An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…
Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
A man goes on the run after being framed for a devastating fire at an aircraft factory…
Alfred Hitchcock films are not political tracts. Most of them are gloriously shameless entertainment set in a fantasy world of heightened situations and colourful characters. They are not intended to be taken as literal representation of the real world. But that doesn’t mean they don’t reflect the times in which they were made: all films do, whether knowingly or not.
Saboteur was released in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Habor – news of which actually broke while Hitchcock was attending a pre-production meeting. So as well as being a fast-paced thriller about a cross-country hunt for a criminal, it’s also drenched with the concerns of a society that has just entered the Second World War.
This is a film where characters take time to extol the virtues of duty and the villains are insidious intellectuals rather than greedy thugs. The sabotage that kicks off the plot is especially egregious because it’s a fire at a factory producing vital aircraft for the war effort. The story ends, symbolically, at the Statue of Liberty – one character even reciting its famous engraving about huddled masses yearning to breathe free, then mentioning the current woes of France, the country that donated the landmark. Made 10 years earlier or 10 years later and Saboteur would be a very different beast.
This wartime context is perfectly understandable, of course. In April 1942, the world had far more pressing concerns than a Hollywood thriller, so it’s hardly surprising that Hitchcock and his colleagues bent their espionage plot into a minor morality lesson. They were far from the only people doing it. During the Second World War was rather obviously a fertile time to make a Second World War film – and many of these movies had political aims as well as populist ones.
Just a sample of the genre in the year of Saboteur’s release, 1942, throws up numerous examples of the war having a direct impact on Hollywood. Director John Huston was partway through filming a Second World War movie called Across the Pacific when he himself was called up for military service. Black Dragon, a film about the Japanese colluding with the Nazis, was rushed into production after Pearl Harbor. Captain of the Clouds, a movie about Canadian pilots and starring James Cagney, was made with the direct help of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and the Royal Canadian Air Force. (It had been planned as a way of swaying American public opinion into supporting the war. By the time it was released, the US had already joined the conflict.) The series of Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce illogically but rather admirably moved its characters from the Victorian era to the 1940s, all the better for fighting and defeating Nazis. Nineteen forty-two also saw the release of the virtuoso Casablanca, a tale of heroic resistance and imperishable romance in the face of Nazi oppression.
Two months after Saboteur’s release came Mrs Miniver, the stoic story of a British housewife, which is imbued – as its director, William Wyler, freely admitted – with the argument that America should fight with the Allies. (A key scene of the lead character confronting a German pilot was reshot after the attack on Pearl Harbor to give it a stronger, more aggressive edge.) In the same month, in the UK, the director/producer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger released One of Our Aircraft is Missing, a film set in Nazi-occupied Europe and made under the auspices of the UK Ministry of Information. At around the same time as Saboteur was filming, David Lean and Noel Coward were directing the blatantly rousing, pro-Allies In Which We Serve. (While all this was going on, by the way, Hitchcock was being criticised in the UK for not returning to help the war effort. He argued that he was under contract to an American studio.)
Aptly (and coincidentally), Saboteur’s all-American tone is complemented by Hitchcock’s first all-American cast. But whereas the director later focused his cameras on such Hollywood heavyweights as James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Janet Leigh and Ingrid Bergman, here there’s a real lack of star power. For three of the biggest roles, Hitch initially wanted Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck and Harry Carey. When they proved unavailable, he felt short-changed by Robert Cummings (too light to be a convincing hero), Priscilla Lane (given top billing but fairly unmemorable) and Otto Kruger (not menacing enough as the bad guy). One acting success, though, is Norman Lloyd, who plays the elusive Fry with a great combination of sleaze and menace. (Lloyd was also in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, later became a producer on Hitch’s TV shows, and – at the time of writing – is still a working actor at 103 years old.)
Cummings plays factory worker Barry Kane, who is suspected of starting a fire that killed his friend. He thinks the man responsible for both the fire and his framing is an employee called Fry (Lloyd), but when the police find no evidence of Fry’s existence, Kane sets out to track him down – all while on the run from the authorities. Along the way, he encounters a helpful trucker, a kind and hospitable blind man, and a Freaks-style circus troupe – all of whom help him without question. And he teams up with the blind man’s niece, Pat Martin (Lane), who gets dragged along in his quest. Meanwhile, the villains, headlined by Kruger’s silky fascist, are planning another act of national damage by blowing up a new Navy battleship in New York harbour…
The film has some fun, admittedly. It moves along well and is never boring. Hitchcock playfully puts messages commenting on the plot into the production design of roadside billboards and the title of books on a shelf. There’s a great scene at a swanky party with a clever shot of the two leads dancing that keeps them steady in the frame as they move around the floor. And needing a shot of a sunken ship, Hitch sent a crew to film the liner SS Normandie, which was then half-submerged in New York harbour after a fire.
But because it’s a movie built around a succession of episodes – some of which are more enjoyable than others and some of which are more plausible than others – after a while it starts to lose its way. Saboteur is the middle film of an unofficial trilogy of Hitchcock thrillers. It’s another version of the same idea that was used in The 39 Steps (1935) and would be aired again in North by Northwest (1959). Sadly it’s not as successful as either of those genuine classics. We get the same gimmick – an innocent man gets inadvertently caught up in an espionage plot and must travel across country to find out what’s going on – but not the same level of enjoyment.
Seven men outside the drug store out of 10