Saboteur is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s second-tier films. It has some memorable sequences, including one of his most famous–a man falling to his death from the Statue of Liberty–but it also has a kind of B-movie quality, perhaps because it lacks any real star power (the lead is Bob Cummings, who would later be best known as a sit-com star) and it resembles many other, better Hitchcock films that feature the same theme–a wronged man on the run (such as The 39 Steps and North by Northwest).
Released 70 years ago in 1942, the attack at Pearl Harbor happened when the film was in pre-production. It concerns spies working against the U.S., but unlike Notorious, we’re not sure who they are working for. Part of the genius of the film is that Hitchcock used friendly, all-American types for his spies, although a few of them were a little creepy.
The film begins in a airplane factory in California. Cummings is just an average Joe, and he his buddy accidentally bump into another worker, Fry (Norman Lloyd), who drops some envelopes with his name and address on them and a hundred dollar bill. Later, when a fire breaks out, he will hand a fire extinguisher to Cummings, who then gives it to his buddy. The extinguisher turns out to be full of gasoline, and the buddy is engulfed by flame. Since there is no record of anyone named Fry at the plant, Cummings is suspected, and flees.
He tries to track down Fry and ends up at the home of a wealthy rancher (Otto Kruger), who seems like a kindly old grandpa, but is revealed to be a spy. He turns Cummings over to the police, but he manages to escape, and in a scene reminiscent of one in Frankenstein, he happens upon a kindly old blind man. This man believes in his innocence, and asks his niece (Priscilla Lane) to take him to get his handcuffs removed. Lane isn’t as forgiving as her uncle, and plans of turning Cummings back to the police, but she ends up trusting him and they go on an odyssey that includes hiding out on a circus train, stumbling upon a plot to blow up the Hoover Dam, and then ending up in New York City, trying to prevent the demolition of a newly-christened battleship.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this picture is that one of the co-screenwriters was Algonquin Roundtable wit Dorothy Parker. The film is full of funny lines, including a terrific monologue by a truck driver giving Cummings a lift, and when Lane and Cummings end up in a ghost town called Soda City, Cummings says, “It’s the heart of the bicarbonate belt.”
Where the film bogs down is in its jingoism, which can’t really be faulted, since it was 1942. Hitchcock didn’t believe in making political pictures, so he must have inwardly cringed at some of the speeches about how American is great and the cause of the spies (though Germany or Nazis are never mentioned) is evil. Better are little touches like when the circus freaks, including a bearded lady, a fat lady, a midget and Siamese twins, vote whether to turn the fleeing pair over to the police. The leader of the ring, the “human skeleton,” exults that they are a democracy in miniature. When the midget wants to ignore the result of the vote, the skeleton snaps at him, “Fascist!”
Being Hitchcock, there are many masterful shots. The scene of the fire in the airplane plant is terrific. It’s a stationary shot of a wall, and the smoke slowly rolls in from the right. There’s a scene that is almost a parody of Hitchcock–Lloyd, on the loose but chased by police, heads into Radio City Music Hall (where the film actually premiered). On the screen is a movie that has gunplay, and it is intercut with the gunshots from Lloyd and his pursuers. And the climax on the Statue of Liberty is well known to many. It was interesting to learn in the extras from Lloyd himself (who is alive at 97, God bless him) how that was done in a time before CGI. Hitchcock, of course, loved having scenes on national monuments, as he would do fifteen years later on Mount Rushmore for North by Northwest.
While Saboteur is not one of Hitchcock’s greatest, it’s well worth a look.