Walter Wanger was a World War I aviator and intelligence officer who believed in the power of film to change society. He used $10,000 of his own money to purchase the rights to Vincent Sheean's best-selling memoirs, Personal History, published in 1935 by Doubleday, and tried to write a screenplay about the sweep of revolutions in the world since the Great War through the eyes of a foreign correspondent. Sheean's book covered the decade of his life from 1919 Chicago through the Rhineland revolt against German occupation in 1924, the Riif revolt against Spain in Morocco, the 1927 communist revolution in China, and the 1929 Arab-Jewish conflict in Jerusalem. However, by 1939 Wanger had spent $60,000 unsuccessfully to finish a script. When Germany invaded Poland September 1, 1939, Wanger hired screenwriters John Lay and John Meehan from the March of Time to re-write Sheehan's story emphasizing the new world crisis. Wanger arranged a deal with David Selznick for the loan-out of Alfred Hitchcock to make an anti-Nazi film based on recent events in Europe. Hitchcock had earned an international reputation for developing the thriller film style in The 39 Steps (1935) and had mastered the requirements of the Classic Hollywood Narrative: a dramatic story, compelling characters, humor, action, surprise plot twists, short length, minimum budget. Hitchcock signed a contract April 10, 1939, with David Selznick and moved to the U.S. to make Rebecca that won the 1940 Academy Award for Best Film. After the European war started, Hitchcock wanted to make films that would help the cause of Britain, supposedly at the direct request of Winston Churchill who became Prime Minister in 1940. Using a variety of writers, Hitchcock created one of his thriller scripts that had no relationship with Sheean's book. It would start in a newspaper office in America Aug. 19, 1939, and tell the story of the conversion of an innocent reporter into a reborn foreign correspondent who uncovered a spy conspiracy and would end the film with an urgent plea for America to "keep the lights burning" in a "world being blown to pieces."

Filming began in March 1940 with a budget of $1,500,000, the largest budget that Hitchcock had yet been given for any of his films. The money went to build over 100 three-sided sets under the direction of William Cameron Menzies who had just won an Oscar Feb. 29 for Selznick's Gone With the Wind. The largest set was a 10-acre reconstruction of the Amsterdam public square complete with a sewer system to handle the water from the simulated rainstorm. Other sets included a windmill 80 feet high and a crashed plane 84 feet long with a movable wing 60 feet long in a large tank of water. Second units were sent to London and Holland but were unable to do much because of the war. The final script was dated June 3, 1940 , but last-minute changes to the ending were made by Ben Hecht after Hitchcock's trip to England in June to visit his mother. The film was released Aug. 27 and Hitchcock received a telegram from Harry Hopkins in the White House praising the final speech added to the end of the film. Senator Burton K. Wheeler's subcommittee investigating propaganda in films in September 1941 called the film pro-war British propaganda, but Pearl Harbor ended the isolationist debate.


revised 3/26/01 by Schoenherr | Film Notes