Hitchcock 101

Day Three, 1940 - 1941

by PopMatters Staff

14 June 2010

 

'Foreign Correspondent' and 'Mr and Mrs Smith'

Foreign Correspondent
(1940)

Nominated for six Academy Awards in 1941, Foreign Correspondent was Hitchcock’s second American film after relocating to Los Angeles. Hitchcock insisted (publicly, at least) that he did not make “political films,” making the distinction that his films were about politics. But before he left England for Hollywood, Conservative Party activists urged him to put his talents to work to improve the British image in Hollywood films, a motive he professed to a British consulate after his arrival in the U.S. (See Todd Bennett’s 1992 article, “The Celluloid War” in the International History Review). Foreign Correspondent is ultimately a thriller set against a political/espionage backdrop, a category that includes as well The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Notorious, and Torn Curtain among others. But understanding the sociopolitical and historical contexts in which Foreign Correspondent was made, of course, makes all the difference in fully appreciating it, not only as an example of Hitchcock’s excellence, but also in recognizing its place in Anglo-American propagandistic filmmaking.

Only days before World War II breaks out, Jonny Jones (Joel McCrea), a New York reporter, is sent to London as a foreign correspondent (under the pseudonym Huntley Haverstock) to seek out facts about the current political climate in Europe. He is selected, not for his expertise, but rather his ignorance. When his editor asks him what he thinks about the crisis in Europe, his reply of “What crisis?” makes him the perfect candidate for a job whose only requirement is “a fresh, unused mind.” Jones is more than a mere isolationist: he is entirely clueless (or, put another way, here isolationism is born of ignorance, whether willing or unwitting). His first assignment is to work with Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) to understand his Universal Peace Party and to interview the Dutch diplomat VanMeer (Albert Bassermann), who is working on an important treaty with a secret clause that outlines a course of action in the event of a general war.

Following VanMeer to Amsterdam, Jones is plunged into an international intrigue when VanMeer is assassinated right in front of him (and us, as the point of view camera shows VanMeer’s shocked and bloody face before he reels backwards). Chasing the assassin, first through a sea of uniform black umbrellas (the unknowing and oblivious masses), and then through the Dutch countryside, Jones discovers that VanMeer is alive (a double was killed) and being held by Nazi spies trying to discover the details of that secret clause. Much to the dismay of Fisher’s daughter (and Jonny’s love interest), Carol (Laraine Day), and with the help of British reporter Scott Ffolliett (George Sanders), Jones eventually discovers that Fisher himself is involved in VanMeer’s abduction and torture: he, too, is a Nazi spy and his Universal Peace Party merely a clever front.

After surviving several attempts on his life and even a plane crash (the special effects and emotional impact of which still hold up today), Jones finally succeeds in getting out the real story of the crisis in Europe. The film ends with his impassioned radio announcement from London, even as the studio is shaking around him from the bombings. It is a flourished ending, with the American national anthem surging in the background: “America, this is a big story and you’re part of it… It’s as if the lights are out all over everywhere, except in America. Hang on to your lights: they’re the only lights left in the world!” Thus Jones fulfills the prophecy of the film’s opening dedication “to those forthright [foreign correspondents] who early on saw the clouds of war while many of us at home were seeing rainbows.”

This ending, as unambiguous as it may seem today, was variously interpreted as internationalist or isolationist at the time the film was released, nearly a year and half before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war. Though Jones, in his broadcast, decries the bloodbath of the Blitz while illustrating the commonalties between England and America (England is a place “as nice as Vermont, Ohio, Virginia”), his plea to Americans to protect their lights by “building a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them” might be a call either to self-defense or to England’s defense.

These seeming ambiguities are expertly wielded by Hitchcock, a master at (among countless other things) manipulating his audience. He simultaneously dodged censors and pushed the viewer into international awareness through identification with both VanMeer’s would-be assassin (we share his point of view after all, as he pulls the trigger) and Jones (especially during the point of view shot as we see his would-be assassin lunge towards us). The viewer is both victimizer and victim, complicit and innocent, but in no way isolated.

Renée Scolaro Mora

 

Mr and Mrs Smith
(1941)

Carole Lombard was a masterful comedic actor; perhaps the greatest of her generation. She was luminous, sure, but as a post-silent-era actor Lombard was so completely in command of her expression that even the slightest twitch of her eyebrow seemed to contain lines of dialogue. She could be coy, witty, urbane, and as silly as a ham. Indeed, she could do these things all at once—for evidence of this feat, look no further than the famous scene in which she is trapped on a Ferris Wheel in the driving rain in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Unafraid to be as wet as a drowned cat, her hair all mottled and plastered across her face, Lombard dared to be decidedly less-than-glamourous for the sake of comedy and character development. There is even a joke early in the film about how she’d been gaining weight around the middle! In the pre-Lucille Ball era, this was a thing to see.

It is often remarked (with a certain degree of disdain) that Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a Carole Lombard picture, not a Hitchcock film. While it was no doubt an anomalous format for the Master of Suspense to have tried out—a screwball romantic comedy in the tradition of Bringing Up Baby is a far cry from, say, the dreamy new wave complexity of Vertigo—there is a lot here to recommend it. Top of the list are the excellent performances from the leads. Lombard, the actor for whom the screwball genre was named, is at her very best (and only two years before she’d die at the age of 32). And Robert Montgomery, ideally cast here as a likeable everyman, provides what might be the funniest performance in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. For me, the extended silent sequence—recalling the best of Buster Keaton—in which Montgomery tries to break his own nose to provide an excuse to ditch a garish date, stands as Hitch’s single funniest moment in a career packed with funny moments.

As far as being or not being a Hitchcock movie, Mr. and Mrs. Smith clearly displays some of the master’s touches. The casual violence between lovers, the leitmotif of never really knowing those closest to you, the theme of duplicity, the dangerous (or, at least, problematic) blonde, the everyman trapped in an absurd situation. A borderline plotless film—a tempestuous, but loving, couple discover their marriage to be void, and he must now try to woo her back as she feigns disinterest—there is not a lot here for Hitchcock to do but allow the actors the space to make the material sing. And while it doesn’t always sing—the screenplay fails to paint either Lombard or Montgomery as emotionally or intellectually appealing, frankly—it comes close, and often. Perhaps the weirdest major Hitchcock film, and certainly his most American in setting and tone and style, this is essential viewing for anyone who wants to get to know his material.

(And, no, it bears no resemblance in either form or function to the grimy abattoir that was the Jolie-Pitt version of 2005. Thank whatever god you pray to.) 

Stuart Henderson

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