d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 108 mins.
There's not much to Saboteur except the feeling that it's a pastiche of Alfred Hitchcock's earlier wrong-man films (including The 39 Steps) and a rough draft for North by Northwest, which would turn a cross-country manhunt into a light-hearted slice of genius.
Robert Cummings stars as Barry Kane, a sort of chummy everyman working in a California aircraft factory for the U.S. war effort. Through a series of simple slips and errors, he is accused of being a conspirator in an act of arson at the factory – a charge no less than sabotage. As all of the Hitchcockian wrongfully-accused come to realize, it's not only about proving your own innocence but capturing the man who has perpetrated the crime, a weasely man named Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd). With the saboteur heading east, Kane goes on the run with the help of a young model (Priscilla Lane) he befriends after some help from a blind man.
Hitchcock wanted Gary Cooper for the role of Kane (it was his second overture for the actor, whom he pursued for Foreign Correspondent a few years earlier; the two never worked together). It's hard to imagine Saboteur would be better with Cooper in the lead, but he would have most likely been an improvement over Cummings, who feels out of place. He has the banality to be somewhat believable as an every-man, but in his acting he lacks the mettle to be believable as a man who would go on a cross-country chase to capture the guilty saboteur and prove his innocence. (He seems like the kind of guy who would have turned himself into the authorities and just hoped for the best.)
Saboteur is justifiably famous only for the climactic ending atop the Statue of Liberty, which, although quite brief, was quite advanced at the time in terms of its special effects. It is a landmark scene in Hitchcock's canon, and its influence is still reaching through contemporary action films. The director's fascination with setting scenes of high intensity at public monuments began back in 1929, when Michael Powell, working under Hitchcock's tutelage, proposed the climax of Blackmail to be set in the British Museum in London. And like Blackmail (and eventually, North by Northwest, with Mount Rushmore), Hitchcock would be denied permission to film at the actual location and forced to use camera tricks and sets to construct a facsimile. The sequence took months for Hitchcock and his crew to plan, and was filmed on a to-scale set of the statue's torch at Universal Studios. On screen, it is potent: the soundtrack is nonexistent, the dialogue is strained, the only effects being the high winds and the torn seams of Fry's jacket as he dangles from the torch.
Excepting the Statue of Liberty scene for a moment, the film has some other noteworthy asides. My favorite has always been a moment that occurs as Kane hitchhikes with a trucker. When he glances out the window, there's a gorgeously Hitchcockian billboard: "YOU'RE BEING FOLLOWED ... by the cars that don't use Comet Oil!" Others include a shot from Kane's point-of-view underwater as he swims to his escape the police in a river (The Fugitive did a stellar homage); a deft attempt to communicate from an upper floor of a New York skyscraper with someone on the sidewalk below; and a chase through a movie theater that mixes on-screen gunfire with actual gunfire.
Acerbic humorist Dorothy Parker (one of many writers for The New Yorker that Hitchcock worked with) contributed to the script, along with Peter Viertel and regular Joan Harrison. Parker is credited with a side-splitting scene involving compassionate circus freaks on a train who espouse anti-fascism, pro-democracy political sentiments. (The commentary on the war effort is at times slightly too preachy.) The scene is perhaps too offbeat for even Hitchcock, but as a film Saboteur seems to be grasping at anything it can hold, so the scene ends up not only working but being one of the more memorable elements. Parker and Hitchcock were originally slated to have a double cameo as an old married couple who slow down to help an feuding Kane and Pat – "My, they must be terribly in love" – but it was scrapped and Hitchcock did a standard walk-on.
The problem is these fleeting moments are too few to make a movie and the stuffing isn't meaty enough. There are a few golden sequences in Saboteur, but the pieces are too disjointed to form a coherent and tight narrative. The director's other wrongfully accused films are better worth your time, although even a cursory examination of Hitchcock's work wouldn't be complete without watching that stunning moment with the Statue of Liberty.
16 October 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 108 mins.