Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Foreign Correspondent

With the exception of Powell and Pressburger's unparalleled run of wartime classics, most propaganda films are blunt and tiresome. For example Jacques Tourneur's 'Days of Glory', wherein the entire script is a cut-and-paste sloganeering job with all the grim humourlessness and sledgehammer-like heavy-handedness of a Soviet newsreel expanded to feature length.

Fortunately, Powell's fellow countryman Alfred Hitchcock (in one of his early American productions) weighed in with one of the better examples. 'Foreign Correspondent' opens in playful fashion - quirky humour being a mainstay of Hitch's style - with newspaper boss Mr Powers (Harry Davenport) bemoaning the lackadaisical efforts of his London correspondent Stebbins (Robert Benchley). Determining to set loose a more traditional, not to mention unorthodox, newshound-stylee journo onto the European scene, he gives crime reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) a boat ticket and a per diem and sends him abroad. He also convinces him to adopt the more debonair sounding nom de plume Huntley Haverstock.

Thus the (mostly comedic) first act: Jones/Haverstock fails to make a big impression on the European scene (there's a tiresome-after-it's-happened-twice running gag about him losing his bowler hat); banters with Stebbins, a man so resignedly gloomy he makes Eeyore look exuberant; wangles an ad hoc interview with respected peace campaigner Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), only for the old man to spout definitely-not-front-page-worthy platitudes about feeding the birds in the park; and enters into a spiky courtship with Carol Fisher (Laraine Day), whose father Stephen (Herbert Marshall) is a colleague of Van Meer's. Only the introduction of the incomparably smooth George Sanders as Carol's sometime companion Scott ffolliott ("How does that work?" Haverstock asks of the iconoclastic spelling; "do you pronounce it like a stutter or just a f?") staves off inertia.

Then, twenty minutes in, Hitch delivers the first of several inspired set-pieces: an assassination on the steps of a government building, rain bucketing down, a bravura overhead shot melding the journos and politicos and just plain bystanders into an identity-disguising crowd of identical black umbrellas through which the killer escapes. Inspired set-piece #2 sees Haverstock and ffoillott give chase, Hitch zipping his audience from crowded, rain-drenched city streets to the flatlands of the Dutch countryside within the blink of an eye. With only the briefest pause for breath (and for Haverstock to realise that the sails of a nearby windmill are turning against the wind), we're into inspired set-piece #3.

Ah, the windmill sequence. Fifteen minutes that showcase the best of Hitchcock: suspense, mystery, MacGuffins, dark humour and curveball narrative developments - sleight of hand film-making that still impresses nearly seventy years down the line.

Hitch has a few more goodies in store for the rest of the film - Haverstock's hotel rooftop escape from two heavies; another attempt on his life, this time atop a cathedral; ffolliott playing a tense game of bluff with a double agent; and a sustained sequence involving a flying boat, an enemy destroyer and a perilous descent into dangerous waters - but it's the business in the windmill that makes 'Foreign Correspondent' more than just a good espionage thriller; that lifes it above the tub-thumping exigencies of a mere propaganda film.

Having said that, the propagandist elements are certainly immediate. Made in 1940, it captures the tense days leading up to Britain's declaration on war against Hitler's Germany just a year earlier. Its MacGuffin, whilst one of the most tenuous in the career of a director who specialised in tenuous MacGuffins, is the unwritten clause in a peace treaty, committed to memory by Van Meer. While the exact nature of this clause is never made clear, the very idea of Nazi forces striking against even the possibility of peace is a powerful propagandist concept. As is Haverstock's concluding monologue. Remaining in London at the end of the film, even though the capital is ravaged by bomber raids, he makes a live radio broadcast to America, sending out this appeal even as the air-raid sirens wail and the bombs begin to fall:

Haverstock: Hello, America. I've been watching a part of the world being blown to pieces. A part of the world as nice as Vermont and Ohio and Virginia and California and Illinois lies ripped up and bleeding like a steer in a slaughterhouse. I've seen things that make the history of the savages read like Pollyanna legends. I've seen women -
Radio producer: It's a raid; we shall have to postpone the broadcast.
Haverstock: Postpone nothing! Let's go on as long as we can ... I can't read the rest of the speech I had because the lights have gone out, so I'll just have to talk off the cuff. All that noise you hear isn't static. It's death - coming to London. Yes, they're coming here now. You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes. Don't tune me out. Hang on a while. This is a big story and you're part of it. It's too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come, as if the lights were all out everywhere - except in America. Keep those lights burning. Cover them with steel, ring them with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them. Hello, America. Hang on to your lights: they're the only lights left in the world.

Subtle? Hardly.

Effective? Hell, yes!

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