If we view Foreign Correspondent as the master of suspense’s first American film “in a sense” (as James Naremore puts it in his Criterion essay), then Foreign Correspondent can be seen as mapping Hitchcock’s own trans-Atlantic trek, forming a bridge between his British intrigue and his Hollywood spectacle. And now is as good a time as any to resurrect Foreign Correspondent’s worthy status as a Hitchcock classic.
The film follows NYC-based career-driven but apolitical young reporter John Jones (Joel McCrea) as he traverses from London to Amsterdam and back again to cover Europe’s immanent transition to all-out war. Jones, working under the less hyperbolically American pseudonym Huntley Haverstock, quickly becomes part of the story as he uncovers a conspiracy to gain secrets from a grandfatherly Dutch diplomat, led in part by the father of the British woman Haverstock/Jones has fallen in love with.
The scenario should ring familiar to any Hitchcock fan, with its Nazi conspiracy making it an antecedent to Notorious and a MacGuffin-centered globe-trotting adventure plot worthy of any Cary Grant role. It’s easy to see why producer Walter Wagner thought the director of The 39 Steps would befit such an intriguing mystery.
But Foreign Correspondent’s uncanny, seemingly predictive Hitchcock moments hardly stop with its basic framework. The film includes an incident involving a character falling from a tall cathedral that evokes Vertigo. Jones at one point hangs desperately from a windmill outside Amsterdam, complete with an overhead shot, as Robert Cumming would off the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur and Cary Grant with Eva Marie Saint off Mt. Rushmore in North by Northwest. The film’s incredible climax, depicting in detail a disastrous plane crash with some truly impressive Classical Hollywood-era practical effects, leads to our cast of characters being desperately stranded on the ocean, which reportedly allowed Hitchcock to realize the potential to make a film as difficult as Lifeboat only four years later. There’s even a moment where Joel McCrea says aloud that he’s being chased because he “knows too much,” a statement seemingly tethering Hitchcock’s British and American careers.