Lifeboat (1944)

Lifeboat is a movie made during World War II, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  It begins with a freighter that was on its way from America to England, having been sunk by a German U-boat.  The captain of the U-boat gave orders to fire upon the lifeboats, after which the U-boat itself is sunk.  One lifeboat manages to survive, and one by one it is populated by British and Americans of all walks of life. Finally, Willi (Walter Slezak), a German, is pulled aboard.  Some, such as a John Kovac (John Hodiak), who worked in the engine room, want to throw the German overboard, while columnist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), radioman Stanley “Sparks” Garrett (Hume Cronyn), and industrialist Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull) (i.e., a woman and two weak men, appeasers all) argue successfully that they should let the German stay.

As the movie progresses, we see that while the British and Americans share what they have with the German, he conceals from them that he has a flask of water, some food and energy tablets, and a compass, by which he tries to steer them away from Bermuda and toward an area of the ocean occupied by German ships.  He further conceals that he was the captain of the U-boat.

Of particular interest is Gus Smith (William Bendix), who has been wounded in the leg. When we find out that he loves to dance, we know right then his leg is doomed.  Sure enough, it becomes gangrenous.  As it turns out, Willi was a surgeon before the war and says that he can amputate.  We get the sense that he enjoys the idea of removing Gus’s leg, much like the sadistic doctor in King’s Row (1942), who unnecessarily amputates the legs of Ronald Reagan.  Gus does not want to have his leg removed, saying he’d rather die than live with one leg, because he is afraid that he will lose Rosie, the girl back home whom he loves.  He fears that she might not want to marry him if he comes back without one of his legs, especially since she loves to dance as much as Gus does.  To make matters worse, Gus has a rival, Al Magaroulian, whom Rosie used to date, and who is also a good dancer, even though fallen arches have kept him out of the war.  Gus is afraid Rosie will go back to Al if he has his leg removed.  But eventually he relents, and Willi performs the surgery with no better anesthetic than brandy.

Later in the movie, while everyone is sleeping lethargically from dehydration, Gus catches Willi sipping a drink of water from his flask.  To keep Gus from telling the others about the water, Willi pushes him overboard.  When the others awaken from hearing Gus’s cries for help, they realize Gus has drowned, and they ask Willi why he didn’t do something.  Willi does not, of course, tell them that he pushed Gus overboard to keep him from talking.  Instead, he tells them that Gus voluntarily jumped overboard, and that he thought it would be best not to do anything about it:

You can’t imagine how painful it was to me.  All night long, to watch him turning and suffering and nothing I could do for him….  The best way to help him was to let him go.  I had no right to stop him, even if I wanted to.  A poor cripple dying of hunger and thirst. What good could life be to a man like that?

It probably didn’t help that earlier in the movie, when the passengers in the lifeboat were voting on whether to throw Willi overboard, he heard Gus vote to toss him into the ocean.

Then the other passengers find out about the water and food that Willi has been concealing.  They attack Willi, both the men and the women, forcing him overboard and to his death.  But one person does not take part in the attack.  It is Joe “Charcoal” Spencer (Canada Lee), an African American.  The idea seems to be that killing Willi is essentially a lynching, something that Joe would be sensitive about and find repugnant. He even tries to stop the nurse, Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), from participating in the killing, though she breaks away from him.

More likely, the true motivation was external to the film, in that those who made the movie were afraid that theaters in the South would have refused to show a movie in which a black man takes part in the killing of a white man, even if that white man is a Nazi.  In fact, earlier in the movie, when they were voting on whether to throw Willi overboard, Rittenhouse asks Joe how he wants to vote. Joe asks, “Do I get to vote too?” When told that he does, he says, “Guess I’d rather stay out of this.” This too was probably to placate the South, which would have bristled at seeing Joe get to vote right alongside white people.  Instead, southern audiences were undoubtedly pleased to see that this Negro knew his place.

One of the women brought aboard the lifeboat has a baby that drowned.  Eventually, they decide to give the baby a burial at sea. The passengers know that a prayer is in order, but are not sure which one. Rittenhouse says that any prayer will do, and he begins saying Psalm 23, the one that begins, “The Lord is my shepherd….”  However, Rittenhouse begins to falter after a couple of lines. But then Joe picks up where he left off, for he knows the entire thing by heart, and finishes it reverently.  One might suppose that the movie is depicting this as something admirable, but it is actually condescending.  African Americans in the old movies were always allowed to be more religious than white people, not because they were better than white people, morally speaking, but because their lesser intelligence made it possible for them to embrace their simple beliefs with an unquestioning faith.  In movies like The Green Pastures (1936) and Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959), it is clear that their religious notions are naïve and childlike, something white people approve of in black folks with an affectionate smile, but would be incapable of taking seriously themselves.

After they kill Willi, they realize that he was the only one who knew enough and had strength enough to row them to safety. Rittenhouse says, “When we killed the German, we killed our motor.”  But Joe says, “We still got a motor,” as he looks up toward the heavens.  Rittenhouse is dismissive when he realizes Joe is talking about God.  Here again, religion enters the movie through an acceptable vehicle, through a black man, while the white people remain skeptical, thereby retaining their dignity.  All this is a prejudice of the movies I’m talking about here, not necessarily how things were in real life.

Joe is only one of two people on the boat that is married, the other being Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel), the woman with the dead baby. That leaves the way open for romantic possibilities.  Sparks ends up proposing to Alice, who had been having an affair with a married man and was miserable on account of it.  She accepts his proposal.  Kovac seems to be angry at the world, especially at Rittenhouse, who is a capitalist, while Kovac is a prole.  And he resents the fact that Connie is high class.  Little by little, she loses the symbols of her wealth, her mink and her diamond bracelet, for example.  As a woman stripped of such adornments, she might be suitable for Kovac.  Finally, it turns out that she is from the same side of the tracks as Kovac.  She uses her lipstick to put her initials on his chest, right alongside all the other initials of women tattooed on his torso.  We wish Sparks and Alice happiness with their marriage.  As for Kovac and Connie, they’d better just make it a fling.

Eventually, there is another sea battle, and it becomes clear that they will soon be picked up by an Allied ship, but not before they pull another German aboard who proves to be just as bad as Willi, though he is weak and soon overpowered, leaving the survivors to wonder, “What are you going to do with people like that?”

Yes, Nazis are evil, but are we all that good?  Consider Willi’s justification for letting Gus drown.  The lie that Willi thinks will be an acceptable justification for “allowing” Gus to drown is actually repugnant to the other survivors, who listen to his words in horror. And we who watch this movie are likewise repulsed by Willi’s callous remarks.  But now let us ask ourselves why those who made this movie (John Steinbeck, Jo Swerling, and Alfred Hitchcock) put this into the story.  We already knew Willi was evil before he killed Gus. When Mrs. Higley tells Willi he killed her baby when he ordered the lifeboats to be fired upon, Willi is so bored that he yawns and lies down to get some sleep.  She becomes so distraught that she drowns herself. But if a murder on the lifeboat was needed to really drive home the point that Willi was evil, it was not Gus that had to be killed.  It could have been Connie who saw Willi sneaking a sip of water.  When she confronts him, he snaps her neck and dumps her overboard.  That would certainly make it clear that Willi was evil!  But I suspect people would have hated that movie.

The point is that those who made this movie had a special reason for killing Gus off beyond making it clear that Willi was evil, which was overdetermined in any event. They did it to make those in the audience feel better, believing that the audience would have been uneasy if the movie had ended with Gus still alive in that lifeboat.  (It is for a similar reason that the mother with the dead baby had to commit suicide, because it would have been depressing to still have her alive at the end of the movie too.)  Sure, Rosie might not have cared about Gus’s leg, marrying him anyway because she truly loved him.  In a movie like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Hollywood could make sure that things would turn out that way.  In that movie, Cathy O’Donnell marries Harold Russell, despite the fact that both of his forearms have been replaced by prostheses, and despite the fact that her parents wanted her to break off the engagement.  But in real life, we know things do not always work out that way.  Rosie and Gus were not even engaged.  Instead of being like O’Donnell, Rosie might have tried to put a good face on the situation for a couple of months and then broken up with Gus and gone back to Al Magaroulian.  Since this movie is limited to what happens in and about that lifeboat, Hollywood could not guarantee a happy ending for Gus and Rosie, leaving the audience with dark forebodings as to what will happen when Gus gets back home.

Furthermore, the movie even indicates that Rosie will not remain true to Gus.  When Kovac and Connie try to convince Gus he needs to have his leg amputated, he refuses, saying he doesn’t want to live with just one leg.  (In a way, he is in agreement with Willi.)  Connie gives Gus a long, sentimental talk about how women are, how Rosie would be heartbroken to find that Gus allowed himself to die because he didn’t have faith in her.  Gus finally seems persuaded, but Connie turns away, saying, sotto voce, “God forgive me.”  By this we are to understand that she knows Rosie will not stick with Gus, and we know we are supposed to agree with her assessment.

And so, rather than leave the audience suspecting that Rosie would desert Gus, which would have been depressing, those who made this movie killed Gus off, allowing the audience to leave the theater feeling much better about the movie than if Gus had lived.  You might even say that Gus’s death was necessary for there to be a happy ending.  But does that not imply that those who made this movie were essentially in agreement with Willi when he asked, “What good could life be to a man like that?”  If they were right in their assessment of the audience’s reaction to an ending in which Gus is still alive, then does that not imply that the audience at that time felt the way Willi did?  Of course, there is a big difference between saying a man is better off dead and saying that the death of that man made the story better.  But both stem from the same sentiment.

And so, just as the audience gets the consolation of religion through Joe, while not being guilty of indulging in his silly superstitions, so too does the audience get the benefit of evil through Willi, while not being guilty of consciously wanting it.

Saboteur (1942) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

“Let’s see,” you are saying to yourself, “which Hitchcock movie was Saboteur?”  That was the one where the bad guy is hanging from the Statue of Liberty until he loses his grip and falls to his death.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, the bad guy’s name is Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd).  The movie begins in an airplane factory during World War II.  At the end of the day shift, Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) and his friend Ken Mason are heading to the counter where food is served when they bump into Fry, who spills his mail on the floor.  Barry picks it up to give it to him, but Fry is surly and unappreciative.  As Fry walks off, Barry sees a hundred-dollar bill that was left behind. Remembering the name he saw on the envelope, he finds Fry to give it back to him, but Fry takes the money without saying anything in the way of thanks.

Suddenly, fire breaks out where the planes are painted.  They all rush to that area.  Fry hands Barry the fire extinguisher, but Mason takes it from him and runs toward the fire.  We see Mason being consumed in an inferno.  It turns out that the extinguisher was filled with gasoline.

When interviewed by the police, Barry tells them what happened, but when it turns out there is no record of a Frank Fry working at the plant, they suspect that it was Barry that started the fire and knowingly handed Mason the gasoline-filled extinguisher. Barry gets away before the police can arrest him.  He decides he must find Fry to prove that he exists, thereby clearing himself of the charge.

It is a familiar trope, the innocent man eluding the police so that he can clear himself by bringing the guilty party to justice.  Has anything like that ever happened in real life? I doubt it.  But no matter how unrealistic that may be, it works quite well in the movies. And while on the subject of what is not realistic, I must say that there was absolutely no reason for Fry to hand Barry the extinguisher. Whoever got there first would pick up that extinguisher himself, there being no need for Fry to make sure that it happened. He should have been heading for the exit while everyone else was preoccupied.

Along the way, in his search for Fry, Barry has to kidnap Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) because she thinks he is the saboteur, and she would otherwise go to the police. “You look like a saboteur,” Pat says to Barry accusatively. Inasmuch as Barry is played by Robert Cummings, what are we to make of this remark?

First of all, there is reality. We all know that as a general rule, saboteurs do not have a distinctive look. Now, inasmuch as World War II had just broken out, I suppose that if Barry had been Japanese or German (someone with blond hair and a slight accent), her remark would have been appropriate. But Barry does not appear to be either German or Japanese.  (No, I didn’t forget about the Italians, who were also one of the Axis Powers. But even in World War II, Hollywood always portrayed Italians as patriotic Americans, even if they were gangsters.)

Second, there is typecasting. A movie producer might call up Central Casting and say, “We’re making a spy movie. Do you have anyone who looks like a saboteur? If so, send him over for an interview.” And then they might send over someone like Norman Lloyd.

Or they might send over Alan Baxter, who plays Mr. Freeman, another saboteur. Baxter often played sinister characters, but in this movie, he is also effeminate, presumably a homosexual.  When this movie was made, explicit references to homosexuality were forbidden by the Production Code, so movies had to be content with queer flashes.  Believing Barry to be a fellow spy, Freeman talks to him about his family:

Freeman:  Sometimes I wish my younger child had been a girl.  In fact, my wife and I argue over a little idiosyncrasy I have.  I don’t want his hair cut short until he’s much older.  Do you think it’d be bad for him?

Barry:  I don’t know.  It might be.

Freeman:  When I was a child, I had long golden curls.  People used to stop to admire me.

Barry:  Things are different nowadays.  A haircut might save him a lot of grief.

Back when this movie was made, anyone who appeared to be a homosexual was either a weakling or a villain, both of which apply to Freeman.  In any event, when asked to send over someone that looked like a saboteur, Central Casting might send over Normal Lloyd or Alan Baxter, but they would not send over Robert Cummings.

Because neither reality nor typecasting would make anyone say of Robert Cummings that he looks like a saboteur, it is odd that Pat would say that he does.  Furthermore, she has a very good reason for thinking he is a saboteur, which has nothing to do with his looks. When she first met him, she saw that he was wearing handcuffs, and she realized that he was the fugitive the police were looking for.

Actually, it is precisely because Barry does not look like a saboteur that he is able to avoid the police. Earlier in the movie, Barry is arrested.  After he bolts from the police car when it had to come to a stop, he jumps from the bridge into the river below. The truck driver that had earlier given him a ride recognizes him, and he misdirects the police so that Barry can escape, giving Barry an “OK” hand signal. Now, why would he do that? I would have helped the police by pointing out where Barry was hiding. All we can conclude is that the truck driver figured Barry did not look like a criminal, so he helped him escape.

Barry takes shelter in the house of a blind man, Philip Martin.  It is here that Pat makes her entrance into the movie, because she is his niece.  When she arrives at her uncle’s house shortly after Philip and Barry have become acquainted, she sees the handcuffs that her uncle already knew about on account of his acute hearing. She says he should have turned Barry in to the police. Her uncle accuses her of being cruel. He assures her that Barry is not dangerous. And besides, he argues, a man is innocent until proven guilty. (That’s a nice piece of circular reasoning:  since he hasn’t been proven guilty, he is innocent; and an innocent man shouldn’t be turned over to the police.)  Now, because Philip is blind, he obviously cannot be coming to these incredible conclusions simply on account of Barry’s looks.  However, he can hear the sound of Barry’s voice, and by virtue of that kind of appearance, Philip tells Pat that he can see intangible things like innocence.

Pat pretends to go along with what her uncle wants, which is to take Barry to a blacksmith to get the handcuffs off, but she tries to take him to the police instead. That doesn’t work, however, and after some complications, they find themselves in the company of some circus freaks. Some of them want to turn Barry over to the police, who are inspecting the circus trucks, but the deciding vote belongs to the bearded lady, who blathers about how fine it is that Pat has stuck with Barry through his difficulties, and therefore they must be good people; much in the way, I suppose, that we know that Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were good people on account of the way Bonnie stuck with Clyde through his difficulties too.  It makes about as much sense as when earlier a man and a woman saw Barry kidnap Pat, dragging her into a car against her will, and the woman said, “My, they must be terribly in love.”  Apparently, Barry doesn’t look like a rapist or a serial killer either.

What these three instances—that of the truck driver, the blind man, and the bearded lady—have in common is that appearances, in one form or another, make people decide to thwart the police and help the fugitive. Toward the end of the movie, Charles Tobin (Otto Krüger), one of the villains, says of Barry that he is noble, fine, and pure, and that is why he is misjudged by everyone. But save for the police, who are simply going by what evidence they have, Barry is not misjudged by others. The point of this mistaken remark is to show just how much evil foreigners underestimate Americans. The idea is that Americans, being basically noble, fine, and pure, can readily see the goodness in others, which is why they are willing to help a fugitive from justice escape from the police: they can just tell from Barry’s appearance that he is noble, fine, and pure.  Of course, Otto Krüger is of German descent, which is why he was selected to play this part.

There is one point in this movie where Barry’s appearance works against him.  He and Pat end up at a charity affair being given by a Mrs. Sutton, a wealthy woman that is also one of the spies.  It is here that the conversation with Tobin occurs.  Barry and Pat manage to escape onto the dance floor, where there are a lot of people that do not realize that Mrs. Sutton and Mr. Tobin are spies.  But when Barry tries to tell one of the guests that “the whole house is a hotbed of spies and saboteurs,” he is dismissed out of hand.  You see, it’s a formal affair, and as the guest points out to Barry, who is just wearing a suit, “You’re not even dressed.”  It all goes to show that ordinary citizens like the truck driver, the blind man, and the bearded lady are the real backbone of this country, while the snooty rich are more concerned with maintaining their privileges over the rabble than in protecting this country from the enemy.

There is a scene where Fry and his fellow saboteurs try to sink a ship as it is being launched.  It appears that Barry has thwarted him.  But later, while Fry is in a car, he looks out the window and sees a ship lying on its side in the water.  As long as that shot was going to be in the movie, Hitchcock should have let it appear that Fry was successful in his second act of sabotage.  Instead, we find ourselves wondering, “Well, did he sink that ship or not?”

That he might have sunk that ship led to objections on the part of the War Department, and Hitchcock said that the Navy opposed having this scene in the movie because it made it look as though they failed to do their job in protecting that ship.  So, while the government is printing posters that say, “Loose lips sink ships,” that same government doesn’t want us to think that ships actually get sunk.

This is followed by a scene in which Fry, in his effort to escape, runs into a movie theater.  Just as he starts firing his gun, someone in the movie starts firing his gun, making it difficult to tell which shots are real and which are part of the movie.

So, what with Pat’s initial reluctance to believe that Barry is innocent, the man at the ball refusing to believe Barry because he is not formally attired, and this scene in the theater, there are some gestures in this movie toward the message that appearances can be deceiving.  But overall, the casting works against this message, reassuring us that you can tell just by looking who is noble, fine, and pure on the one hand, and who is base, gross, and adulterated on the other.

If this movie had been intended to alert Americans of the danger of enemy agents in their midst during World War II, it would have cast against type, letting Otto Krüger, Norman Lloyd, or Alan Baxter play Barry, the innocent man, and letting Robert Cummings play one of the spies.  Then the movie would have driven home the point that you cannot tell by a person’s appearance whether he is good or evil.  Let’s imagine Norman Lloyd playing the role of Barry, the innocent man.  In such a movie, Pat’s remark that Barry looks like a saboteur would make sense, and the truck driver, the blind man, and the bearded lady would be suspicious of Barry instead of trusting. Finally, when the married couple see Barry dragging Pat into the car, they would immediately call the police.  Instead, the movie seems intent on assuring the wartime audience that they can just rely on appearances, which is a much more comforting notion.

Hitchcock complained about being forced to use Robert Cummings in this movie, thinking him wrong for the role, on account of his comic face.  Given this insistence on the part of Universal that he use Cummings in this movie, Hitchcock should have turned this fait accompli into an asset by making him be the saboteur.

Perhaps it was in reaction to the simplistic casting of that movie that he decided to make Shadow of a Doubt the next year, in in which appearances, instead of being dependable, turn out to be deceptive. In this movie, Joseph Cotten plays Charles “Charlie” Oakley, a man who murders rich widows. Needless to say, audiences in 1943, watching a movie about a serial killer, would have expected to see someone like Laird Cregar in the role of the killer, not Joseph Cotten.

As we watch the opening credits, the music we hear is “The Merry Widow Waltz,” played with just a hint of discord, while we see good-looking men dancing with older women.  The music is from The Merry Widow, an operetta about a woman who has inherited a lot of money from her deceased husband.  It was composed in 1905, and it was based on a play first performed in 1861.  The idea of a merry widow was the exact opposite of what was expected in those days.  In Gone with the Wind, after Scarlett’s first husband has died, she is miserable; not because he died, for she never loved him, but because of what she realizes is now required of her:

She was a widow and her heart was in the grave.  At least everyone thought it was in the grave and expected her to act accordingly….  Not for her the pleasures of unmarried girls.  She had to be grave and aloof….  The conduct of a widow must be twice as circumspect as that of a matron.

“And God only knows,” thought Scarlett…, “matrons never have any fun at all.  So widows might as well be dead.”

… Widows could never chatter vivaciously or laugh aloud.  Even when they smiled, it must be a sad, tragic smile.  And most dreadful of all, they could in no way indicate an interest in the company of gentlemen.  And should a gentleman be so ill bred as to indicate an interest in her, she must freeze him with a dignified but well-chosen reference to her dead husband.  Oh, yes, thought Scarlett, drearily, some widows do marry eventually, when they are old and stringy.  Though Heaven knows how they manage it, with their neighbors watching.

It must have been a great comfort to men in those days to know that in the event of their death, their wives could never again be truly happy.  And it must have been a comfort to married women as well, for they would have fumed at the idea that should some other woman happen to become a widow, she would be free once again to enjoy the pleasures of being single.

And if a merry widow should also be rich, like the one in the operetta, that would only add to the feelings of resentment, for it would bring to mind the idea of a husband who works hard, accumulates a sizable fortune, and then dies at an early age; after which, the wife, having gotten her hands on all that money, foolishly squanders it on some good-looking young man that will flatter her with attention.

Solon said that you should count no man happy until he is dead, for it is only then, in the words of Aristotle, that he is “beyond the reach of evils and misfortune.”  But as Aristotle goes on to say, we may even be reluctant to say that a man had a happy life if, after he dies, he is dishonored in some way. Though Aristotle does not give this as an example, yet the idea that a widow might fritter away her deceased husband’s entire fortune on some silly gigolo could be just the sort of thing Aristotle had in mind. In fact, the thoughts a man might have of his wife cavorting in this manner after he is dead might just drive him to an early grave.

I remember my mother telling me that the reason a man might be reluctant to buy life insurance is that he can’t stand the idea that his wife will spend all that money on some boyfriend.  And, as a matter of fact, six months after my father died, my mother got herself a facelift.  Another woman I knew had for years chafed under her husband’s insistence that they buy used cars only, drive them until they dropped, after which he would buy another used car. But when he died, she put him in the ground, and then went right out and bought herself a brand new luxury automobile.  “I earned it,” she said.  I’ve always thought of that line as being the divorced woman’s mantra, but I guess it works for widows too.

And then there was the suggestion of sexual license.  As they used to say in the days before the sexual revolution, once the pie has been cut, there’s no harm in helping yourself to another piece. Therefore, it was expected that a widow might more readily give in to her passions than would a maiden of younger years. In Horse Feathers (1932), Groucho Marx becomes president of a college, where his son, who has been in that college for twelve years, is “fooling around with the college widow.” Groucho tells him he’s ashamed of him, saying, “I went to three colleges in twelve years and fooled around with three college widows.”  Now, a college at that time might have denied admission to a divorced woman, a shameful status in those days.  But a widow was more to be pitied than censured.  Her innocence had to be presumed by those considering her admission to a college, even if suspicions lurked to the contrary; for her knowledge of the delights of sexual intimacy would no doubt leave her lusting for more.

In a lot of the Marx Brothers movies, Groucho would pursue some rich widow for her money, and more often than not, that widow would be played by Margaret Dumont.  She was in her late forties or fifties when these movies were made, and she had a matronly appearance.  Moreover, she was little bigger and taller than Groucho.  This made them a comic couple.  But in Horse Feathers, the college widow was supposed to be a threat to campus morality on account of her being sexually desirable and accessible, for which reason the role was played by Thelma Todd.

These negative attitudes toward widows are harbored by Charles Oakley.  Later in the movie, while sitting at the dinner table with his sister and her family, he compares women in a small town with those in the big city:

Women keep busy in towns like this. In the cities it’s different. Middle-aged widows, husbands dead, husbands who’ve spent their lives making fortunes, working and working, and then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the best hotels every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry, but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.

The weakest parts of Shadow of a Doubt are the scenes that involve the detectives, none of which make any sense. They want a picture of Oakley so they can show it to witnesses to see if he is the Merry Widow Killer. All they need to do is bring him in for questioning and take his picture, not to mention putting him in a lineup. Failing that, they could have photographed him when he walked right toward them at the beginning of the movie. Furthermore, they had previously told his landlady that they wanted to talk to him, so why didn’t they talk to him right there on the street?  After he walks past them, they follow him. What for? Do they think that by following him, they will catch him in the act of killing another widow? I could go on, but what would be the point? Suffice it to say that everything involving these detectives is not just unrealistic, for every movie is that to some degree, but distractingly so, and to an extent that interferes with our ability to suspend disbelief and immerse ourselves in the story. And it is a shame, because with a few changes in the script, they could have been left out entirely.

It is the rest of the movie, the parts where the detectives play no significant role, that the movie really engages us. When it begins, it is clear that Oakley has just killed another widow, after first getting his hands on her money. But it is not the money he cares about. He hates these women, and it gives him great satisfaction to kill them. But now, thoroughly sated from his recent murder, he is weary, listlessly lying in bed, with some of the money carelessly allowed to fall on the floor. He finally decides to visit his sister and sends her a telegram, ending it with “and a kiss for little Charlie from her Uncle Charlie.”

This “little Charlie,” his niece Charlotte Newton, (Teresa Wright), is first seen lying supine in bed in a way that matches her uncle when we first saw him.  At first, she too is listless, as her uncle was, but she suddenly decides to send him a telegram, inviting him to come for a visit, right after he has sent her mother a telegram saying that he is coming.  On my own, I would never have thought of these scenes as indicating anything other than an affinity between an uncle and his niece.  However, several critics have noted that these matching bed scenes are a suggestion of incest. Young Charlie’s fascination with her uncle is a little unsettling in this regard. She places importance on the fact that they both have the same first name, at least in the diminutive form, and she is convinced that they are alike, that they have a special connection between them, a common fancy of someone in love. And she acts like a girl in love.

When her uncle arrives, Charlie let’s him sleep in her bed.  Now, don’t get excited. She moves to the room of her precocious, younger sister Ann, where there is an unused twin bed.  But if subliminal desires of incest are being suggested in this movie, her letting Uncle Charlie sleep in her bed is another hint.

That evening, he gives young Charlie a ring, not realizing it has an engraving on the inside, “T.S. from B.M.” Later, she reads in the newspaper that the initials of the deceased husband of a recently murdered widow were “B.M.” Both “T.S.” and “B.M.” are abbreviations for expressions involving feces, “tough shit” and “bowel movement” respectively, which is a way of suggesting something foul associated with the emerald ring. The ugliness hidden underneath beauty is the theme of this movie.

In a similar way, the town where young Charlie lives is one of those warm, wholesome towns, representing the goodness of America.  But Uncle Charlie says these appearances are deceiving.  Later in the movie, after young Charlie has figured out that her uncle is the Merry Widow Killer, he says the rest of the world, including the town where she lives, is no better than he is:

You’re just an ordinary little girl, living in an ordinary little town.  You wake up every day and know there’s nothing in the world to trouble you.  You go through your ordinary little day.  At night, you sleep your ordinary sleep, filled with peaceful, stupid dreams.  And I brought you nightmares.  Or did l?  Or was it a silly, inexpert, little lie?  You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind.  How do you know what the world is like?  Do you know the world is a foul sty?  Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses, you’d find swine?  The world’s a hell.  What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie.  Use your wits. Learn something!

And what Uncle Charlie says of the world applies to young Charlie herself.  As the movie keeps emphasizing, and as young Charlie keeps insisting, she and her uncle Charlie are very much alike, “like twins” she tells him. The idea that her uncle is her evil twin comes to mind, but she has her dark side too, as becomes clear later in the movie. Because young Charlie is played by Teresa Wright, a wholesome-looking young woman, rather than an actress whom we might see playing a femme fatale in a film noir, the contrast between her innocent appearance and the evil that emerges from within her is stark.

Earlier in the movie, while young Charlie is still blissfully unaware that Uncle Charlie is the Merry Widow Killer, she is so psychically in tune with him that she starts humming “The Merry Widow Waltz,” while setting the table for dinner.  But she can’t seem to remember the name of the melody. Ann says, “Sing at the table, you’ll marry a crazy husband.” This may be another incest hint.  Young Charlie is pleased when some of her friends think Uncle Charlie is her beau.  And as Uncle Charlie is crazy, perhaps he is the man she unconsciously wants for a husband.

Instead of just letting her recall the name of the waltz, Uncle Charlie purposely spills his wine just as she is on the verge of uttering it.  Later, when he sees an article in the newspaper about the Merry Widow Killer, he tears that section out.  Discovering this, she concludes that there must have been something in the paper he wanted to conceal, though she imagines it to be of minor importance. She tells her uncle she knows a secret about him, referring to something that must have been in the newspaper, and reprising an earlier remark she had made:  “I have a feeling that inside you somewhere, there’s something nobody knows about.”  She thinks the secret is something wonderful, but he becomes alarmed, charging at her and grabbing her wrists so hard that he hurts her.  His guilty behavior arouses young Charlie’s suspicions, causing her to go to the library, where she finds the article mentioned above.  This leads to his downfall. Had he not done these things, she might never have suspected anything at all.

Murdering widows for their money appears to be quite remunerative, inasmuch as Uncle Charlie deposits $40,000 in the bank (over $650,000, adjusted for inflation).  As he is leaving the bank, he is introduced to another rich widow, a Mrs. Potter.  She has come to the bank to get some money so she can go shopping. “There’s one good thing in being a widow, isn’t there?” she says laughing.  “You don’t have to ask your husband for money.”

When young Charlie figures out that her uncle is the Merry Widow Killer, she does not turn the ring over to the detectives and tell them what she knows, because she is afraid it will hurt her mother to find this out about her brother.  Many of those same critics that noticed the theme of incest have also argued that the relationships in this movie constitute an allegory of sexual abuse within a family, one in which a girl feels she cannot tell her mother that her father is molesting her.  Only instead of the daughter not wanting her mother to know the truth, too often it is the mother that does not want to know the truth when her daughter tries to tell her.  Here too, on my own, that would never have occurred to me, but it does seem to resonate, now that it has been brought to my attention.

And so, instead of telling the detectives, she tries to get Uncle Charlie to leave town, hinting at first, but then becoming more insistent.  He quickly picks up on the fact that she knows.  It is then that he makes the remarks about widows quoted above.  Young Charlie defends them:  “But they’re alive. They’re human beings.”  Uncle Charlie replies:

Are they? Are they, Charlie? Are they human, or are they fat, wheezing animals? Hm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?

While all this has been going on, young Charlie’s father, Joseph (Henry Travers), and a next-door neighbor, Herb (Hume Cronyn), who lives with his mother and is always coming over while the Newton family is having dinner, enjoy discussing the murder mysteries they have read in books. Joseph thinks the best way to kill someone is by hitting him over the head with a lead pipe, but Herb objects to that form of murder because then you don’t have any clues.  Joseph says he doesn’t want any clues, of course, but Herb has confused getting away with a murder in real life with committing a murder that would make a good mystery.  As a result, he prefers exotic poisons.  The fun they have discussing murder mysteries unnerves young Charlie, who is trying to deal with the real murders committed by her uncle.

At the same time, the detectives have confided in young Charlie that her uncle is one of two suspects they have been investigating.  They are pretty sure her uncle is their man, but out of consideration for her mother, they agree to arrest her uncle out of town, if Charlie can get him to leave soon.  But then, the other suspect ends up being killed when, in the act of fleeing from the police, he runs into the propeller of an airplane. Uncle Charlie and young Charlie overhear Joseph and Herb talking about it.  Herb says they had to identify the suspect, who was all chopped up, by his clothes.  “His shirts were all initialed,” Herb says, “‘C,’ ‘O,’ apostrophe ‘H’.”

We have already seen that the initials on the ring were abbreviations for feces, so I wondered if these initials were supposed to have significance, especially since the dialogue gives them emphasis. That is, the scriptwriter could simply have had Herb say, “They identified him by the initials on his shirts,” without specifying which initials they were.  But other than the fact that “C” and “O” are also Charles Oakley’s initials, and “CO” is the symbol for carbon monoxide, which soon comes into play, not much comes to mind.  I suppose the “H” could stand for Hitchcock, another cameo of a sort.

One might also ask why the scriptwriters chose this form of death for the other suspect, one that involves mutilation.  The reason is that had he died, say, by being hit by an automobile, the detectives could have photographed him, thereby allowing his picture to be shown to witnesses for identification.  And so, this absurd idea that the detectives cannot photograph Charles Oakley against his will, unless they are sneaky about it, is being applied to this other suspect as well.

Once Uncle Charlie hears that the police have called off the investigation because they think the Merry Widow Killer is dead, he is delighted.  But then he remembers that he had all but admitted to being the killer when young Charlie confronted him.  He sets out to murder her to make sure she doesn’t talk.  His first attempt is by loosening part of a step on the stairway she often uses, but she catches herself when it gives way. The second attempt is with carbon monoxide, by trapping her in the garage with the motor of the family car running. Fortunately, Herb hears her screams and alerts her family to her situation.

Notwithstanding young Charlie’s plea that these widows are “human beings,” in the end, she cares more about protecting her mother from any unhappiness than she does the lives of Uncle Charlie’s future victims.  She insists that he leave town, with the threat of giving the ring to the police, even when she knows who his next victim will be, the Mrs. Potter mentioned above, the rich widow he met in town.  In fact, Mrs. Potter is sitting right there in the living room of young Charlie’s home, and she will be leaving on the same train as Uncle Charlie. This would have made young Charlie an accomplice to his next and subsequent murders had he simply left town as she wanted.  We can imagine her reading in the newspaper about his murders of widows in the future, but still remaining silent, her mother’s feelings being more important to her than the women being strangled by Uncle Charlie.

In another scene, she tells him, “Go away, or I’ll kill you myself.” And so she does. The scene in which she pushes him into the path of the oncoming train can be understood as merely the accidental result of her effort to get away from him, and it would have been an act of self-defense in any event. But what happens matches what she says she would do. Of course, there is no way her dark side is anything like that of her uncle, the reason being that her uncle had a head injury when he was young.  He skidded on his bicycle and was hit by a streetcar, much in the way he has now been hit by a train.  It was this earlier accident that allowed his dark side to flourish, instead of being held in check the way it is for young Charlie.  Or the way it is for the rest of us, for that matter.

Still, I wonder what she told her mother when they scraped Uncle Charlie’s body off the railroad tracks.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The Lady Vanishes (1938) was released a little less than a year before the outbreak of World War II, but about a month after the signing of the Munich Agreement.  British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared that with this document, he had secured “peace for our time.”  This will forever be despised as an act of appeasement, although I can’t say that I share that sentiment. Though Alfred Hitchcock, who directed this movie, is primarily concerned with entertaining us, yet one suspects that the movie is also being presented as a cautionary tale against such appeasement, against pacifism and complacency.

The movie begins in the fictitious, Germanic-sounding country of Bandrika, which is ruled by a dictator.  A bunch of people planning on traveling by train are waiting in a hotel lobby, two of whom are Charters and Caldicott, portrayed by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, a comedy team that began life with this movie. As they wait, they express their concerns about the last report they heard, “England on the brink.”  From their conversation, we wonder if England is on the verge of going to war.  Eventually, we find out that they are worried about a cricket match.  Pace the British, cricket is a sport the rest of the world thinks is ludicrous.  And the obsession with cricket on the part of the characters that Radford and Wayne subsequently played in other movies became a trademark gag. From time to time, we see them reading about that cricket match on the back pages of the newspaper, while the serious political news on the front page is ignored. They represent the dangerous complacency of the British people.

On account of an avalanche, the train cannot continue on its way, so everyone has to seek accommodations at the hotel.  Charters and Caldicott are forced to occupy the maid’s quarters, consisting of a narrow bed intended for just one person.  The maid, Anna, is an attractive woman, though slightly bigger than either of the two men, whom she looks at flirtatiously when she finds out they will be sleeping in her room, much to their discomfiture.  Apparently, one of the two men sleeps in pajamas and the other does not.  For the sake of modesty, presumably, they share the pajamas, Charters wearing the tops; Caldicott, the bottoms.  At one point, when the two men are squeezed into the bed, Anna barges right in to put her hat back under the bed and to retrieve some other articles of clothing.  Charters moves his body in front of Caldicott so that Anna can’t see his nipples.

Earlier, when three young American women seem to be getting the royal treatment by the hotel manager, Caldicott dryly remarks, “the almighty dollar.”  One of the women, Iris (Margaret Lockwood), is soon to be married.  A friend proposes a toast, “To Iris, and the happy days she’s leaving behind, and the blue-blooded cheque chaser she’s dashing to London to marry.”

It’s an old story, a rich American woman marrying an impecunious British aristocrat for the sake of a title and a coat of arms, which apparently is more important to her father than it is to her.  She refers to herself as being an “offering on an altar.”  Love is not involved, but that doesn’t bother her, saying that she’s been everywhere and done everything, so she might as well get married.  Once happiness has lost its charm, you might as well slam the door on it forever.

There is one bright spot about being married, however.  That way you can have an affair.  Adultery is fun, at least in the beginning, as we learn from another couple, Mr. Todhunter (Cecil Parker) and Margaret (Linden Travers).  They are both cheating on their spouses.  Todhunter had no qualms in the beginning about openly carrying on with her, but now he insists on separate rooms for the two of them.  His passions having cooled somewhat, he is worried that a divorce would spoil his chances of becoming a judge.

Anyway, after Iris’s friends leave, she finds it impossible to sleep because of the noise being made by Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), the guest in the room above her.  You know the type, someone that thinks it’s his God-given right to make as much noise as he wants, and who cares nothing about how much it disturbs his neighbors.  And like most inconsiderate neighbors, he believes that anyone who complains about the noise he is making is the one who is in the wrong.

When he refuses to quit making so much noise, she bribes the manager to have him removed from his room, so Gilbert barges into her room and acts as if he will have to sleep in her bed, threatening to tell people she invited him to sleep with her if she complains.  This forces her to call the manager and get him his room back.  We know we are supposed to smile at this obnoxious behavior of his, regarding it as charming and endearing, because he is tall and good looking.

Charters and Caldicott end up at a table with Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), an elderly governess, returning to England now that her charges have grown up.  She comes across as whimsical and sentimental, boring the two men with her talk about the beautiful mountains and the lovely people of Bandrika, saying, “Everyone sings here. The people are just like happy children, with laughter on their lips and music in their hearts.”

“lt’s not reflected in their politics,” Charters replies dryly, but as Miss Froy parts from them, she says that we should not judge a country by its politics, noting that the English are quite honest by nature. The implication is that the British government is not honest (and that means the government presided over by Neville Chamberlain). The idea is that the people of a country can be betrayed by their government, but that the goodness of ordinary folks will ultimately prevail, clearly a populist sentiment.  This is ironic coming from her, since she turns out to be a part of the British government herself, a spy, to be exact.

She returns to her room, and just below her balcony, which is on the second floor, a man is serenading with a guitar.  She drops a coin out the window for him, not realizing he has just been strangled.  As we later find out, the melody being played is a coded message consisting of the vital clause of a secret pact between two European countries.

It must be a rather sophisticated code, for the simple melody is about sixteen bars long, all in one octave. If each note corresponds to a word, there is a vocabulary of about twelve words to work with.  Of course, we can expand that vocabulary by taking into account the length of each note.  I estimate we could increase the vocabulary to thirty-six words, given the melody we hear in the movie.

On the other hand, the notes might represent letters and numerals, and thirty-six different notes and their lengths would be just enough for every letter and numeral there is.  But then, it would have to be a mighty short clause.

In either event, the code is limited by the requirements of euphony.  A disagreeable combination of notes could not be serenaded on the sly, as a way of passing on the information to Miss Froy, so the number of possible combinations is constrained. And like most melodies, much of it is repetitive anyway. Notwithstanding all these limitations, the secret clause has somehow been thus encoded.

The person that strangled the man with the guitar knows that Miss Froy has the coded message, so he tries to kill her by pushing a flower pot out of a second-story window to land on her head while she is looking for her bag at the station prior to boarding the train.  But Iris was bringing Miss Froy her glasses, which she dropped, and the pot lands on her head instead, giving her a concussion. Miss Froy ends up taking care of her on the train, but after Iris takes a nap, she wakes up to find her gone.

Charters and Caldicott saw Miss Froy on the train, but they pretend not to have seen her, because they figure nothing really bad could have happened to her, and they do not want the train delayed, lest it cause them to miss the cricket match they hope to see when they get back to England. Todhunter pretends not to have seen her because he fears getting involved in an inquiry that might expose his infidelity.  The only one who takes her seriously is Gilbert, the noisy neighbor.

All those that are neither British nor American on that train act suspicious and untrustworthy, being either German or Italian.  Whereas Charters, Caldicott, and Todhunter merely deny having seen Miss Froy, the Germans and Italians deny she ever existed.  For example, when Iris asks the Italian magician and the German baroness in her compartment what happened to the lady that was sitting opposite her, they say there was no such woman.  Admittedly, this lets us know immediately that they are part of a conspiracy to deny Miss Froy’s existence, but in real life, such a tactic would be both unnecessary and unwise.  How much easier and less suspicious it would have been for them to say, “Oh, she got up and left the compartment a little while ago.”

Furthermore, it is inconsistent with phase two of their conspiracy, which had already been planned. When the train stops, a patient with bandages around her head is brought onto the train.  Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) is a brain surgeon, and he says he will be operating on her when they get off the train at the next stop.  But in reality, the supposed patient is a woman who dresses up like Miss Froy, while the real Miss Froy is then wrapped up in the bandages and put under guard by a fake nun.

But this woman substitute contradicts the story that Miss Froy does not exist.  The Italian that claimed that Miss Froy never existed now tells Iris and Gilbert that she came back.  They go to see her, but it’s a different woman.  As a result, whereas before, Iris was told that the bump on her head made her hallucinate the woman sitting across from her in the compartment, now she is told that there is such a woman as she described, only she’s German, not British, and her name isn’t Miss Froy.

Needless to say, if all the conspirators wanted to do was stop Miss Froy from taking the musically coded message to England, they should have strangled her and unceremoniously thrown her off the train.

Eventually, Gilbert finds evidence that Iris is right.  They pull a reverse switcheroo, removing the bandages from Miss Froy and putting them on her imposter, and that woman is taken off the train at the next station.  They are assisted by the fake nun, who is British, once she realizes Miss Froy is British too.  In fact, as it becomes clear that Miss Froy is in danger, most of the British passengers on the train begin pulling together.  Thus, the movie is optimistically saying that once the British people are shaken from their complacency, they will rally together and defeat the foreign aggressors.

The one exception is Todhunter. Though he is British, yet he wants to surrender to the soldiers trying to get control of the train, saying, “I don’t believe in fighting.”  He is derided as being a pacifist and compared to Christians who got thrown to the lions. When he insists on surrendering on his own, getting off the train waving a white handkerchief, he is contemptuously shot, falling to the ground and muttering that he doesn’t understand. So much for pacifism.  Of course, we all knew he was doomed the minute we found out he was cheating on his wife.  Margaret is spared, however, probably because she was already separated from her husband, saying at one point that he knew he would not be seeing her again.

Miss Froy admits she’s a spy and gives the melody code to Gilbert, in case she doesn’t make it. Before she leaves the train, she says, “I hope we shall meet again under quieter circumstances.” At first, I thought this was an allusion to Vera Lynn’s song, but that apparently was not published until the following year. Because she is the last person you would expect to be a spy, her example implies that the rest of us have no excuse for not doing our part. If a little old lady can risk her life in the fight against evil enemies, dodging bullets as she runs across the countryside of a hostile nation, then we all are capable of making at least some small contribution ourselves.

When they all get back to England, Charters and Caldicott find out that the cricket match has been canceled.  Iris sees her fiancé and hides from him, deciding to elope with Gilbert instead, because he is tall and good looking.  Just wait until the honeymoon is over, and he returns to being the inconsiderate jerk he was when she first met him.  In any event, the idea of marriage puts the “Wedding March” in Gilbert’s head, and when they get to the Foreign Office to pass on the code, he can’t remember the tune.  But then we hear the tune being played on a piano, and it turns out to be Miss Froy playing it, having made it back to England after all.  Apparently, she didn’t know how to decipher the code herself, or else she would have just walked in and stated the secret clause in words.

Of course, as has often been observed, she could have called the Foreign Office from Bandrika and hummed the tune over the phone.

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

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.”