Foreign Correspondent is always duking it out with Psycho for the top spot in my list of favorite Hitchcock films. Psycho is a great horror movie with a twisting plot and some unbelievable performances, but Foreign Correspondent has windmills, clipper planes, spies, Nazis, and George Sanders. All it really needs is George Sanders, but the rest of that stuff is cool too.
Joel McCrea plays an American crime reporter named Johnny Jones who's recruited by his newspaper to travel to Europe and report on the impending war. The paper's publisher is tired of his current European staff's just re-writing press releases and turning them in as news. He wants real, investigative journalism and he thinks Jones is the guy to do it.
Jones' first assignment is to cover a peacemaking alliance and he's on the scene when one of the most influential voices for peace in Europe is assassinated. Jones joins the chase for the killer and quickly learns that there's more to the murder than first appears. With the help of a British peace-leader named Carol Fisher (Laraine Day) and her platonic chum Scott ffolliott (George Sanders), Jones begins trying to unravel the mystery and expose the people working to start World War II.
McCrea is a charming lead and Day is a convincing and beautiful actress, but Sanders is the main attraction in this movie. I've been in love with his voice ever since I heard him as Shere Khan in Disney's version of The Jungle Book and I've tracked down a lot of his work since then. He was always a charming actor and he had a great range, but my favorite characters of his were the unmitigated cads and that's what Scott ffolliott (yeah, with two, lower-case "f"s) is. Watching Foreign Correspondent, you get the definite feeling that Scott is in love with Carol, but that as much as she likes him, she knows he's too privileged and irresponsible to make serious husband potential. And by the time he starts to overcome his flaws, she's already in love with Jones. What makes Scott ffolliott wonderful though is that he never exhibits the slightest sign of jealousy or desire to betray Carol and Jones. He's not only a loyal friend, but also a loyal patriot, though I'd be surprised to learn that he ever thought much about politics or foreign affairs before meeting Jones. Though he starts out a sort of scoundrel, he end up being the most heroic, selfless character in the movie and it's an inspiring transition to watch.
Jones and Carol are heroic characters too, but they're pretty much expected to be and their motives are less complex than Scott's. Carol, we're told, is just a Good Person. Her father is involved with the peace initiative and she's just sort of unquestioningly joined him in that work.
Jones is a little more complicated, but his heroism begins as journalistic curiosity and eventually becomes concern for Carol's safety. By the end of the movie, he's a man with a cause, but the transitions between these stages are too abrupt for me to completely buy and invest myself in them. He and Carol go from curiously interested in each other to "Let's get married" pretty much between scenes, and his impassioned plea at the end for the US to get involved in Europe sort of comes out of nowhere. Actually, it may not come from nowhere if you read it merely as an extension of his love for Carol, but that still makes him far less noble than Scott.
Aside from the commentary on heroism, Foreign Correspondent also has interesting things to say about patriotism in general as well as America's isolationist policy prior to 1941. Regarding patriotism, there's a very nice bit in which the leader behind the assassination scheme explains his actions in a way that makes him almost sympathetic. The script never takes seriously the idea that he may have a valid point-of-view (nor should it probably; the guy's a Nazi after all), but it raises some good questions about patriotism and blindly following whatever direction the current government of your homeland may be traveling.
Regarding America's isolationism, the film is very clearly a call for the US to get involved in Europe. When Jones makes his impassioned speech, it's so heavy handed (including swelling music in the background) that Hitchcock himself might have just as well stepped in front of the camera to directly address the audience. Seen with almost 70 years of distance, it's an unfortunate, clunky way to end an otherwise amazing spy thriller, but when the movie originally came out in 1940, I imagine that it was quite powerful. And its being nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, pretty much supports that theory.