All the President’s Men

There are at least two kinds of detective stories, some which are driven by clues and some which are fueled by the characters. Great writers blend the two seamlessly, but even among Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries there is a special appeal to A Study in Scarlet because it is a great pleasure to watch Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes become acquainted. Of the two vehicles for such stories, the more sure is character, and so all good detectives are either in partnership or at least ensure they have a good sidekick and work in a big office where they are looked upon as a liability.

All the President’s Men begins with a break-in, a burglary which was to create a sensation, at the Watergate Hotel. Soon after we see the botched robbery, we are placed in the offices of the Washington Post and can rest easy, knowing we are watching another investigative reporter flick. When Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford are chosen by the newspaper magnates to pursue the initial leads, it seems as though we know what sort of detective story we are sitting upon: who would pay to have two such actors if their characters were not going to drive the plot?

Indeed, the investigation stands accused just as suspected. Hoffman plays an old hand, whose loose reporting has him in hot water with the brass—he is the sort of reporter who might balk at typing the word ‘allege’ and all its conjugates. Redford is new to the paper and eager to make his mark and, perhaps, is also interested in discovering the truth. There is friction at first: Hoffman takes what Redford writes and polishes it without permission, and when doubt is thrown on their efforts they accuse each other of making mistakes; but their fusion is quickly accomplished and the paper is, for the most part, willing to stand by their reports. The structure of the film is all wrong if we want to hammer it into a readymade hole.

I do not think it is generally advisable to use the title of a work to argue to its conclusions, As You Like It is not a relativistic play nor is the main character of Ivanhoe the knight of that name, but when ordinary means for understanding a work of art are not forthcoming, a return to the title can give the necessary clue without which we could go astray. All the President’s Men is about… all the president’s men. As Redford and Hoffman go door to door and make numberless phone calls their personalities hold our interest and underpin the story, but the story is not about them, it is about those whom they interview. Much of their time is spent trying to confirm their hunches and leads, but they are baffled everywhere they turn; no one is willing to go on record. The film is about all those who could expose the scandal and about their fear. It is about those men to whom the camera never turns, those powerful men within the Whitehouse entrusted with the president’s campaigning. In a clever shot (or rather, a splicing of shots) at the end of the film the television in the lower left shows Nixon’s swearing in while in the top right Hoffman and Redford type out the story which will sink his presidency; the film is finally about the precarious nature of wrongdoing when greed jumps the fence and runs free of the law.

All the President’s Men is available on Netflix, and on many other platforms for rent and purchase. I definitely recommend you watch it if you have Netflix, are interested in the detective genre, or want to learn more about the events surrounding Watergate. The movie is enjoyable, but perhaps not great.

Foreign Correspondent (Hitchcock, 1940)

It seems as though I have a dislike for Hitchcock’s style. With eleven of his movies under my belt, I have the data to say, with little extrapolation, that the later the movie the less I like it: The Birds was a grand disappointment; Vertigo was dependent on the twist, the acting, and its grittiness; North by Northwest only held my interest so long as I anticipated the famous blue and yellow scene which was a challenge to make suspenseful. In mid-career he made some great movies, Rear Window or I Confess perhaps being the best of them and Rope the most faux. Early in his career, though, he made the enjoyable 39 Steps, and the movie I watched this evening—Foreign Correspondent.

Foreign Correspondent is a straightforward investigative-reporter film in which we are allowed to see the game before the game is up. Not only are we privy to the gentle insinuations of Hitchcock’s low-key direction, but it doesn’t take long for us to be left alone in a room eavesdropping on the conspirators of the plot, which is a bid to force secret treaty information from a signee of the treaty before general war breaks out in Europe, and we learn what the protagonist will spend his time trying to discover. The good characters are good, the bad are bad, and the ambivalent man is sympathetically so. This simplicity of characters and genre goes a long way toward making the twists and chases unambiguously enjoyable and lets the audience settle back and revel in the pursuit without having the unsettling feeling that the girl will prove a tramp or the hero a shyster. Perhaps the film is blessed by its timing: released in 1940, between the beginning of the war and the entrance of America, it knows who the enemy is and isn’t jaded or calloused.

The forthright story is ably accompanied by deft camerawork. The shots are elegant, and nearly all the work lucid. I don’t know that Hitchcock succeeded in taking the elegance of his early work to the full-spectrum color of his later films, but here, in this film, he is certainly in his element, and the sureness of his camera, which never moves unnecessarily, is a tribute to his grasp of his art. The disconcerting camera angles of his later movies are perhaps foreshadowed, but not indulged, while his ability to place the action firmly in concrete places is superb. There is, it must be said, an unfortunate sequence in a windmill which fails to transcend the set: the lighting in the mill is wrong, the geometries of sight are off, and stairs initially sturdy enough for a man running up them to be unheard by men directly beneath are then loud enough for a man in another room surrounded by the moving mill gears to hear men walking up the stairs. The distancing effect of this failure is particularly unfortunate since the scene concludes the only lengthy chase sequence in the film, but the scene does redeem itself somewhat by being a fitting fusion of the surreal with the mystifying conclusion of the sequence.

One of the real pleasures of this film is the love story. It is understated and a little abrupt, but it fits so neatly into the plot development that it is charming. Much of the dramatic progression and our sympathy for all involved depends on its course so that although it seems as though it should not hold much weight in this tale of the coming of war, it plays the perfect sidekick.

How can I hold a dislike for Hitchcock’s style when I have found him so elegant and lucid? His lucidity, his ability to say what he intends, is only perfected as his makes further movies, but the elegance of his style suffers when he begins to use color. I don’t think he ever masters color and he is incapable of excluding distractions when he switches to it. As for the third element of style, individuality, as he develops, he lets his motifs (manipulative music, unsettling twists, odd angles, and overemphasis on the psychological element) have too much play. But if you watch the early Hitchcock you can see his genius unobscured by his eccentricities.

Foreign Correspondent is available on the Criterion Channel’s streaming service, and for rent from the Apple Store. I strongly recommend abandoning Netflix if you have it and getting a subscription to the Criterion Channel, but if you are only occasionally going to watch a movie, by all means spend a couple bucks and watch this wonderful movie.