The film was one of two Hitchcock films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1941, the other being Rebecca, which went on to win the award. Foreign Correspondent was nominated for six Academy Awards, including one for Albert Basserman for Best Supporting Actor, but did not win any Academy Awards.
In mid-August 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, the editor of the New York Globe, Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport), is concerned about the crisis in Europe, the growing power of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, and the inability of celebrated foreign correspondents to get answers about whether war will ensue. After searching for a good, tough crime reporter for a fresh viewpoint, he appoints John Jones (Joel McCrea) as a foreign correspondent, under the pen name Huntley Haverstock.
The reporter's first assignment is Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), leader of the Universal Peace Party, at an event held by Fisher in honor of a Dutch diplomat named Van Meer (Albert Basserman). On the way to the party, Haverstock sees Van Meer entering the car that is to take him to the party, and runs to interview him; Van Meer invites him to ride along, but diplomatically evades his questioning. At the party, Haverstock meets Fisher's daughter, Carol (Laraine Day). Van Meer disappears mysteriously. Later, Fisher informs the guests that Van Meer, who was supposed to be the guest of honor, will not be attending the party; instead he will be at a political conference in Amsterdam.
At the conference, Van Meer is shot in front of a large crowd by a man disguised as a photographer. Haverstock commandeers a car to follow the assassin's getaway car. The car he jumps into happens to have in it Carol and another reporter, Scott Ffolliott (George Sanders), who explains that the capital letter in his surname was dropped in memory of an executed ancestor. The group follows the assassin to the countryside, where they see a windmill begin turning backwards: obviously a signal.
While Carol and Ffolliott go for help, Haverstock searches the windmill and finds a live Van Meer; the man who was shot in front of witnesses was an impostor substituted to make everyone believe Van Meer was killed. The old man has been drugged and is unable to tell Haverstock anything. Haverstock is forced to flee when the kidnappers become aware of him. They escape with Van Meer in an aircraft before the police arrive.
Later, back at Haverstock's hotel room, two spies dressed as policemen arrive to kidnap him. When he suspects who they really are, he escapes out the window and into Carol Fisher's room.
Haverstock and Carol board a British boat to England, and while a furious storm thunders overhead, he proposes marriage to her which she accepts. In England, they go to Carol's father's house, where Haverstock sees a man whom he recognizes as one of the men at the windmill. He informs Fisher and Fisher promises that he will send a bodyguard to protect him. The bodyguard, Rowley (Edmund Gwenn), repeatedly tries to kill Haverstock. When the assassin tries to push him off the top of the Westminster Cathedral tower, Haverstock steps aside and Rowley plunges to his death.
Haverstock and Ffolliott are convinced that Fisher is a traitor, so they come up with a plan: Haverstock will take Carol to the countryside, and Ffolliott will pretend she has been kidnapped to force Fisher to divulge Van Meer's location. After a misunderstanding with Haverstock, Carol returns to London. Just as Fisher is about to fall for Ffolliott's bluff, he hears her car pull up.
Fisher heads to a hotel where Van Meer is being held with Ffolliott on his tail. Van Meer is being interrogated using sleep deprivation to discover a secret clause in a treaty he signed. Just as he is being forced to divulge the information the organization wants, Ffolliott distracts the interrogators. When Haverstock arrives, Fisher and his bodyguards escape, leaving Van Meer behind. Van Meer is rushed to the hospital in a coma.
England and France declare war on Germany. While Haverstock, Ffolliott and the Fishers are on a Short S.30 Empire aircraft to America, Fisher confesses his misdeeds to his daughter. Carol believes Haverstock does not really love her but only used her to pursue her father. Haverstock protests that he was just doing his job as a reporter. Seconds later, the aircraft is shelled by a German destroyer and crashes into the ocean. The survivors perch on the floating wing of the downed aircraft. Realizing that it cannot support everyone, Fisher sacrifices himself by allowing himself to drown. Jones and Ffolliott attempt to save him, but are unsuccessful. They are rescued by an American ship, the Mohican. The captain refuses to allow the reporters to file their story using the ship's communications citing American neutrality, but Jones, Ffolliott, and Carol surreptitiously communicate the story by radio-telephone to Mr. Powers. Later, back in London and now a successful war correspondent, Haverstock, with Carol at his side, describes London being bombed in a live radio broadcast to the United States, urging Americans to fortify their country and "keep the lights burning" as they go dark in the studio.
Alfred Hitchcock can be seen when Joel McCrea first spots Van Meer on the street in London; Hitchcock walks past reading a newspaper. Albert Bassermann, who plays Van Meer, was German and did not speak English, so he had to learn all his lines phonetically. Likewise, one supposedly Dutch girl in the film speaks Dutch phonetically, though less convincingly.
Producer Walter Wanger bought the rights to journalist Vincent Sheean's memoir Personal History in 1935, but after several adaptations proved unsatisfactory, Wanger allowed the story to stray significantly from the book. It took numerous writers and five years before Wanger had a script he was satisfied with, by which time Hitchcock was in the United States under contract with David O. Selznick and available to direct this film on a loan-out. Hitchcock, who enjoyed not working under the usual close scrutiny of Selznick, originally wanted Gary Cooper and Joan Fontaine for the lead roles, but Cooper was not interested in doing a thriller at the time, and Selznick would not loan out Fontaine. Later, Cooper admitted to Hitchcock that he had made a mistake in turning down the film.
Working titles for the film, which began production on March 18, 1940 and initially finished on June 5, were "Personal History" and "Imposter". Shooting took place at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio in West Hollywood, and on location around Los Angeles and Long Beach.
After the film wrapped, Hitchcock visited his native England, and returned on July 3, to report that it was expected there that the Germans would begin bombing London at any time. To accommodate this, Ben Hecht was called in to write the epilogue of the film, the scene in the radio station, which replaced the original end sequence in which two of the characters discussed the events of the film on a transatlantic seaplane trip. The new ending was filmed on 5 July, presciently foreshadowing the celebrated radio broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow.
Although many critics and film historians claim that neither Germany nor Hitler are named specifically in the film, both the man and the nation are indeed mentioned, including a scene where the name Germany is spelled out in the headline of a newspaper being hawked in the street and, while being given his assignment, Joel McCrea suggests an interview with Hitler, to get his views on the possibility of war. A fictional nation is mentioned numerous times however, possibly indicating that it was briefly considered as a potential proxy aggressor European country rather than an actual Axis nation.
One of the sequences in the film that continues to have a strong effect on viewers is the mid-ocean crash of the Empire aircraft after it is shot down by a German cruiser. In 1972, in an interview with Dick Cavett, Hitchcock discussed some details of how the scene was created. Footage taken from a stunt aircraft diving over the ocean was rear-projected on rice paper in front of the cockpit set, while behind the rice paper were two chutes connected to large water tanks. The chutes were aimed at the windshield of the cockpit so that water would break through the rice paper at the right moment, simulating the crash of the aircraft into the ocean. However, during the crash sequence, studio lights can briefly be seen.
Hitchcock's eccentric marriage proposal to his wife Alma was written for this film, for the scene when Haverstock proposes to Carol.
Foreign Correspondent opened on August 16, 1940 in the United States and on October 11 of that year in the United Kingdom. The film, which ends with London being bombed, opened in the United States at the dawn of the Battle of Britain, just three days after the Luftwaffe began bombing British coastal airfields in the early Adlerangriff phase of the Battle of Britain, and a week before Germany actually began bombing London on August 24.
Foreign Correspondent did well at the box office, but its high cost meant it incurred a loss of $369,973. It was generally praised by the critics, although some saw it as a glorified B movie. It also attracted attention from at least one professional propagandist, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who called Foreign Correspondent "a masterpiece of propaganda, a first-class production which no doubt will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of the people in enemy countries."
Foreign Correspondent has a 93% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
In 1941, Foreign Correspondent was nominated for six Academy Awards, but did not win any.Best Picture
Best Writing, Original Screenplay – Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison
Best Actor in a Supporting Role – Albert Bassermann
Best Cinematography, Black-and-White – Rudolph Maté
Best Art Direction, Black-and-White – Alexander Golitzen
Best Effects, Special Effects – Paul Eagler (photographic), Thomas T. Moulton (sound)
Foreign Correspondent was named one of the 10 Best Films of 1940 by Film Daily, and was nominated for Best Picture of 1940 by the National Board of Review.
Foreign Correspondent was adapted to the radio program Academy Award Theater on July 24, 1946, with Joseph Cotten starring.