What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called the The 4th Alfred Hitchcock Blog-A-Thon being hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. While I don’t have official numbers, I’m fairly certain I’ve appeared in more of her blog-a-thons than anybody else’s. That either means I’m doing something right (less likely) or she takes pity on me (more likely :) ).
You can see all the contributors to this blog-a-thon here.
“Foreign Correspondent” is my favorite Hitchcock movie. There, I said it. This movie was first one which took the gloves off when it came to portraying the treachery of the Nazis. The plot starts in August 1939; literally days before France and Great Britain declare war on Germany in September 1939. Mr. Powers (played by Harry Davenport) is the editor of the New York Morning Globe, and feels that many renowned journalists aren’t getting the “full” story on the expanding European crisis and the growing power of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. He suspects the world is on the brink of war and sends the tough crime reporter Johnny Jones (played by Joel McCrea) to Europe under the nom de plume Huntley Haverstock.
Upon arriving in London, Jones’ first task is arranged by Stephen Fisher (played Herbert Marshall), the leader of the Universal Peace Party. Fisher is holding an event honoring a Dutch diplomat named Van Meer (played by Albert Bassermann). Jones’ job is to interview Van Meer. While traveling to this event, Jones spots Van Meer entering a car and dashes up to him attempting to get the interview him he has been directed to get. While Van Meer invites him into the car and grants the interview, he diplomatically dodges and weaves around Jones’ queries.
The complication comes with two twists. One, both Powers and Jones, don’t know that Fisher is actually an agent for Nazis. Two, at this event for Van Meer, Jones meets Fisher’s daughter, Carol (played by Laraine Day). At first, they have an “oil and water” thing going, but in short order is is easy to tell the seeds of a romance are there.
The intrigue starts with the sudden disappearance of Van Meer. Fisher receives a telegram from Van Meer saying he cannot attend the event honoring him. Fisher tells the guests Van Meer will not be attending; rather he has to go to a political conference in Amsterdam. Fisher asks Carol to make the keynote speech in lieu of Van Meer. She flubs the speech finding herself distracted by Jones, who has also slipped a few personal messages into her speech notes.
Back in New York, Powers sends a telegram to Jones exhorting him to track down Van Meer in Amsterdam and get an interview at this conference. Once Jones gets there, he sees a man resembling Van Meer get gunned down in front of a massive crowd. The assassin is disguised as a photographer, and while making his escape, Jones commandeers a car and gives chase. Conveniently enough, the car he grabs also contains Carol and another reporter named Scott ffolliott (played by George Sanders). They track the gunman deep into the countryside, where Jones sees a windmill’s sail begin turning backwards and deduces that is a signal to a plane flying overhead.
At this point, Jones searches the windmill, while Carol and ffolliott go for help. Jones discover the real Van Meer is still alive; the man murdered in front of thousands of witnesses was a double intended to have the world believe Van Meer was dead. The problem is Van Meer has been drugged and is completely unable to tell Jones anything. The men who kidnapped Van Meer become aware of Jones’ presence, forcing him to flee. The kidnappers escape with Van Meer in the signaled aircraft before Carol and ffolliott can arrive with the police in tow.
Now that it is clear Jones’ has discovered Van Meer is really alive, two agents dressed as policemen arrive at his hotel to kidnap him. But Jones’ is wise to them; he slips out the window and hides in Carol’s room. Knowing they have to get out of the country under pain of death, Jones and Carol board a British ship steaming for what they think is the relative safety of England. During a storm at sea, Jones proposes to Carol and she accepts.
Upon arriving in England, they head for Fisher’s house, where recognizes Krug (played by Eduardo Ciannelli) as one of the operatives from the windmill. Not knowing that Fisher is working for the Germans, Jones tells him about his knowledge of the faux assassination and kidnapping operation. Fisher promises to provide Jones with a bodyguard. Naturally, the “bodyguard” Rowley (played Edmund Gwenn) is one of Fisher’s men whose true intention is to kill Jones. Rowley fails at this task and plunges to his own death after Jones side-steps his attempt to shove him off the tower of Westminster Cathedral.
Now that Jones and ffolliott know Fisher is a traitor, they hatch a plot to get Fisher to reveal where Van Meer is now being hidden. The plan is Jones will take Carol to Cambridge while ffolliott will make Fisher believe she has been kidnapped; part of the ransom being to divulge Van Meer’s location. But the plan goes awry when after misunderstanding, Carol returns to London. Fisher is on the verge of taking ffolliott’s bait when he hears Carol’s car arriving.
Van Meer is being interrogated in a hotel; his captors are using sleep deprivation to discover a secret clause in a treaty he signed. Fisher heads for the hotel but he does not know ffolliott is tailing him. Just as Van Meer is about to spill the secret, ffolliott distracts the interrogators. When Jones arrives, Fisher and his bodyguards escape, leaving Van Meer behind, who is taken to the hospital in a coma.
September arrives and finds Great Britain and France declaring war on Germany. While Jones, ffolliott, and the Fishers are on a flying boat heading for America, Fisher confesses his treachery to Carol. This leads Carol to believe Jones never really loved her; rather he used her in pursuit of he father Fisher. Jones counters saying he was simply doing his job as a reporter. At this point, the flying boat comes under fire from a German warship, which shoots it down.
The survivors cling to a piece of wreckage, but they realize it cannot support everyone. Under his own crushing guilt, Fisher allows himself to drown. Jones and ffolliott try to stop him, but they fail. Later the American ship “Mohican” comes to their, but the captain will not allow Jones and ffolliott to use the ship’s communications to file their story. The captain believes that doing so will violate American neutrality in the war. Undeterred, Jones, ffolliott, and Carol find a way to get their story back to New York and Mr. Powers.
The film ends with Jones and Carol returning to London, where he is now an established war correspondent. He is doing a live radio broadcast describing a bombing raid on London urging American to prepare for a war he knows is coming to them.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
Today’s hidden sports analogy is isn’t nearly as some have been. In fact, I may the only person who sees it. Hopefully after you’re read this, you will see it as well. It lies in the the not-so-visible “behind the scenes” stuff involved in bringing “Foreign Correspondent” to the big screen.
The movie itself is bases on a 1935 memoir titled “Personal History” written by storied American journalist Vincent Sheean. Producer Walter Wanger bought the film rights for the book, but several attempts to adapt it to the silver screen came up short. Desperate to get his investment to pay off, Wanger allowed liveral use of “poetic license” to mold the story from the book into something suitable for a feature film. Legend has it this process took several writers and five years before Wanger had a script he found satisfactory; it was a story that varied greatly from the original manuscript.
By the time Wanger was ready to shoot, Alfred Hitchcock was in the United States. Although he was under contract with David O. Selznick at the time, the powerful Hollywood mogul allowed Hitchcock to direct this film under a loan to Wanger. Selznick had a much more “hands-on” management style than did Wanger, and Hitchcock used this new-found freedom to have far more influence on casting that Selznick would have normally allowed.
As such, Hitchcock lobbied for Gary Cooper in the role of “Johnny Jones” and Joan Fontaine as “Carol Fisher.” That proved problematic as Cooper turned it down stating that he “was not interested in doing a ‘thriller.'” Not to mention, Selznick drew the line on the lending of his talent with Hitchcock; he was not willing to loan-out Fontaine.
Eventually, Hitchcock got Joel McCrea as his leading man. This is where the hidden sports analogy starts to emerge. One of the most important relationships in all of sports in that in American football between a head coach and his quarterback. It’s as important as that between a director and his “leading man.” If you follow me, I can show you how “Foreign Correspondent” is a perfect example of this.
Like I said, originally, Alfred Hitchcock wanted Gary Cooper to play “Johnny Jones,” but that didn’t happen. I’m aware of rumors I’ve never been able to substantiate that role was also offered to Cary Grant…let’s be honest, it was tailor-made for him. Either way, it was clear Hitchcock envisioned an “A-List” guy in that role.
Having set up the premise, here’s how Joel McCrea serves as today’s hidden sports analogy, because I’ve always had a theory about him. To me, he seemed like the “leading man” you got when you couldn’t get the “star” you wanted. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s no way I intend that as a slight toward McCrea; it’s just that in the pantheon of Hollywood history, McCrea is just not usually associated in the same tier as the Cary Grants and Gary Coopers of the world.
That’s the relationship in “Foreign Correspondent” between “director/head coach” Alfred Hitchcock and his “leading man/quarterback” Joel McCrea. In this case, Hitchcock plays the role of “great coach” who gets a better performance out of his “quarterback” Joel McCrea. Again, no slight towards McCrea at all, but for my money this is McCrea’s best work, and it all comes from the direction of Hitchcock. Another of my favorite McCrea performances comes in 1962’s “Ride The High Country,” but I also believe that is a function of the direction of Sam Peckinpah.
That’s why Joel McCrea was to Hollywood as quarterback Vinny Testaverde was to the National Football League. Like McCrea, when you think of “A-List” comparisons of his era for Testaverde, names like Tom Brady, Brett Favre, and John Elway come to mind. Even casual NFL fans recognize those names, and there’s a reason why all three are on my list of greatest quarterbacks. But there’s also a reason why Vinny Testaverde was at least considered in the making of that list.
Testaverde played college football at the University of Miami, where he was an All-American and won the Heisman Trophy in 1986. That led to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers making him the first overall player taken in the 1987 NFL Draft. He spent 21 seasons in the NFL as a journeyman quarterback, plying his trade for the Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, and Carolina Panthers. For the most part, Testaverde labored for mediocre-to-bad teams, or spent the last three years of his as a back-up.
You can say what you will about Testaverde’s career, but there’s two things which can’t be denied. His name may not come up when talking about the “A-List” guys, but when he retired after the 2007 season, Testaverde ranked in the top ten all-time in most of the important passing statistics; he was 6th in career passing yardage, 7th in career touchdown passes, and 6th in career completions.
But the other thing which was clear is Testaverde played his best football as a New York Jet under 2-time Super Bowl champion head coach Bill Parcells. In 1998, Testaverde was selected to the Pro Bowl for leading the Jets to the playoffs with 3,256 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, and only 7 interceptions.
Testaverde and Parcells were reunited in 2004 with the Dallas Cowboys. Some of the magic between the two was still there; Testaverde completed 60% of his passes and threw for over 3,500 yards. But the Cowboys just weren’t very good, Testaverde led the league with 20 interceptions and the Cowboys finished the season with a record of 6-10.
Joel McCrea and Vinny Testaverde both had lengthy careers. McCrea made over 90 films spanning half-a-century. Appearing in 233 NFL games in 21 seasons is an eternity for an NFL quarterback. McCrea is mostly known for being in a lot of “B” Westerns, and Testaverde quarterbacked a lot of unremarkable teams.
But they both proved that when they had good direction/coaching, they could be as “A-List” as anybody.
The Moral of the Story:
Be it sports or movies, relationships matter.
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