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American Cinematographer (1995) - Foreign Correspondent: The Best Spy Thriller of All




Alfred Hitchcock tackles wartime espionage, with typically stylish results.

To those intrepid ones who went across the sea to be the eyes and ears of America ... to those forthright ones who early saw the clouds of war while many of us at home were seeing rainbows ... to those clear‑headed ones who now stand like recording angels among the dead and dying ... to the Foreign Correspondents ‑ this motion picture is dedicated.

On August 16, 1940, United Artists launched Foreign Correspondent with this on‑screen foreword. The German military machine under Adolph Hitler's insane leadership had taken over Austria and part of Czechoslovakia, had invaded Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, had attacked Denmark and Norway, and had conquered France. Hitler's strutting junior partner, Mussolini, had dragged a reluctant Italy into the conflict. Great Britain had been at war with Germany and Italy for almost a year and its cities were being devastated by Luftwaffe bombers. While Foreign Correspondent was nearing completion, Italy was invading British Somaliland. Soon Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Finland joined the "Axis."

The assassin (Charles Wagenheim), Johnny (Joel McCrea) and the impostor Van Meer (Samuel Adams), captured the instant before a fatal bullet is fired from the Speed Graphic gun.

World War II was spreading and soon would engulf the world.

Foreign Correspondent had arrived at a time when the hemisphere was rightly regarded as a powder keg, Britain and much of Europe were "taking it" and the United States was trying to maintain a policy of neutrality.

The picture has its roots in the biographical work "Personal History," by a well‑known foreign correspondent, Vincent Sheean. Walter Wanger, a former Paramount producer who had become a producing member of United Artists in 1936, held the screen rights to Sheean's book and hired Lewis Milestone, the Oscar‑winning director of AU Quiet on the Western Front, to adapt it. Milestone failed to produce a workable script and was transferred to other projects. In 1938, writer John Howard Lawson and director William Dieterle put Personal History into preproduction. Some of the sets had already been built when the Bank of America informed Wanger that if he made the overtly anti‑German picture they would no longer finance any of his productions.

The famous chase through the sea of umbrellas. Stuntman Ted Mapes stands in for Joel McCrea in tan coat at far right.

Politically correct or no, Wanger was determined to produce Personal History and had one well‑paid writer after another quietly working on it. In mid‑1939, the headline‑conscious Warner Bros. released their nakedly anti‑German Confessions of a Nazi Spy, which they advertised as "the first picture to call a spade a spade....

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The writer is much obliged to Laraine Day, Robert Boyle and to Barbara Hall and Sam Gill of the Society of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for vital information.