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Variety (1940) - Film Reviews: Foreign Correspondent


  • book review: Film Reviews: Foreign Correspondent
  • author(s): Herb
  • journal: Variety (28/Aug/1940)
  • issue: volume 139, issue 12, page 3
  • journal ISSN: 0042-2738
  • publisher: Penske Business Media
  • keywords: Foreign Correspondent (1940)


Foreign Correspondent

United Artists release of Walter Wanger production. Stars Joel McCrea; features Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders, Albert Basserman, Robert Benchley. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Original screenplay by Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison; additional dialog by James Hilton and Robert Benchley; camera, Rudy Mate; special photography, Ray Binger; editor, Dorothy Spencer. Previewed Aug. 21, 1940, in the Projection Room, N. Y. Running time: 119 MINS.

Virtually every minute of the 119 the picture runs is of the type of breath-taking, suspenseful spine-quiver that director Alfred Hitchcock has so successfully learned to make pay off at the box office. As for spectacle, there's plenty of it in 'Foreign Correspondent,' with a political assassination that no European revolutionary could plan better and a crash of a trans-Atlantic clipper plane which has seldom been equaled for screen terror.

Picture might well qualify as one of the best of the year to date were the plot not quite so heavy on the artificial.side. It's not the kind of phoniness apparent to much of a film audience — there's far too much suspense and action for that — but there are a few too many points that won't hold liquid for a cooler-headed jury of critics unless they, too, are captivated by the Hitchcock brand of nerve-tingling.

'Foreign Correspondent' started out as a filmization of Vincent Sheean's autobiography, 'Personal History.' World-shaking events since those which Sheean participated in and related necessitated rewriting and revamping. Finally there was nothing left of 'Personal History.' An excellent original story by Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison had evolved in its place. So producer Walter Wanger quietly shelved the Sheean best-seller to picturize it in its original form at some later date. 'Foreign Correspondent' is one of the few pictures in which such extensive tinkering on the script has turned out successfully. Wanger has still further built it up by adding dialog from the humanitarian typewriter of James Hilton and the sophisticated one of Robert Benchley.

Story is essentially the old cops-and-robbers. But it has been set in a background of international political intrigue of the largest order, the kind of thing that must be foremost in the mind of every person who reads today's papers or listens to the radio. It has a war flavor, the events taking place immediately before and at the start of the present conflict abroad; yet it can in no sense be called a war picture. Mystery and intrigue march in place of the soldiers who have made recent war films virtually box office poison.

Suspenseful and highly exciting plot has been placed in a William Cameron Menzies production that lends authenticity and dignity to the story. The sets are equal in their size and scope to the extent of the international spy story being unfolded.

Add to all this a cast carefully' selected by Hitchcock to the last, unimportant lackey and it is evident why the film can't miss. Joel McCrea neatly blends the self-confidence and naivete of the reporter-hero. while Laraine Day, virtually a fledgling in pictures, only in the most difficult sequences misses out as a top-grade dramatic player. Vet Herbert Marshall as the heavy, George Sanders as McCrea's fellow-reporter, 72-year-old refugee Albert Easserman as a Dutch diplomat, Edmund Gwenn as a not-to-be-trusted bodyguard. Eduardo Ciannelli as the usual hissable villain, are all tops. Comic touch is provided by Robert Benchley and Eddie Conrad. Benchley is a foreign correspondent who, for 25 years, has been rewriting government handouts in the morning and drinking in the afternoon, until he has one of the finest cases of the jitters ever recorded by the camera. His droll appearance earns a laugh before he says a word. Conrad is a woozy-haired Latvian diplomat who doesn't speak English, but understands other things.

Story uncorks with the editor of New York paper going nuts because his foreign correspondents cable nothing but rumor and speculation. He hits on the idea of sending one of his police reporters ('this is nothing but a big crime, anyway') to dig factual material out of the Europe of August, 1939. McCrea, who knows nothing of foreign affairs (but thinks Hitler 'would be a good guy to pump'), of course is the boy.

He immediately runs into the tallest story a reporter can imagine — a big-league peace organization, headed by Marshall, which is operating as nothing but a spy ring and thinks no method too ruthless to use on diplomats sincerely against war. McCrea runs into the double-cross organization when it kidnaps an honest Dutch diplomat (Basserman) and assassinates his imposter to give the impression that he is dead. Assassination sequence in the rain on the broad steps of an Amsterdam building (set is a tremendous and excellent recreation of a whole block in Amsterdam) is virtually a newsreel in its starkness.

McCrea, aided by Sanders, gets on to the whole organization, but it is so fantastic no one will believe him. So it becomes necessary to get to the root of it to have a story his paper will publish. In figuring it out he runs into Miss Day, who plays Marshall's daughter and is sincere in her efforts for peace. She doesn't know her father is not only a phony, but a spy.

Film is full of Hitchcock's obvious twists to heighten drama and suspense, but they nevertheless serve well. One is an ominous Great Dane which sulks through the film with nothing to do but scare the audience.

Story doesn't mention until the very end, and then but once, the nationality of the enemies. It is hardly necessary to clarify, however, the Nazi implications.