I am not a big Hitchcock fan. He was undeniably a clever entertainer, but I refuse to genuflect before him as the definition of narrative film making. That refusal may seem like common sense to most, but to anyone with a film school education, it verges on heresy. My greatest irritation with Hitchcock’s absurd over-valuation is that it is virtually impossible to acknowledge his skills without his acolytes insisting such acknowledgment proves his genius. Religious faith has its value, but it has no place in criticism.
In any event, Foreign Correspondent interests me as a transitional work between Hitchcock’s British films and his later, glossy Hollywood efforts. While made in Hollywood, it is set largely in Europe, and it retains some of the lighter, less neurotically manipulative qualities of his earlier work. In fact, FC is really more of an adventure film than a thriller, as Joel McCrea tries to get a scoop about the efforts to prevent a second world war. The film nonetheless includes its own moments of virtuoso suspense. Probably the most famous of these occurs early in the film when McCrea witnesses the assassination of a Dutch politician. As the killer flees, his progress through a group of people waiting outside in the rain is indicated by the bobbing of open umbrellas, a typically imaginative Hitchcockian flourish.
Indeed, there are plenty of thrills: McCrea spying on the villains in a windmill or eluding killers by escaping through a hotel window; an attempted murder at the top of Winchester Cathedral; the shooting down of an airliner over the ocean, and then some. The problem is that the movie isn’t really much more than a string of such set pieces. Worse, the overall situation lacks suspense because we know that war will break out. (That isn’t just hindsight. The film was made about a year after the war had started.)
Through all of this, the character actors, particularly Robert Benchley as the correspondent McCrea is supposed to be replacing, provide a wry tapestry of human behavior that fills in the background. It’s also fun to see George Sanders playing someone other than a rotter. It is symptomatic of the film’s schematic construction, however, that as witty and entertaining as those secondary characters are, aside from Sanders, they have little to do with the main action. Even the romance feels singularly unconvincing, as if the producers felt the need to appease the viewer’s expectations of sex whether it has anything to do with the subject or not.
Therefore, I hope I can be forgiven for suggesting that this expensive, honored movie adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Entertaining in patches, it is also a little forced and thin. Which is hardly the worst thing in the world, unless you worship at the shrine of St. Alfred and cannot acknowledge he was capable of anything less than perfection.