Sunday, January 18, 2015

Foreign Correspondent & Contraband

Both Foreign Correspondent and Contraband were released in 1940.  Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent has a political agenda -- the movie implicitly endorses American involvement in World War Two and, rather cynically, discredits peace activists as Nazi spies.  Contraband is British, directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell; set in London during the black-out, the film is a paranoid fantasia about German spies lurking in the cellar of a British night-club.  Both films involve ostensibly neutral outsiders, Joel McCrea as an American reporter caught up in a web of intrigue involving a kidnapped politician, apparently also an advocate for peace who has been hijacked by the Germans -- Hitchcock's symbol for the fate of the peace movement.  In Contraband, a Danish sea-captain breaks up a Nazi spy-ring trafficking information about British vessels to the Germans.  The sea-captain is played by the svelte, sinister Conrad Veidt and the casting is bizarre to say the least.  Both films are brilliantly made and extremely exciting -- Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent is a compendium of spectacular set-pieces, many of which will be revisited in later films made by the director.  (There is a fall from a cathedral tower with nuns as witnesses that presages Vertigo; a sequence involving a plane circling flat country studded with windmills that invokes North by Northwest and the first shot of the movie, the camera swooping toward the window of skyscraper is similar to the opening shot in Psycho.)  Contraband is less frenetic, but more baroque -- the film glories in surrealistic sequences:  bullets blowing off the heads of plaster cast statues, a woman who sings with a man's voice, wild brawls in cabarets, and weird bondage sequences in which the comely heroine is bound to a column under periodic surveillance by the bad guys and shot in a pool of light through wire-mesh.  Contraband is designed around startling contrasts between dark and light:  London is under a black-out but everywhere seems gay and indifferent to the danger of aerial bombardment:  people grope their way down dark streets, feeling the walls as if blind, but when they open doors, they are greeted with bright lights and scenes of almost sybaritic merry-making, plush expensive restaurants and brilliantly illuminated night clubs. 

Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent has some of the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue of the screwball comedies of the thirties.  Robert Benchley wrote the lyrics and the characters speak in wisecracking aphorisms.  "There's a crime hatching on that bedeviled continent," the tough news editor tells Joel McCrea, "So I need a crime reporter."  Asked if he will travel to Europe to cover the preparations for war, McCrea says "Give me an expense account and I'll cover any story on earth."  A British femme fatale tells McCrea:  "Your childish mind is as out of place in Europe as you are in my bedroom" -- the hero has fled some murderers dispatched to kill him, escaping by clambering across window-sills on the outside of the building to reach her room in the hotel.  He is wearing a robe and has garters holding up his socks on his bare legs.  (Part of the appeal of the movie is McCrea's willingness to look foolish -- he proposes marriage to the leading lady on the heaving deck of transport ship, his head covered by a shawl that makes him look like an old woman.)  Much of the conflict in the film is generated by the hero's characteristically American naivety and optimism in contrast to the jaded, sophisticated cynicism of the Europeans.  McCrea is always trying to stage what he calls a "show-down" with the bad guys, although cooler heads, most notably the coolest head in all of Hollywood, George Saunders (playing a playboy called ffolliet -- McCrea:  "How do you pronounce that?  Like a stutter?"  Saunders:  "No, just with an 'eff'.") prevail.  The film has moments of startling violence -- an assassination on the steps of a courthouse in a huge crowd of umbrella-carrying people ends with a number of innocent bystanders gunned-down -- and an important sequence features the torture of an elderly man, an incident that even appalls the villains.  But the general tone of the picture is gay, insouciant, witty.  Three set-pieces are among the most effective scenes ever shot by Hitchcock -- the killing in the rain and wild chase through the country is spectacular and this is followed by an extended sequence involving a sinister circling plane, windmills, and lethal turning gears and wheels inside the dusty, battered windmill itself.  A plane crash at the end of the film, a sequence that seems to belong in another genre of picture, is also staged with great force and conviction -- people are trapped in tiny compartments filling with water and enormous waves batter the slowly sinking fuselage.  The movie ends with a startling declaration of the importance of freedom of the press and government transparency, a climax that gives the film a curious resonance in the era of massacres at Charlie Hebdo and Edward Snowden.  As always with Hitchcock, all supporting players are excellent:  Edmund Gwinn is particularly effective as a jolly Cockney assassin and Herbert Marshall is fine as the head spy, a tormented figure of the sort later played by James Mason in North by Northwest.  This is the kind of superior entertainment that gives the audience everything it wants and, yet, also remains continuously surprising, yielding additional pleasures that the viewers, perhaps, could not anticipate.

Contraband is more complex emotionally because the film is less efficient as an entertainment.  There is no chemistry between the German Conrad Veidt and his somewhat spooky-looking leading lady, Valerie Hobson -- when the two of them are roped together in a dark cellar, their physical contiguity is as forced as their emotional connection.  Powell and Pressburger's German spies are physically ugly, with jutting jaws or fat and glowering.  The film revels is curious delays and narrative deformities -- there is a long sequence set in a Danish restaurant that is comical but seems inconsequential and when Veidt frees himself from the German spies, he leaves the leading lady and his romantic interest in the film still roped to the basement pillar.  It takes him a long time to return and there is something oddly indifferent and lacking in chivalry in his delay in rescuing her.  The film makers are more interested, it seems, in baroque elaboration of the theme of black-out than in the rather halting plot -- for example, there are repeated and delighted references to the fact that the night-time stars are visible in London for the first time in centuries because of the black-out.  In fact, much of the film seems justified as a sort of documentary about the effects of a city-wide black-out, a circumstance that gives the directors free-range to develop many striking chiaroscuro effects (a man lighting a pipe, for instance, on a blacked-out city street).  The movie is also effective but considerably stranger in design and emotional texture than Hitchcock's fairly straightforward suspense thriller.

Three observations may be made about these films.  Although the pictures can be fairly characterized as propaganda, they are both curiously sympathetic to the Nazi villains -- in both cases misguided members of the British upper class.  In each film, the head villain is portrayed as highly intelligent, idealistic, and somewhat ashamed of the dishonorable means used to prosecute their mission.  (Indeed, in the Hitchcock film, the bad guy nobly sacrifices his life in expiation for his crimes.)  Thus, these pictures show a level of civility mostly lacking in American films featuring Islamic or Russian terrorists as bad guys.  Second, the villains are defined by the fact that they use torture.  Both films are replete with discussions of torture and Foreign Correspondent contains an off-screen but alarming scene of torture.  A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a sophisticated Jewish businessman from the East Coast.  I was shocked when this man, a friend of Bill Moyers and a long-time employee of public TV, defended torture enthusiastically on the basis of the fact that this practice is condoned by the Israelis.  Certainly, we live in a much darker world today, a place in which the self-proclaimed "good guys" seem proud of inflicting torture on their enemies.  Finally, both films made in the midst of a deadly war involving murderous air raids on civilian populations are relatively cheerful, witty, and, even, merry.  There is nothing dire in these films, no gloom or doom, and, although both films preach (Hitchcock's movie ends with several political sermons), the pictures are primarily designed as sophisticated, ingenious entertainments.  These films embody the values of civilization at a dark moment in human history; the future will judge us unkindly by the values embodied in garbage like Zero Dark Thirty. At a historical moment far less perilous, we show ourselves to be more craven, cowardly, pessimistic, cruel, and intolerant than the people who made these movies during the Blitz. 

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