Alfred Hitchcock had a rare distinction in 1940, when two of his films, Foreign Correspondent and Rebecca, were both nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. The better of the two, Rebecca, won of course, but this humorous, entertaining wartime potboiler definitely has its charms.
Hitchcock’s second American film begins on the eve of the German invasion of Poland in 1939, with Powers (Harry Davenport), publisher of the New York Globe, upset with the lack of hard news coming from his foreign correspondents. On a flash of inspiration, he assigns a pugnacious crime beat reporter named Johnny Jones (Joel McCrae) to cover a pro-peace luncheon in London featuring a Dutch diplomat named Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), supposedly one of the last men with the power to avert the coming war. Since Jones has zero experience with European affairs, “a fresh, unused brain,” as he puts it, Powers gives him two things. One is an introduction to Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), leader of the pro-peace movement in Europe and the second is a more distinguished-sounding byline, Huntley Haverstock.
Jones arrives in London and manages to share a cab with Van Meer on the way to the conference. The diplomat dodges his persistent questions, then appears to ditch Jones completely. At the luncheon, Jones meets and flirts aggressively with whom he thinks is the publicity girl. It turns out that she is Stephen Fisher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day). Jones is also shocked to discover that Van Meer supposedly never showed up for the luncheon, despite Jones having shared a cab with him on the way over.
Still determined to get some hard answers, Jones flies on to Holland for a peace conference where Van Meer is expected to sign a treaty that is hoped will prevent the war. The Dutch diplomat, however, appears not to remember Jones at all, but before Jones can even ask any more questions, Van Meer is shot by an assassin. Along with the police, Jones gives chase with the help of Carol and a fellow correspondent, Scott ffolliott (George Sanders). They pursue the killer’s car but appear to lose him near some windmills. Jones notices that one of the windmills appears to be rotating against the wind. Sending Carol and Scott after the police, he sneaks and discovers Van Meer very much alive. The man killed earlier was an imposter, his murder cover for the kidnapping of the real person.
Jones barely escapes without being discovered by the kidnappers, but when he leads the police back to the windmill, Van Meer and the kidnappers are long gone. They know someone is on to them and Jones narrowly escapes an attempt on his life before returning to England with Carol.
On the voyage back, Carol and Johnny confess that they’re in love with each other and decide to get married. When they visit her father to tell him the news, Johnny is shocked to discover that the man with Fisher is Mr. Krug (Eduardo Ciannelli), one of the men that Johnny saw with Van Meer at the windmill. To Johnny, Fisher expresses shock and disbelief. To Krug, he wants to know why Johnny Jones isn’t dead.
As you might have guessed from that description, Foreign Correspondent is long on plot. I think I only covered the first hour of the movie. The plot itself is a classic example of what Hitchcock termed the “MacGuffin,” any thing or other plot device that is the object of the characters’ quest, but never needs to be fully explained to audience. In this case, the kidnapping of Van Meer concerns a provision of this treaty that the good guys are in favor of and that the bad guys oppose. What that provision would be, no one ever says. Unfortunately, I think would have been better for the audience to know more than it does, since without knowing what the treaty provision is, we can’t know why the characters are either for or against it and their motivations become a bit muddled.
Fortunately, the strength of Foreign Correspondent lies in its witty, fast-paced dialogue. Credit goes in part to co-writer and co-star Robert Benchley (grandfather to Jaws author Peter Benchley and one of the regulars at the Algonquin Round Table). The film also features some signature Hitchcock action setpieces like the windmill scene, the assassination on the steps and the crash of the Clipper flying boat. After the dark, moody Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent is a pleasant diversion, a light and exciting wartime thriller.
Sure, it ends on a note of patriotic posturing that’s about as subtle as a kick to the solar plexus, but hey, this is World War II we’re talking about.