Learning From Icons: Hitchcock Tricks in “Foreign Correspondent”

Foreign Correspondent (a.k.a. Imposter and Personal History) is a 1940 American spy thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It tells the story of an American reporter who tries to expose enemy spies in Britain who are involved in a fictional continent-wide conspiracy in the prelude to World War II. It stars Joel McCrea and features 19-year old Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders, Albert Bassermann, and Robert Benchley, along with Edmund Gwenn.

Foreign Correspondent was Hitchcock’s second Hollywood production after leaving the United Kingdom in 1939 (the first was Rebecca) and had an unusually large number of writers: Robert Benchley, Charles Bennett, Harold Clurman, Joan Harrison, Ben Hecht, James Hilton, John Howard Lawson, John Lee Mahin, Richard Maibaum, and Budd Schulberg, with Bennett, Benchley, Harrison, and Hilton the only writers credited in the finished film. It was based on Vincent Sheean‘s political memoir Personal History (1935), the rights to which were purchased by producer Walter Wanger for $10,000.

The film was one of two Hitchcock films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1941, the other being Rebecca, which went on to win the award. Foreign Correspondent was nominated for six Academy Awards, including one for Albert Bassermann for Best Supporting Actor, but did not win any Academy Awards.

Plot

In mid-August 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, the editor of the New York Globe, Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport), is concerned about the crisis in Europe, the growing power of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, and the inability of celebrated foreign correspondents to get answers about whether war will ensue. After searching for a good, tough crime reporter for a fresh viewpoint, he appoints Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) as a foreign correspondent, under the pen name Huntley Haverstock.

Joel McCrea as “Huntley Haverstock”, foreign correspondent

The reporter’s first assignment is Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), leader of the Universal Peace Party, at an event held by Fisher in honour of a Dutch diplomat named Van Meer (Albert Bassermann). On the way to the party, Haverstock sees Van Meer entering the car that is to take him to the party, and runs to interview him; Van Meer invites him to ride along, but diplomatically evades his questioning. At the party, Haverstock meets Fisher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day). Van Meer disappears mysteriously. Later, Fisher informs the guests that Van Meer, who was supposed to be the guest of honor, will not be attending the party; instead he will be at a political conference in Amsterdam.

At the conference, Van Meer is shot in front of a large crowd by a man disguised as a photographer. Haverstock commandeers a car to follow the assassin‘s getaway car. The car he jumps into happens to have in it Carol and Scott ffolliott (styled lowercase and played by George Sanders), another reporter, who explains that the capital letter in his surname was dropped in memory of an executed ancestor. The group follows the assassin to a windmill in the countryside.

While Carol and ffolliott go for help, Haverstock searches the windmill and finds a live Van Meer; the man who was killed was an impostor substituted to make the world believe Van Meer was killed. The old man has been drugged and is unable to tell Haverstock anything. Haverstock is forced to flee when the kidnappers become aware of him. By the time the police arrive, the villains have escaped with Van Meer in an aircraft.

Later, back at Haverstock’s hotel room, two spies dressed as policemen arrive to kidnap him. When he suspects who they really are, he escapes out the window and into Carol Fisher’s room.

Haverstock and Carol board a British boat to England, and while a furious storm thunders overhead, he proposes marriage to her which she accepts. In England, they go to Carol’s father’s house, where Haverstock sees a man whom he recognizes as one of the men at the windmill. He informs Fisher and Fisher promises that he will send a bodyguard to protect him. The bodyguard, Rowley (Edmund Gwenn), repeatedly tries to kill Haverstock. When the assassin tries to push him off the top of the Westminster Cathedral tower, Haverstock steps aside and Rowley plunges to his death.

George Sanders as “Scott Ffolliott” [sic]

Haverstock and ffolliott are convinced that Fisher is a traitor, so they come up with a plan: Haverstock will take Carol to the countryside, and ffolliott will pretend she has been kidnapped to force Fisher to divulge Van Meer’s location. After a misunderstanding with Haverstock, Carol returns to London. Just as Fisher is about to fall for ffolliott’s bluff, he hears her car pull up.

Fisher heads to a hotel where Van Meer is being held with ffolliott on his tail. Van Meer is being interrogated using sleep deprivation to discover a secret clause in a treaty he signed. Just as he is being forced to divulge the information the organization wants, ffolliott distracts the interrogators. When Haverstock arrives, Fisher and his bodyguards escape, leaving Van Meer behind. Van Meer is rushed to the hospital in a coma.

England and France declare war on Germany. While Haverstock, ffolliott and the Fishers are on a Short S.30 Empire aircraft to America, Fisher confesses his misdeeds to his daughter. Carol believes Haverstock does not really love her but only used her to pursue her father. Haverstock protests that he was just doing his job as a reporter. Seconds later, the aircraft is shelled by a German destroyer and crashes into the ocean. The survivors perch on the floating wing of the downed aircraft. Realizing that it cannot support everyone, Fisher sacrifices himself by allowing himself to drown. Jones and ffolliott attempt to save him, but are unsuccessful. They are rescued by an American ship, the Mohican. The captain refuses to allow the reporters to file their story using the ship’s communications citing American neutrality, but Jones, ffolliott, and Carol surreptitiously communicate the story by radio-telephone to Mr. Powers. Later, back in London and now a successful war correspondent, Haverstock, with Carol at his side, describes London being bombed in a live radio broadcast to the United States, urging Americans to fortify their country and “keep the lights burning” as they go dark in the studio.

Reception

Foreign Correspondent opened on August 16, 1940 in the United States and on October 11 of that year in the United Kingdom. The film, which ends with London being bombed, opened in the United States at the dawn of the Battle of Britain, just three days after the Luftwaffe began bombing British coastal airfields in the early Adlerangriff phase of the Battle of Britain, and a week before Germany actually began bombing London on August 24.[8]

Foreign Correspondent did well at the box office, but its high cost meant it incurred a loss of $369,973.[1] It was generally praised by the critics, although some saw it as a glorified B movie.[4] It also attracted attention from at least one professional propagandist, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who called Foreign Correspondent “a masterpiece of propaganda, a first-class production which no doubt will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of the people in enemy countries.”[9]

Foreign Correspondent has a 93% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[10]