Foreign Correspondent tilts windmills in classic spy drama

Joel McCrea in Foreign Correspondent

No actual "tilting" involved, but an observant reporter knows which way a windmill should turn -- especially with the winds of war building.

The 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film “Foreign Correspondent” was nominated for a half-dozen Academy Awards, which more than qualified it for a radio adaptation on Squibb’s Academy Award Theater radio series in 1946. (Actually winning an Oscar wasn’t required; in fact, for some reason the announcer only mentions four nominations.)

Boiling down a full-length espionage thriller into a 30-minute radio script meant writer Frank Wilson had to leave out a lot. Academy Award’s Foreign Correspondent (click to play or download MP3) couldn’t show you the classic trenchcoats, Dutch windmills or Hitchcock’s visual tricks, including a dramatic rooftop escape, a clever use of umbrellas, and a famous plane crash at sea that the movie trailer called “The most thrilling scene ever filmed!”

Did the radio adaptation maintain enough of the suspense? Did the title character still demonstrate characteristics we associate with good journalists? To answer those questions, it will be interesting if some students in my fall class listen to this broadcast without ever seeing the film, while others watch the film (available on Hulu and IMDB.com) before or after hearing the broadcast. If you want to try the radio-first experiment, you should resist the temptation to preview the YouTube clips below. In fact, it would be a good idea to stop reading and click the “play” button right now.

For the radio version, Joseph Cotten took Joel McCrea’s place at the last minute, playing the unlikely named reporter, Johnny Jones, who wrote under the equally unlikely name Huntley Haverstock. It’s easy enough to picture Cotten in that reportorial trenchcoat, since classic film fans will remember him as publisher Charles Foster Kane’s right-hand man Jedediah Leland in “Citizen Kane,” and as the pulp-fiction writer Holly Martins in “The Third Man.”

At the start of the film version of “Foreign Correspondent,” an editor decides to send an experienced crime reporter to Europe, rather than someone more schooled in foreign diplomacy, which in retrospect was a pretty good idea. Unfortunately, that conversation is among several with memorable quotes that didn’t make the radio script, for one reason or another. Among them: “Give me an expense account and I’ll cover anything” and “I don’t want ‘correspondence,’ I want news!”

The radio version is told in flashback, with Johnny Jones as narrator. In both media, he lands in England on the eve of World War II, right in the middle of a murder-and-spies plot full of the kind of twists, tension, romance and moments of humor Hitchcock was already famous for. (The director made this film in Hollywood after creating two earlier spy films for British companies, “The 30 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes,” neither of which, alas, centers around a journalist dodging spies in his bathrobe, boxers and garters like this one.)

Reporter Jones/Haverstock (film version), on his job and the spies pursuing him:

“They’ll stop at nothing. I seem to know too much, and they’re right. I don’t know the ins and outs of your crackpot peace movement. And I don’t know what’s wrong with Europe. But I do know a story when I see one and I’ll keep after it until I get it or it gets me.”

The film was inspired by Chicago Tribune reporter Vincent Sheean’s Personal History, a 1935 memoir about covering the early days of Fascism. It was republished in 1940, the year the movie opened, while a still-neutral United States followed news of the all-too-real Battle of Britain. Hitchcock and screen writer Ben Hecht, a former newspaperman, closed the film with a passionate radio speech, with Jones/Haverstock calling for American support as bombs fell on London. (See clip at YouTube.)

The emotional impact of the film and radio versions on their original audiences must have been quite different, the film being released while real bombs were falling, but the radio adaptation not coming until a year after the war ended. The real suspense in Europe was over. So was, apparently, the need for journalists to make heroic curtain speeches like this:

“Keep those lights burning, cover them with steel, ring them with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them and, hello, America, hang on to your lights, they’re the only lights in the world.”

Who knows, if Academy Award had been an hour-long radio program, perhaps the writers could have had Johnny Jones, former crime reporter, come back and cover the Nuremberg Trials.

(If 20th Century history isn’t your strong suit, see the PBS World War II Timeline (Adobe Flash required) or the WWII Timeline at the Holocaust Museum.)

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.
This entry was posted in 1940s, adaptations, foreign correspondents, international, journalism, movies, propaganda, World War II. Bookmark the permalink.

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