Week 27: Saboteur (1942)

1940-49

Hello there, and welcome back to Weekly Hitch. This is a personal film-studies project in which I go through and watch all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films in order, and then I write things about them like what they’re about and how awesome/terrible/confusing they are.

This week we look at the mysterious side of the war as Hitchcock basically just remakes The 39 Steps, but with a young American and some other changes. It’s a wrong-man race across America to stop a tragedy and it’s called Saboteur.

The Film:

As war-timey a war picture as Hitchcock ever made, Saboteur (not to be confused with the earlier film Sabotagewas Hitchcock’s attempt to bring his British wrong-man thriller to the American audience – with possibly mixed results.

The picture begins at an aircraft manufacturing plant in California, where Barry Kane (played by Robert Cummings) works with his friend, building military planes in the lead up to war. Barry and his pal have a brief run in a taciturn young guy named Fry (Norman Lloyd in his first role). But soon a fire breaks out in the airplane factory during the lunch break and Barry’s pal is killed.

Sabotage!

Sabotage!

Being a good-hearted fellow, Barry goes to visit his friend’s mother – only to learn that Barry is suspected of setting the fire. He claims that Fry was at the scene – but the authorities can’t find any trace of the mysterious Fry! Barry knows he has no choice but to track down Fry and clear his own name. He makes a run for it – remembering an address on an envelope that Fry dropped.

First step for Barry on the run is catching a ride from a talkative truck driver, who takes him to the address from Fry’s envelope – a ranch way out in the country. But the man who own’s the ranch claims to know nothing about Fry… until the man’s granddaughter accidentally shows Barry some letters written by Fry that tell the mysterious man, named Charles Tobin (charmingly played by Otto Kruger), that Fry is on his way to Soda City.

But Tobin is dangerous, and he can’t let Barry go knowing what he knows. Seems like Tobin is some kind of ringleader in the sabotage world – and was Fry’s boss. The police are called, but they don’t believe Barry, only arrest him for the fire at the factory. They drive Barry out of town, the young man protesting his innocence all the way – but to now avail. Eventually Barry finds a chance to escape from the cart – and handcuffed, he jumps into a river.

Barry and the blind man

Barry and the blind man

Downstream along the river, Barry find refuge at the storybook home of an old blind man in the woods. The two talk and makes friends, but soon the old man’s nice, Patricia (Priscilla Lane), turns up to find Barry – worried about local cops out searching for a dangerous saboteur. Patricia is a model from New York (inexplicably) and comes to visit now and then. She soon discovers that Barry is a criminal on the run – and that her uncle knew – but thinks him innocent. The old blind man tells his niece that she must drive him to the local blacksmith so Barry can get the handcuffs taken off, and she does so under protest – very worried.

Of course, the young model doesn’t drive him to the blacksmith, but tries to take him to the police – whereupon, the innocent young man kinda sorta kidnaps her, wrecks the car getting his handcuffs broken and strands them in the desert. Lucky for them both they are picked up by a group of travelling circus freakshow workers – bearded lady and little person and conjoined twins and so forth. And then, amid the collection of the freaks, Barry is put on trial as to whether they should turn him over to the police. The circus folk eventually decide to protect him, and Barry and Pat are given refuge.

The next day Barry and Pat reach Soda City, where they discover that the saboteurs are planning to blow up a dam, and Pat learns that Barry has been telling the truth. But, before they can regroup, the saboteurs return – and Barry convinces him that he’s Fry – and he’s been sent to help with the next job. Taken in, the criminals decide to take Barry with them to New York, where a big operation is getting under way to destroy a Navy ship. Pat runs off to find the authorities… uncertain again if Barry is really with the traitors or not.

All the villains together!

All the villains together!

In New York (the movie journeys in a North by NorthEast direction), Barry and the saboteurs go to visit an old rich lady, who is one of the leaders of the saboteurs. This woman, Mrs. Sutton (played by Alma Kruger), is having a big charity ball and there Barry finds that Pat was captured – and that the old ranchman is there as well. Barry is caught and locked up. He escapes the next day with only hours to stop the destruction of the Navy ship and save the day!

Barry rushes to the Navy yard where the ship is being launched and spies Fry – the aircraft factory saboteur, and unable to convince authorities, Barry takes matters into his own hands. He fights with Fry, but the man still manages to set off his bomb… but luckily for America, the ship is already launched. Now in a chase, Barry chases Fry into a movie theatre – where the villain shoots during a gunfight on screen (a clever nod to Hitch’s own Sabotage). They chase then moves to Liberty Island and the statue of liberty.

Over the statue.

Over the statue.

There, up in the statue, Fry ends up slipping and falling out of the statue’s hand, and clinging to life – with only Barry there to help. But Fry’s sleeve rips – and the villain falls spectacularly to his death. Barry is cleared, and the villains – presumably – are rounded up.

The Result:

Let’s be honest here: there are great Hitchcock films and not-so-great ones. Saboteur is, unfortunately, not so great. But at least it’s not so great for some interesting reasons. Primarily because Hitchcock has been down this road, and in more interesting vehicles.

A curiously odd mix of The 39 Steps and Sabotage and Young and Innocent and Foreign CorrespondentSaboteur, more than any Hitchcock film (except maybe North By Northwest) is more of a greatest hits collection than a film it its own right. It’s as if Hitchcock decided to summarize everything he did in the 1930’s and shove it through a Play-Doh Fun Factory. Now, this sounds like a great idea, and normally I’d be all for it – but unfortunately he did it at Universal with a B-Movie cast and tried to use not one, but THREE villains… and the result is a jumbled mess.

Barry Kane, a villain, and a baby.

Barry Kane, a villain, and a baby.

Saboteur struggles with a common Hitchcock complaint, essentially that his thrillers are very episodic and unconnected. In movies like 39 Steps and Young and Innocent, you essentially had good guys moving from one set-piece sequence to another – with no drive other than to run from the law or chase after a villain. And it’s a very true argument – one which Hitch overcame in past films by the fun novelty of his scenes… a children’s party game of ‘blind man’s bluff’ becomes the key to the hero’s escape, or Robert Donat encounters a sad country wife who is more prisoner than he might ever be – each of his chapters in these early films effectively work to uncover more about the hero, or deepen the meaning of their journey. Saboteur has no such redemption.

The circus folk.

The circus folk.

In travelling from a mystical blind man who pretty much claims to have super powers, to a caravan of circus folks, to a fancy New York party and they up the Statue of Liberty… each of these instances seem so completely isolated, so unconnected to each other that I was left wondering if they were even part of the same movie. Which, in truth, they weren’t. They’re all written with varying styles – some feeling like a Disney movie, others like a rough crime thriller. And then there’s the cast.

I have nothing against the performances of Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane, both are very capable and dynamic actors – but they just can’t carry this film. There’s not enough meat in these roles, not enough character there for even just good actors to save. These roles needed actors who could create things that aren’t there, more fear from Lane – more desperation from Cummings… Hitchcock, possibly cranky about the project, just didn’t give them enough to work with, and it shows.

Shades of The 39 Steps.

Shades of The 39 Steps.

Technically, of course, the film is brilliant. The movie theatre shoot-out which harkens back to Sabotage (and foreshadows Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai) is clever, the present danger of actual war makes the story feel timely and tense (Pearl Harbor was bombed during the pictures production), and the final grippingly tense sequence atop the Statue of Liberty is really fantastic. But, we except technical perfection and great suspense from Hitchcock – that’s not what makes him an amazing director – for that we need something deeper, and more cohesive – which is, sadly, the thing that Saboteur is missing.

The Production:

With Hitchcock’s RKO loan-out complete, and the release of Suspicion yet to come, David O Selznick was very keen to keep the director hard at work, and not sitting idle while earning a wage. So, to this end, throughout the spring and summer of 1941, several projects were considered for the next Hitchcock picture. Among these included a remake of The Lodger as well as a remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, along with an untitled kidnap drama that Hitchcock thought would be ideal for Ingrid Bergman – of whom he had become a very big fan. But in the then, none of those projects won out.

Hitchcock during production.

Hitchcock during production.

It was to be an original Hitchcock idea, first titled, simply – “U.S.” – which would go on to become Saboteur. Hitchcock had initially worked the idea up with writer John Houseman, and then on his own with Joan Harrison, and then finally bringing in writer Peter Viertel to finish the script off. Selznick had toyed with idea of producing the movie at his own studio – but the subject matter and genre were such that everyone involved knew it would never be a Selznick production. The final script, along with director Hitchcock, were eventually offered out to other studios. Fox only wanted it with Henry Fonda attached, and there was a brief moment where RKO was considering the picture with Orson Welles producing, but it would be Universal Pictures who would up getting the project – and Selznick earning a tidy profit on Hitchcock’s back… something which the director began to resent more and more.

Unable to get his first choice actors due to contracts or timing (Hitch wanted Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck), Hitch was stuck using Universal contract actor Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane – both of whom were deemed suitable by Hitchcock, but not quite the calibre that he’d hoped for. The budget was set at $750,000 and production set for early in 1942. But two things would put additional pressure on the film even before the cameras roll.

Cummings and Lane.

Cummings and Lane.

The first of these events was the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of ’41, which pulled the U.S. harshly into the war, and made the plot and conspiratorial villains of Saboteur even more topical, and the second would be the departure of Joan Harrison from Hitchcock’s employment. For Hitch it was certainly Harrison’s leaving that was the more shocking occurrence. Harrison would go on to produce pictures on her own, and would eventually return to Hitchcock to help produce his television show later on. But, nearly on his own, and with cast and script in hand – production on Saboteur soon began.

As with most Hitchcock films in America, the shooting of Saboteur was fairly smooth in spite of a small budget for such a sprawling cross-country adventure. Second units were dispatched to film scenic shots in New York, while lavish sets were built reusing old bits of sets from other Universal films. Hitchcock was also very good at building only the amount of a set that he actually needed – probably due to his careful planning and detailed storyboards.

Production sketch.

Production sketch.

Among the more impressive elements in the film is the dying fall of Norman Lloyd’s villainous Fry from the Statue of Liberty. Shot as a plate with Lloyd sitting in a black chair as the camera was pulled up into the air – the shot was iconic, and would even be replicated in the 1988 thriller Die Hard.

Saboteur premiered in April of 1942 in Washington D.C., and to both Hitchcock’s and Universal’s surprise, the movie was met with enthusiastic reviews and great box office earnings. It was another Hitchcock hit, and with its plot of anti-American spies and wartime adventure on the home-front the movie tapped into the public imagination very well. But by this time, Hitchcock was already moving on to his next picture.

The Legacy:

What’s oddly curious about Saboteur, for me anyhow, is that – while it’s not a great movie, it’s still a marvellously influential film – not least which where it comes to future Hitchcock films.

Poster for Saboteur.

Poster for Saboteur.

An almost perfect prototype for Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, and fascinating synthesis of his past work, Saboteur serves as both a chance to look back at Hitchcock’s growth, and to find the elements which would crop up again in the future.

Here we have the cool blonde, the iconic American imagery, the handcuffs, the spiral stairs in the Statue of Liberty, a wrong man, circus people, a lonely man in a cabin, using an auction to escape a suave villain, even a scene of voyeurism. The film is a text book on Hitchcock’s iconic elements – and a great chance to see all these ‘greatest hits’ distilled, awkwardly, into a single picture.

But I think, most importantly for Hitchcock, this was his first truly original American film. A story conceived by him and his staff – created to make a Hitchcock film – and not tied to a previous story, novel, or script. This was Hitch’s first chance to do what he had always don in England, and while the product is derivative and lacking – the success, both financially and critically, that Hitchcock received gave him the confidence to know that his way of doing things and the stories he wanted to tell would find an audience in America.

V for Victory (through Violence?)

V for Victory (through Violence?)

And finally, Saboteur showed Hitchcock that he could make a truly American film. He came out of Saboteur more enthusiastic about his new country, and excited by the possibilities of telling more American tales. Luckily for us, because the next American story – possibly Hitchcock’s most American story was about to come next, and it would become the masters favourite of his films.

So I’ll see you soon, when we look at 1943’s Shadow Of A Doubt.

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