Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Loyalty, Split Three Ways

People tend to forget that Alfred Hitchcock had a flair for spy films long before they were fashionable.

Gems such as Notorious, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Foreign Correspondent are all excellent examples of the genre, especially when set beside today’s over-sexed and gratuitously violent offerings. Unfortunately, each of the above films tends to be lost – or overlooked – among the great auteur’s better known and more psychologically powerful work. Of the aforementioned trio, the final film is perhaps the least recognized and least appreciated today.
Released in 1940, the film has an impeccable sense of time and place, in that it takes audiences in America to the final few days before war between Britain and Germany began. That the 1940 audience would watch the film just after seeing the era’s ubiquitous newsreels – most of which probably had some footage of war-torn London – was probably not lost on someone as cagey as Hitchcock. In other words, not for nothing did certain Mr. Goebbels famously label this film “propaganda.” And knowing so little about that particular genre, who am I to argue with the undisputed master of it?
Regardless of which side’s tale is told more obviously, Foreign Correspondent is at its heart a thriller whose plot likes to toy with its participants and provoke interesting responses from them. In this, we see a preview of the master of psychology that Hitchcock was to become, and a film that begins as a seemingly straightforward whodunit slowly expands into a remarkably suspenseful and unexpectedly honest study of espionage and conflicted loyalty. Along the way, we are treated to a number of delightful set-pieces, each centering on powerful and moody images.
Joel McCrea is not terribly likeable as the American journalist sent to London in 1939 to cover Europe’s decent into war, but his confused performance – sometimes the plot has him behave over-intelligently, while at other times he is boorish and stupid – is bolstered by an excellent supporting cast that includes George Sanders, Laraine Day and Herbert Marshall.
Sanders portrayal of British journalist Scott Ffolliot is especially impressive. The ease with which he takes to the double-dealing of the great game of spying had me believing he was a British intelligence officer, but alas, that twist is one too many for this film’s somewhat muddled but generally rather clever script.
McCrea falls in love with Day’s character, but unbeknownst to either of them, her father – played to chilling perfection by Marshall – is actually behind much of the cloak and dagger the pair get mixed up in after they witness the assassination of a prominent European diplomat. It all ends with a plane crash that still looks good 60-odd years later after some earnest soul-searching from the cast about where their loyalties lie.
Marshall proclaims his treachery has been in the service of his birthplace, while his disappointed daughter affirms she will remain loyal to her father even though she is repelled by his cause. As journalists, McCrea and Sanders remain dedicated scribes who serve “truth.” Thus, we have national, familial and ideological loyalties all on display. That everyone in the film has, at some point, lied or misrepresented themselves – even McCrea is forced by his paper to adopt a ridiculous pseudonym for his news reports – may seem like cheap relativism, but it actually is a pretty honest look at how espionage harnesses immoral acts – lying, stealing and manipulation – to foster moral ends.
The only disappointing addendum one must add is that the journalists in the film are never forced to face any serious moral challenges about their loyalty the way the other characters are. Dedication to the concept of truth seems to remove all the difficulty the others confront. McCrea begins the film as a news hound and ends as a news hound, and the importance of the journalist’s dedication seems to be elevated above all other commitments.
While I have no problem believing that dedication to an absolute concept like truth is somewhat more worthy than dedication to a country or blood relation – if only because these require compromises – I am not sure the film makes that case as strongly as it believes it has. Even so, Foreign Correspondent stands tall as good, old-fashioned thriller and deserves a great deal more attention from audiences today.

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