A few years ago, to me the name Alfred Hitchcock meant that old guy who was famous for making movies that I’d never seen. It took me far too long to watch any of his films but I’ve since been making up for this by watching as many as I can over the last couple of years. What amazes me each time is that almost every film I’ve seen has been at least in part brilliant. Even those which I’m not so mad on often contain a couple of shots or scenes which astound my eyes and he rarely if ever fails to thrill. The latest Hitchcock to flash excitedly in front of my eyes is his 1942 spy thriller, Saboteur. Production on the movie began just two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor and patriotism, symbolism and propaganda run right the way through the picture in every scene and character.
Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is an aircraft factory worker from Southern California. Following a fire at the plant, in which his good friend dies, the evidence leads detectives to believe that Kane is responsible and he becomes a wanted man, travelling across the country in a bid to unveil the German spy ring that he believes is the true culprit. Along the way he becomes acquainted with Patricia Martin (Pricilla Lane), a model and patriot who attempts to turn the wanted man in time and time again. Their travels lead them to the hornet’s nest in New York City where the suspected spies are planning their latest piece of sabotage.
Saboteur opens with a gorgeous noir style shot which plays beneath the opening credits. It’s a simple single shot of a huge metal gate on which a man’s shadow can be seen. The shadow gets slowly larger and closer to the centre of the frame in what is an incredibly ominous and uneasy looking shot. Already inside just a few moments and one camera angle, Hitchcock creates excitement and intrigue which although subsiding slightly during the first half of the film, comes back with vengeance for the superb ending. The opening few scenes are also intrigue filled but once the film goes on the run with the central character, this is replaced with excitement. The two emotions the film seizes from its audience are equally enjoyable to experience and work in tandem to create a more than solid film.
The script is tense and exciting but unfortunately the dialogue occasionally comes across as corny. It’s also terribly of its time and full of sentences which begin with words such as “Say…” and “Supposin’…”. The 1940s has a reputation, often unwarranted, for producing movies in which the actors talk at break neck speed. To be honest, this movie is a prime example of that. It’s amusing at times and quite stereotypical. I was often reminded of that Family Guy ‘Fast Talking, High Trousers’ sketch. What also comes across in the script is how events surrounding the film impacted upon it. Obviously with a plot about German spies, there’s going to be references to the war but the film talks more about being an American and what that means rather than about hunting Germans. It feels like a liberal precursor to McCarthyism in that fingers are pointed at various people who are forced to prove their innocence and patriotism.
What’s nice about the plot is that it’s often the authority figures who are viewed as menacing or suspicious whereas it’s simple folk, blind men, circus people who come across as the nice guys. I quite like what that says about authoritarianism in general, something which the Allies were in part fighting against. There is also symbolism abound in the movie. One scene passes the SS Normandie (USS Lafayette) which caught fire and capsized while being converted to a troopship at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Though the accident was never attributed to any group, it was long thought to be a result of sabotage and this shot shows of the potential destruction that can be caused by such an action. Another form of symbolism comes with the location of the movie’s tremendous final scenes which are set at The Statue of Liberty where good vs. bad, Fascism vs. Capitalism meet for the closing battle.
The final scenes are probably the best in the movie. For this sequence, the film’s fantastic score dips out and the visuals alone are used to convey the tension and excitement of the scene. There are some clever special effects here too. Matte painted backdrops are used to great effect to create the sense that the studio footage is being shot at the famous landmark. The climactic shot also used some ingenious camera trickery. The scene in general is fantastically exciting. I actually gasped when Robert Cummings stepped over the small barrier, hundreds of feet above the ground. It’s a terrific climax to a superb film.
Overall I thought that Saboteur was excellent. Not only is it an entertaining film but it can also be viewed as an interesting historical document, detailing attitudes and practices of the period. As you’d expect it’s wonderfully and imaginatively shot and the plot ticks along, rarely dipping below mildly exciting. The two leads are good but I felt that acting wasn’t at its best overall but this doesn’t detract from another suspenseful thriller from the master of the genre.
- Lead actor would work for Hitchcock again twelve years later in Dial M for Murder.
- The director's cameo comes about an hour into the film where he can be seen standing in front of a kiosk in New York.
- Hitchcock originally wanted Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck to star but was unable to afford them on the film's budget.
- This was Hitchcock's first movie to feature an all American cast.