There must have been a lot of suspicion concerning secret clauses in pacts between European governments in the years leading up to World War II, because there were two Hitchcock movies based on such a clause: The first was The Lady Vanishes (1938); the second, Foreign Correspondent (1940). Whereas The Lady Vanishes was made before the outbreak of World War II, Foreign Correspondent was released about a year after it had started. And whereas the former had a British orientation, the latter was made from an American perspective. What both movies have in common, however, other than a secret clause between two nations, is a contempt for complacency and a distrust of pacifists.
Regarding the complacency, the movie begins with the following prologue, which praises foreign correspondents in contrast to all those Americans who thought everything was just fine.
To those intrepid ones who went across the seas to be the eyes and ears of America…. To those forthright ones who early saw the clouds of war while many of us at home were seeing rainbows…. To those clear-headed ones who now stand like recording angels among the dead and dying…. To the Foreign Correspondents—this motion picture is dedicated.
Oddly enough, all this florid prose regarding foreign correspondents is immediately contradicted by the opening scene and several other scenes thereafter. Mr. Powers, editor of the New York Globe, has nothing but contempt for those foreign correspondents. He is handed a cablegram from London, which is what he has been waiting for. It is dated August 19, 1939, less than two weeks away from Germany’s invasion of Poland, which started World War II. The cable says that according to a high official, there is absolutely no chance of war this year, on account of late crops. I guess the idea is that everyone will be too busy with the harvest to fight a war.
Powers throws the cable down. “Foreign correspondent,” he says with disgust. “I could get more news out of Europe looking in the crystal ball…. They all make me sick.”
The foreign correspondent that sent the cable is Stebbins (Robert Benchley), who, we later learn, makes no pretense of being of any value, just passing on government handouts back to the states, and then spending the rest of his time drinking, fooling around with women, playing cards late into the night, and then betting on the horses the next morning. Later in the movie, a woman says that most foreign correspondents are “greasy.”
But as far as Powers is concerned, the main problem with foreign correspondents is that they are all intellectuals. Powers continues with his rant:
I don’t want any more economists, sages, or oracles bombinating over our cable. I want a reporter. Someone who doesn’t know the difference between an ism and a kangaroo. A good, honest crime reporter. That’s what the Globe needs. That’s what Europe needs. There’s a crime hatching on that bedeviled continent.
That line of thought leads Powers to think of Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), the crime reporter that beat up a policeman. He sends for Jones, who thinks he’s about to be fired for that reason, and thus has an insolent manner. But Powers believes that beating up policemen is a virtue, so Jones is just the sort of man he needs.
Powers asks him about the crisis in Europe. “What crisis?” Jones asks. Powers smiles. He answers that he is referring to the impending war. Jones says he hasn’t been giving it much thought. That’s just what the anti-intellectual Powers is looking for, someone blithely ignorant of what is going on in the world. He offers Jones the job of going to Europe to cover “the biggest story in the world today.” Jones admits he is not equipped to cover that story, but says he could read up on it. But Powers forbids it: “No reading up. I like you just as you are. What Europe needs is a fresh, unused mind.” In the background are two massive bookshelves filled with books. In other words, Powers has undoubtedly read all those books, and he knows better than anyone that they are of no value.
“Foreign correspondent, huh?” Jones asks. “No,” Powers replies, “reporter.”
So, foreign correspondents are a generally worthless lot, mostly because they read books and think. Of course, this movie is condescending. It presumes that the audience consists of people who don’t read books and think, and the movie is flattering them for their mindless ignorance.
In light of all this, one must suppose that after the movie was filmed, someone started worrying about the newspapers that employ foreign correspondents. Those newspapers might retaliate by publishing reviews unfavorable to the movie, resulting in bad box office. As a result, the prologue was added as a way of making amends. And inasmuch as the working titles of this movie while scripts were being written were Personal History and Imposter, it may be that it was also thought wise to make the title of this movie be Foreign Correspondent, as another way of preemptively atoning for all those disparaging comments.
While Powers wants crime reporter Johnny Jones to go to Europe to get the facts, he realizes that the newspaper must keep up appearances. He tells Jones that he will be writing under the name of Huntley Haverstock. You see, people that read newspapers need to believe that their foreign correspondents do read books and think, something they would never believe of a “Johnny Jones.”
Powers says the man of the moment over in Europe is Van Meer, a Dutch diplomat, whom he refers to as “Holland’s strongman.” According to Powers, “If Van Meer stays at the helm of his country’s affairs for the next three months, it may mean peace in Europe. If we knew what he was thinking we’d know where Europe stands.”
A diplomat in Holland is essential to preventing war? Jones was thinking that maybe Hitler was more important, but Powers gives him a dismissive look. Anyway, Van Meer has signed a treaty with a diplomat in Belgium, and Jones is assigned to find out what is in that treaty. So, some agreement between Holland and Belgium is the key to determining whether Europe will remain at peace or go to war.
This sounds like a joke. The Rome-Berlin Axis; the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact; the Agreement of Mutual Assistance between the United Kingdom and Poland—these were not the treaties that mattered. It was some Dutch-Belgium treaty on which depended the peace of Europe.
While Jones is still in Powers’ office, he is introduced to Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), leader of the Universal Peace Party. It turns out that Fisher has an attractive daughter, Carol (Laraine Day), with whom Jones eventually becomes romantically involved.
After Jones arrives in England, he meets Van Meer while both are on their way to the luncheon being held by the Universal Peace Party at a hotel. Van Meer wishes there were more men like Fisher, promoting peace. Jones tries to get Van Meer to talk about the possibility of war, but all Van Meer seems to want to talk about is birds:
Look at those birds. No matter how big the city, there must always be parks and places for the birds to live. I was walking through the park this morning, and I saw several people feeding the birds. It’s a good sign at a time like this.
Jones rolls his eyes in exasperation. They arrive at the hotel, where we hear an orchestra playing a Viennese waltz, perhaps as a way of inducing a little doubt in our minds as to the nature of this Universal Peace Party. Soon thereafter, Van Meer disappears. Later, Jones gets a cable telling him to go to Amsterdam, where Van Meer will be giving an important speech. When Jones greets Van Meer in Holland, the diplomat appears not to recognize him. Moments later, he is assassinated. Jones, Carol, and another reporter, Scott ffolliott (George Sanders), team up to chase the assassin and try to find out what is going on.
What makes the Dutch-Belgian treaty really special is that it has a secret clause, known as Clause 27, so secret in fact that it is only known to the two people who signed the treaty, because it was never written down. This raises the question as to how anyone, other than the two signatories, knows of the existence of Clause 27.
To find out what is in Clause 27, the spies kidnapped Van Meer with the idea of torturing him until he talked. But to keep the world from knowing that Van Meer had been kidnapped, they got a man who looked like Van Meer to take his place and then had him assassinated. Presumably, the impostor did not know about that part of the plan.
This was not making full use of a valuable resource. Having secured an imposter, the spies could have attacked their problem from two angles. While torturing the real Van Meer to find out what was in the clause, the imposter could have engaged the Belgian diplomat in a conversation about Clause 27, expressing doubts and asking for reassurances. Alternatively, he could have told the Belgian diplomat that he changed his mind and would no longer honor that clause.
In any event, this is another parallel with The Lady Vanishes. Just as Miss Froy, who knows the vital clause of a secret treaty between two countries, disappears and is replaced by a woman that looks like her in that movie; so too in this movie does Van Meer know of a secret clause in a treaty between two countries, and he disappears and is replaced by a substitute. In each movie, the protagonist knows that a real person had been replaced by a substitute, but has trouble convincing others of this. In each movie, someone who says he believes the protagonist turns out to be an enemy spy, in whom the protagonist puts his or her trust, thereby putting him or her in danger of being killed by the spy.
Back to the movie at hand. If the world thinks Van Meer has been assassinated, then that means that as far as everyone else is concerned, only the Belgian diplomat knows what is in Clause 27. Van Meer might have trusted this other fellow, but can we expect the country he represented to honor a secret clause whose content is known only to the diplomat of the other country and take his word for it? So, with Van Meer’s faked assassination, it would seem that the clause has just become worthless.
Moving right along, if I had been Van Meer and the spies started torturing me to tell what was in Clause 27, I would have just made up something. After all, it’s a secret, so how would the spies have known the difference?
But enough of this. Clause 27 is obviously what Hitchcock called a “MacGuffin,” something the spies are after, but the audience doesn’t care. But a MacGuffin should meet some minimum standard of believability. Personally, I found the whole business about Clause 27 to be palpably absurd, to the point that I found it distracting. While I was supposed to be enjoying all the danger and intrigue—Jones sneaking around in the windmill, someone falling from a cathedral, the spies torturing Van Meer—I kept being bothered by the nagging thought that there is no way Van Meer and his secret clause could have prevented war. We had no trouble believing that the vital clause in The Lady Vanishes was important, and for three reasons: World War II had not yet begun; it was left to our imagination which two countries had agreed to that clause; and the clause was not supposed to prevent war, but merely be an important piece of intelligence as war became more likely. Foreign Correspondent was released after the war had already begun, which means after Germany had already invaded Poland. What possible agreement between the Netherlands and Belgium could have prevented that?
When Jones discovers Van Meer in the windmill, the diplomat has been drugged and can hardly think. But he manages to tell Jones, “All that I can tell you is that they are going to take me away by plane like a bird. Always there are places in the city where birds can get crumbs.” Once again, Jones is frustrated by all this talk of birds. In any event, Jones cannot rescue Van Meer while the spies are still in the windmill, and soon after, Van Meer disappears again.
Fisher, the leader of that pacifist organization, actually turns out to be a spy, and is the one that arranged the kidnapping. You just can’t trust those peaceniks. This makes things difficult for Jones and Carol. When they first meet, he makes a derogatory remark about “well-meaning amateurs” that think a pacifist organization can prevent war. She bristles, noting that these well-meaning amateurs will be doing the fighting if there is war. This gets them off to a bad start. Later, when Jones realizes that Fisher is a spy, he doesn’t want to believe Carol is part the spy ring, and she is reluctant to believe anything bad about her father.
A day arrives in which both ffolliott and Jones say that war is going to break out “tomorrow,” and we learn from Fisher that England has already started with the blackouts. Earlier, we were supposed to believe that if Van Meer remained alive with his knowledge of Clause 27, war might be prevented. But now that war is inevitable, the significance of Clause 27 has changed. Now we are supposed to believe that knowledge of this clause will help Germany win that war, if the spies can find out what it is.
The spies take Van Meer to a room above a restaurant where they start torturing him. Fisher arrives and pretends to be his friend, trying to get him to tell about the clause. When Van Meer finds out that Fisher is a spy as well, he says to all of them:
You can do what you want with me. That’s not important. But you’ll never conquer them, Fisher. Little people everywhere, who give crumbs to birds. Lie to them. Drive them, whip them, force them into war. When the beasts like you will devour each other, then the world will belong to the little people.
The little people that feed the birds! What is this, a Frank Capra movie? But this was the implication of Miss Froy’s remark in The Lady Vanishes, when she said you can’t judge a country by its government, that it’s the ordinary people that are important. This praise of the little people, taken in conjunction with Powers’ anti-intellectual attitude and his approval of the way Jones beat up a policeman, shows that both movies share a populist ideology, although it’s more pronounced in this one.
A few minutes earlier, ffolliott was caught snooping around and brought into the room at gunpoint. He watches as the spies finally inflict some method of torture on Van Meer so gruesome that we are not allowed to see what it is, but only see the faces of ffolliott and the woman holding a gun on him as they react in horror. Van Meer agrees to talk. He says, “In the event of invasion by an enemy….” At that point, ffolliott starts scuffling with the spies, and then jumps out the window. Figuring the jig is up, the spies take off. Van Meer is rescued, but falls into a coma.
War does break out the next day. Fisher decides to leave England and fly to America, taking Carol with him. Jones and ffolliott also get themselves a seat on that plane. However, the plane is damaged when it is fired on by a German destroyer. Immediately, the captain of she ship sends a message to the radioman, who tells the pilot, “It’s the Germans. They’re sorry. They thought we were a bomber. She’ll rescue us straight-away.”
That certainly is sporting of them. You can tell that this is early in the war. In a later Hitchcock movie, Lifeboat (1944), after a U-boat torpedoes a merchant ship, the captain orders the lifeboats to be fired on before the submarine itself is sunk in return. I guess by that time the hatred of the Germans had reached the point where an audience was not ready to accept decent behavior on the part of a German captain, and would be willing to believe nothing but the worst about him.
The plane crashes into the ocean. Many scramble onto a wing of the plane, but when it proves unable to support everybody, Fisher redeems himself by getting off and drowning. Maybe. While Fisher was on the plane, Van Meer had recovered, telling Stebbins that Fisher was a spy. Fisher had intercepted a telegram, intended for ffolliott, saying that Fisher was to be arrested when he arrives in America. Knowing that he probably would be executed for espionage, he may have just been looking for an easy way out.
This is another parallel with The Lady Vanishes. In neither movie is the pacifist an upright, moral character who just happens to be misguided in his beliefs. Rather, he is depicted in both movies as unsavory. Not content to portray pacifism as merely naïve or imprudent, these movies vilify it. In The Lady Vanishes, the pacifist is a cad, an adulterer who promised the woman he was having an affair with that they would get married, but changed his mind when he realized a divorce would hurt his career. In Foreign Correspondent, the pacifist is not really interested in peace, but working with the enemy to help them win the upcoming war. And as punishment, both pacifists die in the end.
Jones manages to get his story back to the states. Unfortunately, Jones is never able to file a report on what Clause 27 said, or explain why it mattered. Perhaps it was an agreement as to how the Dutch and the Belgians planned to divide up Europe after the war.
Anyway, he returns to England, continuing to be a great foreign correspondent, sending important stories back to his newspaper, under the name of Huntley Haverstock. In the final scene, he is making a live broadcast over the radio when the bombs start falling all around them, causing the lights to go out. Instead of taking shelter, he continues to broadcast fearlessly, Carol remaining by his side, as he refers to the lights literally as well as metaphorically:
I can’t read the rest of my speech because the lights went out. So I’ll have to talk off the cuff. That noise you hear isn’t static. It’s death coming to London. You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes. Don’t tune me out. Hang on. This is a big story. You’re part of it. It’s too late to do anything here except stand in the dark, let them come. It’s as if the lights were out everywhere except in America. Keep those lights burning. Cover them with steel, ring them with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them. Hello, America, hang onto your lights. They’re the only lights left in the world.
The speech, of course, is intended to rouse America from its complacency and pacifism as we hear “The Star Spangled Banner” being played in the background. But I would have given anything for ffolliott to walk in at that point, saying, “You realize, of course, that without electricity, the microphone stopped working when the lights went out.”