' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Throughout Alfred Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent” I kept flashing back to the wise words of the mysterious Mr. X (Donald Sutherland) in Oliver Stone’s “JFK” when he said “That's the real question isn't it: why? The how and the who is just scenery for the public.” He was talking, of course, about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but he might as well have been talking about what the Master of Suspense was trying to do 51 years earlier in 1940 while Mother England fought to keep the Nazis at bay and America sat at the bar of neutrality having highballs.


Hitchcock made the famous the MacGuffin – that is, the object keeping the plot in motion despite possessing no fundamental importance. Like, say, the uranium being kept in the cellar of Sebastian in “Notorious.” And while one might argue the secret clause in an Allied Treaty that the obligatory bad guys are attempting to obtain is the MacGuffin of “Foreign Correspondent”, this is to miss the film’s overall point. The secret clause is merely a mini-MacGuffin and the real MacGuffin is the plot itself.

Hitchcock yearned to make a statement about America entering WWII but Hitchcock wasn’t interested in booming bells and whistles. He preferred to play the audience like a piano – and so he did, employing the memoir of Vincent Sheean as his songbook. He crafts a twisty story and tells it at a galloping pace, following a disinterested American reporter, clearly meant as a stand-in for the prevailing winds of isolationism in America at the time, named Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) but re-christened by his editor (Harry Davenport) as the more mellifluous Huntley Haverstock. He is dispatched across the Atlantic to gather news on the simmering second great war. 

There, Haverstock meets Carol Fisher (Laraine Day), the daughter of Stephen (Herbert Marshall), the man in charge of the Universal Peace Party, which has only gallant intentions. Until, of course, it doesn’t, because it turns out that Stephen is a dastardly traitor and the Universal Peace Party is pro-war and a front for an international spy ring. This means that when Haverstock falls in love with Carol and she with him, as they must, their love affair hits critical mass. Does Carol stand by her father? Can Haverstock take down the father of the woman he loves?


This relationship is theoretically the film’s weak point, one that generates nominal sparks and only exists in terms of increasing screenwriting “stakes”. Of course, that’s not really a problem, because emotional authenticity is beside the point. He’s like Conrad Brean, putting us through the paces, obfuscating the “why?” by focusing on the “who” and the “how”. But whereas in “Wag the Dog” Brean was using a phony war as a distraction from what was really going on, Hitchcock uses plot to distract us from the war taking shape off screen. When England finally declares war in “Foreign Correspondent”, you will remember it happening but you won’t necessarily remember thinking “put powder in the muskets and sharpen the bayonets!” The war doesn’t truly become tangible until a German boat shoots an American-bound jet bearing all our principal characters out of the sky, downing it in the ocean. And in that moment, the director finally reveals his hand.

Context is everything in propaganda and the notion of war in “Foreign Correspondent” is seen entirely through a personal context. Yes, sure, Hitler and his Nazi thugs were the personification of evil and in need of eradication, but the words “Hitler” and “Nazis” are never employed in the film. The argument for war is never placed into a global context. All we have to go on is what our protagonist has to go on, and all our protagonist has to go on is love and personal vendetta. And, by the end, Johnny Jones has truly been re-made into Huntley Haverstock, standing in the midst of the blitzkrieg as bombs fall and the Star Spangled Banner plays, speechifying. It's the first time all movie war has truly been mongered. "Keep those lights burning!" he implores America. "Cover them with steel! Ring them with guns! Build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them!"

It's like Uncle Sam is a velociraptor. One second you're looking him in the eyes on the recruiting poster, the next he's already grabbed and hooked you and signed you up. Beat to quarters! War! WE’RE GOING TO WAR! ... Wait, what happened?

Too bad Obama doesn’t have Hitch on staff.

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