Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Random Thought on FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT

Here are some further, random thoughts on FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT.

Here's the full text of the film's prologue (ellipses appear in the original text):

"To those intrepid ones who went across the seas to be the eyes and ears of America.... To those forthright ones who early saw the clouds of war while many of us at home were seeing rainbows.... To those clearheaded ones who now stand like recording angels among the dead and dying.... To those foreign correspondents this motion picture is dedicated."

Wow! That's a pretty high-flown tribute. What first strikes me about this is what I read a couple of years ago in a New Yorker article about The New York Times' role in reporting on the holocaust. According to the article, The Times under-reported Hitler's persecution of the Jews, even though it publishers knew what was going on. The suggestion was that the Times, owned by a racially Jewish, though non-relgiously practicing, family took pains to distance itself from its ethnic heritage, and didn't want to draw attention to its Jewishness by exposing Hitler's anti-semitism.

As a result, the "newspaper of record" set the tone for other news networks to follow suit, with the the consequence that Americans were not aware of the holocaust until the War was in full swing. (I'm working from memory here, and need to find that article to explain the particulars.) However, the evidence is that Alfred Hitchcock and others were aware of what was going on, and I see the prologue to FC as a rebuke to The Times and other institutions for lacking the
courage to publish news of Hitler's outrage.

Of course, even with the context of the film itself, that prologue is not without irony. Most foreign correspondents are portrayed as lazy and useless; Stebbins (Robert Benchley) is a careerist, a philanderer, and an alcoholic.


I find H's cameo in this film interesting. After leaving the hotel, Johnny Jones heads up the street and walks away from the camera, past H, who is walking toward the camera reading a newspaper. Of course, the newspaper in his hand is a perfect touch. But, look at his hat. The ex-patriot Brit is wearing an American fedora! In a film in which hats tell the story, there is an ironic moment here. Jones, an American, who has taken to wearing British bowler hats, walks by Hitch, a Brit, wearing a fedora -- in London! Nice touch.

Interestingly, this scene is clearly a process shot. And H seems, ala Marnie, et al., to be drawing attention to that fact! H and the other extras are wearing grey on this wet, grey-weather day. And then Jones walks into the frame wearing a jet-black suit, and he nearly pops off the screen as a result. I don't know what to make of that, but it is visually arresting.

When the false Van Meer is shot in the face on the steps of the state building, am I the only one who sees a reference to the Eisenstein's "Odessa steps" scene in POTEMKIN?

I'd like to give more attention to Jones' escape from the windmill. The editing and cinematography are first-rate. We are given the feeling of being inside a giant clock, with the mechanics of the windmill fully displayed for us. And, in order for Jones to escape, he must "become one with", as it were, that clockworks, as he pulls his coat out of the gears and so forth. But, even after that, his escape hinges on crossing a space in which he will be exposed -- his success depends on timing the crossing with the moment in which one of the spies takes his shirt off, obscuring him from view.

In this moment, his timing has nothing to do with the windmill per se, but with aligning his timing with another human. Later, his success depends on timing his "kidnapping" so as to give ffolliet (George Sanders) an opportunity to convince Fischer that his daughter has been kidnapped. In fact, timing is, in many ways, what this movie is all about. And the windmill scene points that up dramatically. Does it suggest that we are all part of a great Cartesian clockworks, cogs in a system of which we see only one small part? Or am I (heh heh) talking through my hat?

Earlier I suggested that Jones was, at the beginning of the story, a bit obtuse. I'd like to revise that. From the beginning, he is sharp, independent, and has his wits about him. He was willing to
leave The Globe newspaper on a moment's notice, knowing that he would have a job 'on another newspaper within an hour.' He's a comer. His only flaw was that -- as he admitted -- hadn't read much on the war in Europe. As such, he was an unexamined thinker, but not by any means dumb. AND, his job was threatened because he 'beat up a policeman in the line of duty.' Though there's not much detail, it seems the scuffle involved payroll theft.

I see redeeming qualities in that as well -- this suggests Jones' willingness to stand up to authorities, even at his personal expense. So, it was somewhat ironic that Jones -- an archetypally "little guy" -- would mock Carol Fischer's group (Laraine Day) for being a 'small band of amateurs who take on the big warmakers.' The worst that could be said of Jones was that, in the words of his editor, he had "a fresh, unused mind." Not a bad place to start, really.

Here's another wink, I believe, from the director. After narrowly escaping his pursuers at the Hot(el) Europe, Jones finds himself "trapped" in Carol Fischer's room. He realizes there's no easy way out of the hotel itself, and says: "If I could only get out -- that's the Hitch, all right." I can hear Hitch telling screenwriter Charles Bennett in a script conference, "Mr. Bennett, I suggest we trap our friend in the Hotel, in Miss Fischer's room, in his underwear."

Joel Gunz

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