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Saboteur (1942)

October 26th, 2007 · 3 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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At an aircraft plant in Glendale, Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) accidentally knocks over a co-worker who gives the name of Fry (Norman Lloyd). Kane glimpses the envelope of a letter the man carries. Moments later, the plant erupts in flames. Kane attempts to fight the blaze with a buddy, but the extinguisher Kane hands him explodes. Questioned by police, he’s notified that no “Fry” works for the plant. Authorities suspect Kane in the sabotage. When no one believes him, he goes on the run to clear his name.

His first stop is the ranch he spotted on the envelope. The ranch’s owner – the devilish Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger) – has the fugitive captured by his ranch hands and handed to the police. Kane escapes by diving off a bridge. He’s given shelter by a blind man, who instructs his fashion model niece Pat (Priscilla Lane) to drive him to a blacksmith to remove his handcuffs. Pat tries to take Kane to the police, but he detains her long enough to convince her of his innocence.

After a traveling circus shields them from arrest, the couple makes their way to a ghost town which Tobin instructed Fry to head to. They discover a clear vantage of the Hoover Dam. While Pat escapes to notify the authorities of the attack, Kane passes himself off as a saboteur to Tobin’s lackeys and is taken to New York, where Tobin and his network of traitors plan to sabotage the christening of a battleship at the Brooklyn naval yard.

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Production history 
In the spring of 1941, while director Alfred Hitchcock toyed with idea of remaking of his British film The Lodger, producer Jack Skirball favored another idea that Hitchcock was working on. It followed an American who races cross country to prove his innocence once accused of being a saboteur. Joan Harrison worked with Hitchcock on the early treatments before departing to pursue a solo screenwriting career.

A 21-year-old novelist named Peter Viertel who had no experience writing screenplays was hired to work with Hitchcock and producer John Houseman on a script. Hitchcock was under contract to David O. Selznick, but the producer expressed no desire to make the thriller himself. Houseman sold the package to Universal, which snapped Hitchcock up in a two-picture deal. Dorothy Parker – the celebrated writer and acidic wit – was hired to polish the script.

Hitchcock made overtures to Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck about starring, but Universal was a bargain basement studio of horror movies and Abbott & Costello comedies that couldn’t afford to import high-priced actors. Joel McCrea wasn’t even available, so Hitchcock had to settle on Robert Cummings. This led to Priscilla Lane – a budding starlet at Warner Bros. – being cast opposite him as the female lead.

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Shooting commenced in mid-December 1941. While it touched on stateside paranoia that after Pearl Harbor, saboteurs might target American industry, Hitchcock would later criticize the script as being rushed and undisciplined. Released the following spring without stars, Saboteur was a hit with audiences. Critics today acknowledge that despite its flaws, it can be considered Hitchcock’s first truly American film.

The slapdash script is evident in almost any part of the film you click on, with some awkward pacing, a few flat scenes and lines of dialogue so bad they could only be written. But for everything it does poorly, Saboteur also features sequences of visual bravura, white knuckled suspense and finely tuned wit, as well as providing a snapshot of a country wringing its hands over America’s entry into the war.

Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane (who received top billing) are hardly Fonda and Stanwyck, but for a B-picture, the visual effects are outstanding. From the evocative opening credits, to set pieces atop a bridge, in a crowded movie theater, and most memorably, on the arm of the Statue of Liberty, Hitchcock stocks the film with visual imagination. There’s too much preaching in the dialogue, as well as scenes that are weak sisters to the set pieces, but Saboteur is worth investigation by Hitchcock fan.

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Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant writes, “A fairly straightforward patriotic version of The 39 Steps and not to be confused with Hitch’s earlier English Sabotage, Saboteur is a mixed bag of great sequences alternating with some unusually clunky scenes.”

“Hitchcock’s expectedly masterful directorial choices provide the film with brief flashes of electricity … yet such sequences are invariably rendered moot by the overly talky script and general ambiance of pointlessness, ensuring that even the most avid Hitchcock fan will have a tough time embracing the film,” writes David Nusair at Reel Film Reviews.

Barrie Maxwell at DVD Verdict writes, “Cummings and Lane aside, Saboteur is an entertaining film from Alfred Hitchcock. It’s certainly not completely original or deep, but it’s fun to recognize previously used set pieces as well as others that would become more famous ones in future films.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Golden Age of Hollywood · Paranoia · Road trip · Train

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Pat Evans // Oct 27, 2007 at 2:37 pm

    Part of the problem with this film is the lightweight cast — actors who were more likely to feature in rom-coms than thrillers — although interestingly Cummings was also in the later “Dial M for Murder”. However the set pieces, particularly the final scenes on the Statue of Liberty are what make this film essential Hitchcock.

  • 2 Damian // Oct 28, 2007 at 4:36 pm

    Once again, this is one of the more recent Hitchcock films I’ve seen and, once again– although I do agree with your assessment of it, Joe–I quite enjoyed it. I’m going to be totally unoriginal and say that the most memorable scene for me was the climax atop the Statue of Liberty (of which the idea of setting an action finale around an elevated American landmark pre-dates Hitch’s later North by Northwest). When I saw that sequence I realized that it had inspired moments in two of my favorite films: Die Hard and The Hudsucker Proxy.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Oct 28, 2007 at 6:10 pm

    Pat: The only problem with your critique is that you could apply that same logic to Strangers On a Train – with Robert Walker and the hapless Farley Granger – yet that movie is a minor masterpiece. Saboteur is “lesser Hitchcock”, but I think it’s because the script is a mess. I agree with you though that the set pieces are exciting. Thanks for commenting!

    Damian: I agree, the Statue of Liberty sequence is superlative and the chief reason to see the film. It’s the best use of the monument I’ve seen in a movie (X-Men and Remo Williams would be the others). You certainly can’t accuse Hitchcock of thinking small.

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