Sunday, August 16, 2015

Hitchcock Diplomacy

"I came 4,000 miles to get a story. I get shot at like a duck in a shooting gallery, I get pushed off buildings, I get the story, and then I've got to shut up."

John (Joel McCrea)

Contrary to what you may have always believed, Alfred Hitchcock didn't spend his whole career directing movies about psychotic slasher killers. True, there was usually a dead body involved — but not always.

In "Foreign Correspondent," the Hitchcock movie that premiered 75 years ago today, there was a dead body or two, but they were elements of the tale, not the tale itself. The story started with a New York editor's concern about the growing crisis in Europe — and his desire to prevent a war and the resultant loss of life — prior to the outbreak of World War II. He was frustrated with the foreign correspondents who contributed little to the public's understanding of what was happening across the Atlantic. He wanted a reporter, preferably one who had covered the crime beat and had no real opinion of what was happening in the world — and could therefore be counted on to provide reasonably balanced reports. (Having covered the police beat as a reporter for a time in my career, I kind of resent that stereotype.) Thus, he chose Joel McCrea, whose character's only initial concern was whether his new appointment would come with an expense account.

After arriving in Europe, McCrea's first assignment was a peace conference in Amsterdam, where he was looking for an elusive Dutch diplomat. The diplomat was assassinated as McCrea stepped out of the crowd to greet him.

I guess that editor was right about McCrea and the need to have a reporter on the story. In his quest for the assassin, McCrea found himself in a windmill — where, it turned out, the real diplomat was being held. The man McCrea saw shot was a lookalike, a decoy.

That was followed by some spine–tingling Hitchcockesque suspense in which one couldn't help seeing glimpses of things to come. Still, it was a different kind of Hitchcock movie. If you've never seen it — and you think "Psycho" is all you need to know about Hitchcock — you're in for a real surprise — as well as a real treat — when you see it.

McCrea's character really gave his editor what he wanted — an open, inquisitive and creative mind who found all sorts of ways to get around obstacles. McCrea's love interest was 19–year–old Laraine Day, playing the daughter of a local politician. Don't let her age fool you. Her character was very articulate, as when she had to step in at the last minute as featured speaker when the diplomat failed to show up.

"I think the world has been run long enough by well–meaning professionals," she said. "We might give the amateurs a chance now."

And she could be tough, too, when the situation called for it.

As a Hitchcock fan, I am always inclined to think that any year in which one of his movies was showing in theaters — and that was most of the years in roughly a four–decade span — was Hitchcock's year, but 1940 really was Hitch's year. At the Academy Awards, "Foreign Correspondent" was one of two Hitchcock movies nominated for Best Picture. The other was "Rebecca," which went on to win the award. It beat some pretty good competition, too — "The Grapes of Wrath," "The Philadelphia Story," "The Great Dictator."

I think the Academy made the right choice. "Rebecca" was a better movie, but "Foreign Correspondent" was deserving of recognition as well. Both were fiction, but "Foreign Correspondent" was a vision based on what was known at the time of what might happen in a not–so–distant future. Sometimes, I suppose, the vision was inadequate, but trying to tell the future based on a limited amount of information was what made the project so challenging.

Deservedly, Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director, too — but for "Rebecca," not "Foreign Correspondent."

"Foreign Correspondent" received six Oscar nominations in all. In addition to Best Picture, it was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Black and White Art Direction, Best Black and White Cinematography and Best Special Effects (which isn't hard to understand, once you've seen McCrea crawling along the exteriors of windmills and hotels in scenes that must have served as preparation for the Mount Rushmore scene in "North by Northwest") — but lost all six.