Story is essentially the old cops-and-robbers. But it has been set in a background of international political intrigue of the largest order. It has a war flavor, the events taking place immediately before and at the start of World War II; yet it can in no sense be called a war picture. Mystery and intrigue march in place.
Add to all this a cast carefully selected by director Alfred Hitchcock to the last, unimportant lackey. Joel McCrea neatly blends the self-confidence and naivete of the reporter-hero, while Laraine Day, virtually a fledgling in pictures, only in the most difficult sequences misses out as a top-grade dramatic player. Vet Herbert Marshall as the heavy, George Sanders as McCrea’s fellow-reporter, 72-year-old refugee Albert Basserman as a Dutch diplomat, Edmund Gwenn as a not-to-be-trusted bodyguard, Eduardo Ciannelli as the usual hissable villain, are all tops. Comic touch is provided by Robert Benchley and Eddie Conrad.
Story uncorks with the editor of a New York paper going nuts because his foreign correspondents cable nothing but rumor and speculation. He hits on the idea of sending one of his police reporters to dig factual material out of the Europe of August 1939. McCrea, who knows nothing of foreign affairs, immediately runs into the tallest story a reporter can imagine – a big-league peace organization, headed by Marshall, which is operating as nothing but a spy ring.
McCrea runs into the double-cross organization when it kidnaps an honest Dutch diplomat (Basserman) and assassinates his imposter to give the impression that he is dead. Assassination sequence in the rain on the broad steps of an Amsterdam building (set is a tremendous and excellent re-creation of a whole block in Amsterdam) is virtually a newsreel in its starkness.
1940: Nominations: Best Picture, Supp. Actor (Albert Basserman), Original Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, B&W Art Direction, Special Effects