of the Amsterdam Town Hall and escapes into a crowd of umbrellas as he’s chased from the crime scene to a farm area of windmills by Haverstock, who commandeers the car driven by Brit secret agent posing as a reporter, Scott ffolliott (George Sanders), and his passenger Carol. While the others get the police, Haverstock snoops around a windmill that suspiciously had its sails blowing in the opposite direction of the wind. There he finds a group of spies, the assassin and a very much alive Van Meer, as the one killed was a substitute. The real Van Meer has been kidnapped, held hostage, and tortured by the spy head Krug (Eduardo Ciannelli) to get information about a clause in the treaty that the Nazis consider vital to help their cause. Before the Dutch police arrive, the spies escape with their hostage. Haverstock returns to London.

Back in Fisher’s house, Haverstock warns the peace activist that Van Meer is alive. It’s then that we learn that Fisher is using the peace organization as a front for a Nazi spy-ring, as he confers with Krug in the other room. Fisher convinces Haverstock to hold off the story for a few hours on the pretext that Van Meer can be kept alive and secretly hires a jovial assassin named Rowley (Edmund Gwenn) to pose as a private detective to protect Haverstock. After failing to kill the reporter when he pushes him in front of a speeding lorry, Rowley fails in another attempt at pushing his target off of the Westminster Chapel observation deck. This leads Haverstock to know Fisher is involved with the spies, but leaves him in a quandary as he’s hopelessly in love with Carol and risks losing her by pursuing her father. Scott partners with the American reporter and they devise a way to trap Fisher and get his daughter out of harm’s way. It ends with a plane crash and Haverstock returning to a London blitz.

Even the usually leaden Marshall seems a bit more lively than usual in his supporting role. The supporting characterssuch as the hiss-able villain Ciannelli and the devious Gwenn carry this film, as the leads McCrea and Day as innocent lovers are acceptable but too vanilla to make much of an impact. The war surroundings bring more to the table than the story’s basic cops-and-robbers tale, as an earnest H. makes his war effort pitch for the Americans to help (and who could blame him after the London blitzkrieg!).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”