Windmills of Your Mind: Alfred Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (United Artists 1940)

(When Maddy Loves Her Classic Films invited me to join in on the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, I jumped at the chance! I’ve just completed the Ball State/TCM 50 YEARS OF HITCHCOCK course, and have been knee-deep in his movies for a month now!)

Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film found the Master of Suspense back in the spy game with FORGEIGN CORRESPONDENT, this time with American star Joel McCrea caught up in those familiar “extraordinary circumstances” we’ve all come to love. Like REBECCA that same year, this film was nominated for Best Picture, an extraordinary circumstance indeed for a director new to these shores. Offhand I can only think of three other directors to hold that distinction – John Ford (also in ’40), Sam Wood (1942), and Francis Ford Coppola (1974). Good company, to say the least! (And please correct me if I’m wrong, any of you film fans out there).

Crime beat reporter Johnny Jones (McCrea) is sent to Europe to cover the impending war with a fresh set of eyes. Given the rather pretentious pen name ‘Huntley Haverstock’, Johnny goes to London and meets up with fellow reporter Stebbins (Robert Benchley), who has a weakness for booze and women. He’s assigned to cover the Universal Peace Party’s big conference, where Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Oscar nominee Albert Basserman), who holds the key to peace or war in Europe, is scheduled to appear. Van Meer doesn’t show, but Johnny does meet the UPP’s leader Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) and his beautiful daughter Carol (Laraine Day), and of course Red-Blooded American wolf Johnny tries to put the make on her!

Next stop: Holland, where Van Meer is to make an important speech, only to be shot dead on the steps of the conference hall. The chase is on, with Johnny tracking the assassin, with help from Carol and reporter Scott ffolliot (George Sanders, on the good guy’s side for a change), to an old windmill. It’s there Johnny discovers Van Meer alive but not well, drugged by a nest of rotten spies! Johnny returns with the police, only to find the windmill deserted except for a tramp. What happened to Van Meer? Who’s behind the spy ring? You’ll have to watch to find out!

One of Hitchcock’s motivations for coming to America was the chance to work with top Hollywood stars, and in Joel McCrea he got an actor at the height of his success. Already a star with films like DEAD END and UNION PACIFIC under his belt, McCrea’s everyman persona would serve him well in the decade to come. Here, he’s Hitchcock’s “stranger in a strange land”, in over his head with all this foreign spy business, but comes through in typical All-American hero style. Laraine Day’s career was just getting off the ground, having costarred in the MGM DR. KILDARE series, and she and Joel make a fine romantic duo, once things get going.

Humorist Benchley had a hand in the screenplay along nine other writers, both credited (Benchley, Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, James Hilton) and uncredited (Harold Clurman, Ben Hecht, John Howard Lawson, John Lee Mahan, Richard Maibaum), and adds his dry wit to the proceedings. Sanders shines as the secondary lead, and German actor Basserman deserved his nomination. Herbert Marshall had appeared in Hitchcock’s MURDER! ten years earlier; his role as Fisher is among his best. Kris Kringle himself, Edmund Gwenn plays an assassin hired to off McCrea. Their scene together atop Westminister Cathedral is just one of the film’s many highlights. There are lots of other Familiar Faces in this game of cat-and-mouse: Eduardo Cianelli , Harry Davenport, Charles Halton, Holmes Herbert, Leonard Mudie, Barbara Pepper , Charles Wagenheim, and Ian Wolfe . And of course Hitch in his traditional cameo!

There are so many ‘Hitchcock Touches’ in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, it could be a primer on how to make a Hitchcockian thriller! Van Meer’s secret “Treaty Clause #27” is the film’s McGuffin, vital to the characters yet meaningless in terms of plot. Danger in high places is covered with McCrea climbing out his hotel window to escape two ersatz cops (then the scene turns into a crowded chaos direct from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA!), and later on the eventful plane ride. Danger in public places comes in both the murder on the conference hall steps and inside those ominous windmills. There are comedic bits with Benchley (and with McCrea having trouble holding on to his hat), mirror images, winding staircases, and Hitchcock’s sure sign of portending doom, birds! All this, plus a stirring call to arms by McCrea at the conclusion, adds up to one of Hitchcock’s most entertaining films. Just think, this was only his second in his new adopted homeland! Many more classics were to come, but FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT remains one of my personal Hitchcock favorites.

Halloween Havoc!: Boris Karloff in THE WALKING DEAD (Warner Brothers 1936)

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1936’s THE WALKING DEAD has absolutely nothing to do with the wildly popular AMC TV series. This WALKING DEAD stars Boris Karloff , making the first of a five-picture deal he signed with Warners, an interesting hybrid of the gangster and horror genres about an unjustly executed man who’s revived by science exacting vengeance on those who set him up. The result was a fast paced (clocked at 66 minutes) entry in the first horror cycle, and one of the last horror films made until their 1939 revival (more about that later).

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Boris stars as John Ellman, newly released from a stretch in prison. A gangland cartel, looking to get rid of a law-and-order judge, set Ellman up as a patsy, hiring him to stake out the judge’s home, murdering the guy, and dumping the body in Ellman’s car. He goes on trial, defended by crooked lawyer Nolan, and sentenced to death by electric chair. Two witnesses, Jimmy and Nancy, saw the thugs put the body in Ellman’s car, but are too scared to say anything.

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Jimmy and Nancy finally confide in their boss Dr. Beaumont, who’s been experimenting in reanimating the dead. Ellman’s body is sent to Beaumont and, with Strickefaden-like electrical equipment a-cracklin’, the dead man returns to life. The medical community is agog with this wonder of science, though Ellman has developed a wide streak of white hair and a zombie-like shuffle. Beaumont wants to know what it was like in the brief time Ellman was dead, but he can’t remember much. However, Ellman has begun receiving messages from “some supernatural power” about the men responsible for his death.

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Ellman becomes an Avenging Angel of Death, confronting those who conspired against him. First to go is the hitman “Trigger”, quickly followed by Blackstone and Merritt (during an eerie thunderstorm). Ellman wanders to a cemetery, followed by Nancy, who’s followed by gangsters Nolan and Loder. “I belong here”, says Ellman, before the hoodlums shoot him down. Beaumont and Jimmy arrive, and Beaumont presses Ellman for the “secrets from the beyond”. “Leave the dead to their maker”, intones Ellman, “for the Lord God is a jealous God”, just as Nolan and Loder are involved in a fatal car crash and electrocuted themselves. Ellman expires, taking the secrets of what happens after death with him for good.

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Boris is excellent as always, playing for pathos as the zombie-like Ellman. His mannerisms remind viewers of his FRANKENSTEIN monster, though Ellman still has a spark of intelligence. Perc Westmore’s makeup is more subdued than Jack Pierce’s job, with only a shock of white hair and an unflinching left eye to convey the horror of the living dead. Karloff acts mainly with his body, his shambling gait and crippled arm doing the work. It’s a restrained performance, and another fine addition to Boris’ Gallery of Horror works.

MARGUERITE CHURCHILL, WARREN HULL & EDMUND GWENN Character(s): Nancy, Jimmy, Dr. Evan Beaumont Film 'THE WALKING DEAD' (1936) Directed By MICHAEL CURTIZ 01 March 1936 CTW88169 Allstar/Cinetext/WARNER BROS **WARNING** This photograph can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above film. For Editorial Use Only.

The rest of the cast comes straight from Warner’s B-team. Edmond Gwenn is the scientist seeking the answers to life after death, years before his Kris Kringle in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. Marguerite Churchill’s (Nancy) brief film career included the Universal horror DRACULA’S DAUGHTER. Ricardo Cortez (Nolan) was a silent matinée idol who got typecast as a heavy in the sound era; he’s also the only actor to play both Sam Spade (1931’s THE MALTESE FALCON) and Perry Mason (CURSE OF THE BLACK CAT). Barton McLane (Loder) was usually a henchman; he costarred with Glenda Farrell in the Torchy Blane series and later became General Peterson on TV’s I DREAM OF JEANNIE. Warren Hull (Jimmy) is known to serial fans as The Green Hornet, The Spider, and Mandrake the Magician. Other Familiar Faces are Eddie Acuff, Joseph King, Henry O’Neill , Addison Richards, and Joe Sawyer.

Michael Curtiz was an old hand at horror, having directed Warner’s two early shockers starring Lionel Atwill . It must have been a slow week for Curtiz, as he was used to bigger budget vehicles by this point. Hal Mohr’s cinematography is appropriately spooky, especially in the cemetery scenes. Karloff had four more pictures to go on his contract, but the British horror ban and censorship issues put the kibosh on fright films beginning in 1937. After a few more 1936 releases (DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, THE INVISIBLE RAY, THE DEVIL DOLL, REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES), films with horror themes left the silver screen until 1939, when Boris returned to the role that made him famous, along with Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone, in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, beginning Hollywood’s second horror cycle. Can you imagine a world with no horror films? That’s the most frightening thought of all!