Mr Powers (Harry Davenport) runs the New York Globe newspaper and he is not a happy man. He wants the latest news from Europe since he believes, as do many around the world, that there is trouble brewing there, and what everyone wants to know is whether war is about to break out or not. It is August 1939 and it seems genuine reports one way or the other about the actual crisis situation are hard to come by; Powers' foreign correspondents are little help to him for they are being kept in the dark with flimsy press releases, and nobody is able to get to the heart of the story. Then he has a brainwave - what's the name of that reporter, John Jones (Joel McCrea)? He has been a troublemaker at home, but abroad could just be right for the investigation...
And one bonus for the newspaper proprietor is that Jones is as ignorant about the problems in Europe as most of his readers, which was a sly way of saying, listen up America, your assistance is sorely needed in the propaganda movie Alfred Hitchcock made for his second effort in Hollywood. His first, Rebecca, had been a big hit for him, justifying his decision to leave for the industry across the Atlantic, but Foreign Correspondent was important to him because he feared for his family and indeed his countrymen in the United Kingdom who had entered the war against the Nazis. Producer Walter Wanger was keen to craft a thriller torn from the headlines, though Hitch was more interested in telling a good story and smuggling in the message through that.
Though Joel McCrea was not his first choice (that was Gary Cooper, who wasn't taken with the idea, which he later regretted) watching him in the lead role you cannot imagine a better fit as he embodied the initially naive, none more American demeanour gradually waking up to the peril the world was facing, and that included the folks back home who had to be persuaded that they had to contribute. It took the bombing of Pearl Harbor the following year to do that as when Foreign Correspondent was released the politicians were still umming and aahing, in spite of pressure from many of those in the entertainment industry who had fled the conflict and wished to see their places of origin saved from the clutches of the Nazis who five days after the impassioned final speech Jones makes were bombing Britain, making this worryingly timely.
Looking back on the film all these years later, the propaganda aspect understandably sets it at a very specific point in time, yet instead of being offputting it adds an extra sheen of historical interest, not least because you can perceive how skilled Hitchcock was at delivering what was ostensibly a breezy spy thriller but giving it a boost of serious intent for some degree of resonance - Nazi Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels in particular was extremely jealous of how effectively this was crafted. Once Jones, now under the pen name Huntley Haverstock much to his chagrin, arrives in London the month before we are aware the Second World War broke out, he sets about trying to interview a Dutch diplomat, Van Meer (Albert Basserman), who is promoting peace but has a rather oblique manner all the better to conceal his specialist knowledge; essentially the McGuffin was a person this time around.
Rounding out a colourful cast were the likes of suave Herbert Marshall as Fisher, a contact for Van Meer and head of a British peace movement, Laraine Day as his daughter Carol who becomes Jones' love interest and has some hard truths to wake up to much in the manner Americans did, and possibly best of all George Sanders as a British reporter ffolliot who surely was a prototype for James Bond with his mix of derring-do, ready quips and noble pursuit of justice. His introduction during a superb setpiece as an assassination is carried out, jolting the audience out of their complacent first half hour, is as stylish as anything Hitchcock or Sanders ever did as ffolliot explains offhandedly the origin of his unusual surname while he pursues the killer in a car chase across the Dutch countryside. As often with this director, it was those setpieces where he showed the most engagement, and they are very fine here with Edmund Gwenn's unassuming assassin, the windmill gambit and the ditching plane finale, all of them leaving the audience in no doubt for all the jokes this was deadly serious. Music by Alfred Newman.
The sixties started strongly with groundbreaking horror Psycho, and The Birds was just as successful, but then Hitchcock went into decline with uninspired thrillers like Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz. The seventies saw a return to form with Frenzy, but his last film Family Plot was disappointing. Still, a great career, and his mixture of romance, black comedy, thrills and elaborate set pieces will always entertain. Watch out for his cameo appearances in most of his films.