Alfred Hitchcock directed many great movies, but few testify to his ability at marrying suspense, action, and comedy as does "Foreign Correspondent," a film which coincidentally carries Hitchcock's boldest political statement: That neutrality doesn't work when others are bent on war.
Joel McCrea stars as American newspaperman Johnny Jones, sent to Europe on the eve of World War II by the newspaper's publisher precisely because he's a man of action unschooled in politics and economics, "someone who doesn't know the difference between an 'ism' and a kangaroo," the old publisher declares. Jones goes along with the idea, even with changing his byline to the pompous "Huntley Haverstock," because as he puts it, "give me an expense account, and I'll cover anything." Fate intervenes when a photographer apparently murders Europe's last hope for peace right in front of Jones, spurring the reporter to react in a way that leads to a series of outrageously precarious and double-crossing incidents culminating in a plane crash-landing into the Atlantic Ocean.
Hitchcock arrived in the U.S. with a flourish, his first Hollywood movie being the Oscar-winning "Rebecca," and this his second that same year, 1940. Some back in Great Britain complained Hitchcock's leaving his native country as it faced Hitler all alone was desertion, but Hitchcock was doing all he could for King and Country, as "Foreign Correspondent" pulls all the stops to shake American viewers from their neutrality.
That sort of desperation would ruin most films, but here it only prods Hitchcock to singular and repeated acts of inventiveness as he shakes the tree. We see Jones climb out the window of the Hotel Europe, knock out the letters "EL" to underscore the film's message, and find his way into the hotel room of the girl he has been trying unsuccessfully to woo. There's an assassination in the rain and shot from above so we see little more than wet hats and umbrellas, and a long sequence inside a creaking windmill that has you thinking our hero's about to be discovered by the bad guys every 20 seconds. The film feels more vital for sequences like this: You can't imagine anyone trying to get away with this, yet Hitchcock keeps pulling it off.
Then there's the other revolutionary element of the film, its humor, ever-present throughout the picture in a way that doesn't cut against the grain of the suspense so much as amplify it, by keeping you off-guard and invested in the action. This is best exemplified by Edmund Gwenn's plummy turn as an evil assassin (no spoiler, he's introduced to us that way) bent on killing Jones, but so affable and borderline-snarky in his menace you can't root against him as much as you'd like to. As Gwenn's Rowley leads Jones up a church steeple to set up an accident, you wonder how Jones will get out of it but still chuckle at how Rowley tries to keep Jones from going back down: "You must see the 'orse guards!" Gwenn is one of two fantastic examples of reverse casting, the other being George Sanders as a good guy named ffolliett.
Hitchcock is very careful in presenting the bad guys. He never says they're Germans, though the implication is obvious. The chief baddie is ruthless but not without decent impulses, in a way that mirrors but goes beyond Willy in his later "Lifeboat." Hitchcock knew when the film was released, he would be attacked by those who wanted to keep appeasing Germany. For "Foreign Correspondent" to be successful, it needed to bring the audience along without noticing the ride, laughing with and pulling for Jones right up until the moment he does a radio broadcast in London while bombs burst around him, an eerie foreshadowing of what Edward R. Morrow would be doing for real only days after "Foreign Correspondent" opened in theaters.
You can't help but admire a film that was on the right side of history, but "Foreign Correspondent" may play better now than it ever did because of the way its pure cinema techniques work today, a style Tarantino and Leone admirers will no doubt recognize and appreciate, but that anyone can enjoy.