“Hang on to your lights”

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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Foreign Correspondent (1940) was Alfred Hitchcock’s second american film after Rebecca, which usually garners all the critical praise. It starred Joel McCrea and Laraine Day and their love story is one of the things that does not work in the movie. One has to wonder if the film would have been more effective, had Hitchcock managed to cast the actors he originally wanted for the parts: Gary Cooper and Joan Fontaine. Foreign Correspondent has some memorable second parts (a terrific Robert Benchley), and is overall quite funny, in the vein of The Lady Vanishes (1938), the director’s superior spy thriller.

But Foreign Correspondent is unjustly overlooked. It has several of Hitchcock’s truly masterful touches, that mark the film as a precursor to several others, from Vertigo (there are at least two scenes involving vertiginous sights, and even someone falling to his death from the Westminster cathedral tower) to North by Northwest (the plane circling the sky, waiting for the sign to land in the plains of Holland). It even foreshadows films like Strangers on a Train, or Kim Novak as a body double in Vertigo, with the curious use of George Sanders (the oddly, but hilariously named ffolliott) as a sort of an alternative protagonist, taking over from Joel McCrea at a crucial point in the movie. McCrea’s character (Johnny Jones, posing as Huntley Haverstock) protests his narrative marginalization, drawing attention to Hitchcock’s early fascination with double identities, split personalities, polar opposites etc. Interestingly enough, the whole plot rests on the murder of a doppelgänger/impostor in the place of the abducted Dutch diplomat Van Meer, in possession of the mysterious clause 27. In true Hitchcock fashion, the MacGuffin is never actually revealed, since the director cuts away from the torture-obtained confession of the diplomat.

The film was mostly shot in Los Angeles, Long Beach and the Samuel Goldwyn Studios, using elaborate set pieces, although there was a second filming unit on location in Europe. The most memorable scenes include the assassination on the steps of the Amsterdam town hall, where the assassin escapes unseen under a see of umbrellas, occasionally bobbing to reveal action underneath; the exquisite windmill sequence, where Hitchcock shows an almost painterly eye for texture, light and shade and where he demonstrates his superior skills in building suspense: the scene of Joel McCrea’s trenchcoat getting caught between the turning wheels, with the superb shot of his hand just before he manages to extricate himself. There is also the splendid, dramatically lit, angular shot of the group of criminals and torturers listening to Van Meer’s ominous condemnation of war, while the latter remains off-screen.

The most famous sequence of the film though is that of the plane crash in the ocean – and rightly so. Even by modern standards, it is simply spectacular. The realistic effect of the plane diving into the ocean, the waters rushing in and overwhelming the passengers, and the final part with the survivors stranded on the wing, struggling not to sink, just like the shipwrecked on the Medusa raft, is unforgettable.

The movie is also important for its propagandistic content. I am always intrigued by these early Second World War films. This one is notable for its effort to navigate between effective war propaganda and US military neutrality, never naming the country of origin of Stephen Fisher, the leader of the ring of spies (although he’s very clearly German). His depiction in the movie is interesting for its ambivalence. Although he is the villain, he is portrayed as a tender and caring father, who sacrifices in the end, heroically, to ensure his daughter’s happiness. The movie even acknowledges his motives, as if fighting for his country was his only alternative for which he could not really be blamed. It is chilling to think how the war progressed afterwards and how it was impossible in 1940 to imagine the subsequent cruelties of Nazi Germany.

Hitler himself is only mentioned once, early in the movie, in a humorous remark by Joel McCrea. When asking whom he should interview while in Europe, in order to find out more about the impending war, he jokes: “Well how about Hitler? Don’t you think it would be a good idea to pump him? He must have something on his mind”. The film ends on a strong note, a speech broadcast on the radio from London during a bombing raid. The speech was written by Ben Hecht, after Hitchcock returned from London in July 1940 and the film opened in August, sixteen months before America entered the war in December 1941. McCrea warns his listeners that death is coming to London and urges the citizens of the United States: “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!”.

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