Monday, April 5, 2010

The Real-Life Heroes Behind “Foreign Correspondent”

As a reporter, how far would you go to get your story? Lie? Cheat? Walk into a spray of bullets? Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) addresses those questions. If you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a fun ride in the tradition of The 39 Steps and North by Northwest.

Dubbed “The Best Spy Thriller of All Time” by American Cinematographer magazine in 1995, this movie follows the trajectory of a young reporter, Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), as he matures to express his patriotism as a news correspondent. Extremely loosely based on the memoirs of World War I reporter Vincent Sheean (1899 - 1975) (among other changes, the setting was updated to take place during World War II, then building up steam in Europe), the movie is a tribute to war reporters of the time. Says its prologue:

"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."
Vincent Sheean

While Sheean’s exploits are all but omitted from the movie, one name does come up in a conversation between Jones and his editor, Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport), who suggests that he go to Europe and cover the impending war “in the tradition of Richard Harding Davis,” “one of our greatest war correspondents forty years ago.”

Richard Harding Davis (left)

The original man on the street, Davis (1864 - 1916) traveled to exotic locales to cover the news and bring stories in from faraway places. Sheean himself followed in that tradition, writing,
“I had not been sent to China to write about politics or the Chinese Revolution, but to engage in some kind of personal enterprise, capers or high jinks, that would carry on the tradition of romantic adventure (the "Richard Harding Davis tradition", it was called) to which my various employers insisted on assigning me.”
Likewise, Johnny Jones (under the pseudonym “Huntley Haverstock”) was tasked to cover the European scene from the street level. Says Powers, “I don't want any more economists, sages, or oracles bombinating over our cables. I want a reporter!”

Initially, Jones, Like Davis, simply wanted to get a good story. But as the movie progressed, he abandoned that old school romantic adventure writing. Before long, he saw that he was reporting on important events and that real lives were involved. The stakes were political and, increasingly, so became his motives. He began to resemble no one more than the great Edward R. Murrow (1908 - 1965).

Edward R. Murrow at the end of World War II.

Murrow’s first taste of fame occurred when he reported on Hitler’s march into Vienna on March 13, 1938, on CBS’ first broadcast of its still-running “News Roundup.” Revolutionary at the time, the Roundup was a rapid-fire succession of live news reports from such places as Paris, Berlin and Washington D. C. But Murrow was in the catbird seat for that first airing. Assigned to Vienna, he delivered a live, eyewitness report of Hitler’s annexation of Austria. With that, modern broadcast journalism was born. So was Murrow’s celebrity.

Interesting background for sure. But Hitch liked using current topics and events in his movies for the frisson of immediacy they provided, and in the movie's producer, Walter Wanger, he found a kindred spirit. That’s why he updated the setting and gave special attention to that new breed of reporters “who went across the seas to be the eyes and ears of America.” Wanger went so far as to keep Hitch up-to-date on overseas news so that the movie would be as timely as possible upon its release. With events in Europe happening quickly in 1939, that meant the script was constantly taking revisions right up until the last possible moment.

They had been watching events so closely that, thanks to changes pushed through by Wanger, Foreign Correspondent accurately predicted the German bombardment of Britain.* Quoted below is the final scene, filmed on July 5, 1940. Jones is delivering a radio broadcast from London as bombs drop about him:
"Hello America, I have been watching part of the world be blown to pieces ... I've seen things that make the history of the savages read like Pollyanna legends.... [Overheard: the noise of bombs dropping and the broadcast booth goes dark.] I can't read the rest of this speech I had because the lights have gone out. I'll just have to talk off the cuff. All that noise you hear is not 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 awhile. This is a big story and you're a part of it ... It's too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come. It's as if the lights were all out everywhere except in America. Keep those lights burning! ... Hello America. Hang onto your lights. You're the only lights left in the world."
Five days later, the first German bombs began to fall on Britain. The film was released on August 27 and as it continued its run, it had the shocking immediacy of a newsreel.

"All that noise you hear is not static. It's death coming to London."

Summing up Murrow’s role in covering those dark days in London, writers have all but recalled that final scene in the film:

"You burned the city of London in our houses and we felt the flames that burned it.”— Archibald Macleish, 1941.

"[Murrow] seemed to experience life with a special intensity and empathy, and he could capture those qualities in his reports. . . . Murrow was among the first to use ambient sound in radio journalism, and he also called more vivid attention to the plight of Londoners, as well as to himself."— Nicolas Lemann, The New Yorker, January 23, 2006.

There is little doubt that Johnny Jones’ combination of eyewitness reportage, unabashed patriotism and showmanship would have called to the minds of 1940 audiences Murrow's on-the-scene dispatches. As Patrick McGilligan wrote in his biography Alfred Hitchcock — A Life in Darkness and Light,
"The blitz attacks... made the ending especially prescient — a "flash forward," with McCrea's radio address eerily presaging Edward R. Murrow's famous broadcasts from a blacked-out London."
Some feel that Jones' broadcast is rather tacked on and doesn't fit the flow of the rest of the movie. I have to admit they've got a point. As McGilligan noted from this interview with the director:
"It was a speech 'out of key with your kind of picture,' Peter Bogdanovich told Hitchcock, fishing for confirmation that it was forced upon him by the politically active producer.

"'It's all right,' the director said blandly. 'It worked.'"

Foreign Correspondent is a perfect expression of the adage that all politics is personal. Like Murrow, Jones grew to "experience life with a special intensity and empathy." These qualities make him an attractive character study. Hitchcock’s films are often occupied with living life with full intensity — a pursuit that so often means facing death and pain with equal gusto as embracing pleasure. Looked at in that perspective, this movie is almost a sermon on how to live.

Unlike many propaganda films of the era (but not unusual for Hitch, who directed several such films), Foreign Correspondent has aged quite well. In fact, if the 2006 Good Night and Good Luck's portrayal of Murrow’s televised ass-kicking of Senator Joseph McCarthy is a sock in the eye to corporate journalism of today, Foreign Correspondent is its long-overlooked wake-up call.

*For another example of such prescience in a Hitchcock film, see Notorious, which was written in the early months of 1945 (though released in 1946) and foresaw the advent of atomic weaponry. Unlike Wanger, however, producer David O. Selznick was so skittish about the use of uranium ore as the film's MacGuffin that he sold the film as a package to RKO. That August, the atom bombs fell on Japan and, I imagine, Selznick poured himself a stiff drink.

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4 comments:

Jennythenipper said...

Ironically Vincent Sheen looks an awful light Herbert Marshall, the film's villain!

McCrea's "hang onto your lights" speech always gets me. I guess I thought this movie came out after Murrow and the Blitz were well under way. I had no idea Hitch actually prefigured that moment in history.

Another great post!

Joel Gunz said...

Thanks, Jenny! That final "broadcast" always gets me too.

JIM DOHERTY said...

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Joel McCrea's grandson at the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, OK.

We talked at some length about his grandfather's acting career, and he told me that his Joel McCrea was particularly proud of this film.

He also mentioned that the last seen, the radio broadcast, was filmed on a day that Hitchcock was too ill to come to the studio. According to Mr. McCrea, Hitch asked John Ford to direct that final scene. Since Hitch supposedly story-boarded his films so completely, there probably was little for Ford to do except point the cameras and yell "Action!" Still, it's and interesting directorial collaboration.

It's also ironic that the only time Joel McCrea, an actor so identified with the western genre, and Ford, a director likewise identified with that genre, ever worked together was not only on a non-western, but on a film for which Ford never received a credit.

Joel Gunz said...

Hi Jim, Thanks for that background!

McGilligan's biography reports that, according to Joel McCrea himself, Ford dropped by the set to volunteer "a kind of reading" of McCrea's broadcast lines, but that Hitch was on the set at the time. I'm guessing the rest might be a bit of embellishment that happens over time. Whatever the case, Hitch was a huge admirer of Ford's simple, straightforward style, and he's one of the few directors that Hitch gushed over publicly. McGilligan says he was flattered by Ford's impromptu assistance that day.