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The Washington Post (23/Jul/1993) - Hitchcock's Hidden Wartime Tales



Hitchcock's Hidden Wartime Tales

In terms of successful wartime agitprop, Alfred Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent" filled the bill far better than "Bon Voyage" and "Aventure Malgache," a pair of recently rediscovered shorts he made at the behest of the British Ministry of Information. Shot in quick succession in the winter of 1944, the mini-movies — both espionage thrillers — were soon shelved by the British flacks, who were particularly unhappy with the cynical thrust of "Aventure Malgache."

Hitchcock, reluctantly lent back to the Brits by David O. Selznick, left Hollywood for London to start work on "Bon Voyage" late in 1943. Though initially the idea was to whip up anti-Nazi sentiment in the Colonies, the bilingual Hitchcock was asked to devise a French-language tribute to the ingenuity and valor of the Resistance. Foreign-language films not being a favorite with the masses of American movie-goers, the shorts are only now receiving their U.S. premiere.

"Bon Voyage," the more polished of the two yarns, was designed with "Foreign Correspondent" and "Saboteur" in mind, but it turned into "The Man Who Knew Too Little." Based on a story by anti-Fascist Arthur Calder-Marshall, the screenplay by Angus McPhail and J.O.C. Orton chronicles a callow Scottish airman's (John Blythe) escape from occupied France with help from the underground.

The story begins in London, where the garrulous young Blythe proudly describes his exploits via flashback to a pair of suspicious intelligence officers. He gives particular credit to a fellow POW, a Pole who helped him hook up with the Resistance, and to Jeanne, an earnest young Frenchwoman who smuggled him out of the country.

Both a thriller and a cautionary tale, "Bon Voyage" includes a second, compressed telling of the events from the Polish accomplice's point of view. Hitchcock's fingerprints are all over this segment of the story, which reveals the skulduggery under the surface.

While "Bon Voyage" had a limited release in France, "Aventure Malgache" never saw the light of day. Indeed, the subtext — the conflicts that divided the Free French — was hardly one to inspire the troops. Never mind that it's also muddied and overstructured. Hitchcock, who wrote the script with Resistance filter Claude Dauphin, also begins this story in the present before flashing back to the heroic past

Based on the real-life experiences of a lawyer-actor, Clarousse. the film focuses on his rivalry with Jean Michel, a corrupt police officer in Madagascar who turns petty Vichy bureaucrat when the island is occupied. Clarousse. who runs an underground railroad for Malagasy freedom fighters, is tried and sentenced to prison but carries on.

"Aventure Malgache" has its wry moments — as when Jean Michel replaces his bottle of Vichy water with a more politically correct brand before the British navy liberates the island — but it is also guilty of heavy-handed jingoism. When the British come ashore, they are not conquerors but confreres. The first thing they do is raise the French flag. It would have come as no surprise if they'd been wearing berets.

As propaganda goes, both films are beautifully composed and dramatically lighted by expatriate cinematographer Guenther Krampf. That both are wonderfully murky examples of the expressionistic style that both Krampf and Hitchcock, then an art director, absorbed at Germany's UFA studios seems die ultimate irony. The men who knew too much, indeed.