SABOTEUR (1942) – Universal Studios – Rating: ★★★½
B&W – 108 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Principal cast: Robert Cummings (Barry Kane), Priscilla Lane (Patricia Martin), Otto Kruger (Charles Tobin), Alan Baxter (Mr. Freeman), Norman Lloyd (Fry), Alma Kruger (Mrs. Sutton), Vaughan Glaser (Phillip Martin).
Produced by Frank Lloyd & Jack H. Skirball
Written by Joan Harrison & Peter Viertel & Dorothy Parker
Director of Photography: Joseph A. Valentine
Film Editing: Otto Ludwig
Art Director: Robert Boyle
Poor Barry Kane, hard-working American patriot, doing his part to support the war effort in a Los Angeles airplane factory. When a fire erupts in the factory, he is one of the first on the scene, and through the machinations of a suspicious man named Fry, Barry’s good friend dies in the fire, and Barry himself is suspected of sabotage. Armed with only one small clue, Fry’s name and an address briefly glimpsed on an envelope, Barry must track down the real saboteurs while staying one step ahead of the police. Here is Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite motif, that of the innocent man falsely accused, which he used many times.
The address leads Barry to a California ranch run by a Charles Tobin, who is the mastermind of the saboteurs. Charming and urbane, he is the quintessential Hitchcock villain, a man who can calmly play with his granddaughter while plotting the deaths of innocent people. Barry has his first run-in with the police at the ranch, and after escaping, acquiring a pair of handcuffs for his troubles, he winds up at the woodland house of a kind old blind man. Soon the blind man’s niece arrives and is instructed to drive Barry to the blacksmith to have the handcuffs removed.
The movie continues as a series of set pieces, and truly the individual strength of many of the pieces is greater than the strength of the movie as a whole. Barry and Patricia move from West to East, from Los Angeles to New York, and Patricia’s feelings about Barry move from doubt to trust, while the nest of saboteurs grows and the pieces begin to fit together.
Eventually the couple find themselves in a mansion in New York City, surrounded by socialites at a charity event being hosted by the saboteurs. With all the exits guarded, they are literally trapped in a crowded room. This is a familiar theme in the works of Hitchcock; oftentimes his protagonists feel alone precisely when they are surrounded by people.
Our couple is separated and imprisoned separately at this point, both using ingenuity (rather implausible in one case) to earn their freedom. Barry Kane finally runs into his nemesis Fry, the man behind the fire at the airplane factory, and a chase ends atop the Statue of Liberty, with Fry literally hanging by a thread from liberty’s torch.
This is overall a very entertaining film, which mixes tone well and holds the audience. Its greatest failure is in the performances of the leading man and woman. There is a reason that Hitchcock loved to cast stars in his leading roles: they were generally very good at what they did, and they had an easier time holding the audience’s attention. Neither Robert Cummings nor Priscilla Lane was an A-list actor, and they were both more known for comedies and dramas of a lighter nature. Also, their golly-gee style of delivering dialogue, while very much in vogue in the 40’s, seems very dated today. Contrast this with the performance of Otto Kruger, the mastermind of the saboteurs, whose character is very fresh and real, even today.
This is an overlooked Hitchcock gem, primarily because of its lack of star power, but it is well worth one viewing for casual fans, and a deeper exploration by Hitchcock scholars.
Writing: The screenplay is of paramount importance in any discussion of this movie, which came out in a time when many of America’s great writers were trying their hand at penning a Hollywood screenplay or treatment. Everyone from Raymond Chandler to William Faulkner to Aldous Huxley gave it a try. And Hitchcock himself collaborated with Robert Benchley, Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck, and in the case of this film Dorothy Parker.
This screenplay, along with Thornton Wilder’s for Shadow of a Doubt, are the most literary of all Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. Dorothy Parker’s influence can be felt throughout this screenplay. First of all in the sequence with the blind man, which clearly was inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and is written and acted superbly. Such warm, tender and likeable characters are seldom found in a suspense film. There is also a fine sequence that takes place in a circus caravan, in the bus with the circus freaks. Our starring couple find themselves surrounded by Siamese twins, a bearded lady and several other strange characters, and the dialogue manages to combine warmth, comedy and suspense, all wrapped in a World War II allegory. (More about the war in a moment.) There is also one of the most head-scratchingly bizarre monologues in the entire Hitchcock canon, which is almost surely Dorothy Parker’s writing. This is the moment when the saboteur Mr. Freeman, apropos of nothing, states to Barry Kane that he wishes his boy children were girls, and proceeds to describe how as a child, he had long golden locks that people would stop to gaze at! A very creepy moment indeed.
There are even more subtle moments that show Parker’s fine touch, such as the billboards Barry Kane passes in his travels, each one with a message that has a deeper significance to him: “you’re being followed”, “she’ll never let you down”, and “the final tribute.” Also the book titles in the Sutton mansion are no accident: beyond the ones pointed out by Barry Kane (Escape), and Charles Tobin (Death of a Nobody), most of the other visible titles can relate to the plot of the movie. There is even a book called The Last Act, which is quite clever indeed as the Sutton mansion sequence begins the last act of the movie! This is not the only self-referential moment in the screenplay. When Barry and Pat are dancing in the ballroom, Pat says that she wishes she had met him somewhere else, like the North Pole, and Barry replies “We might end up there yet, too”, a nod to the continually changing locations in the film. And finally, the dialogue in the movie within a movie, in the Radio City Music Hall, is being directed to the movie patrons as well as the character on-screen: “Run for your life!” “He’s got a gun!”
Propaganda: This film was released in 1942, and its subject matter was used as a form of propaganda to arouse American sympathies for the European cause against the Nazis. There is more than one piece of dialogue that sounds like its being addressed directly to the movie-going audience. Hitchcock had done the same thing to a slightly lesser degree in his earlier film Foreign Correspondent.
Guilty as charged: The theme of guilt and innocence, both real and perceived, factors heavily in this movie as it does in almost all Hitchcock movies. When Barry Kane is hitching a ride with the truck driver, he is fleeing from a crime that he did not commit. And yet he does feel a level of guilt for his friend’s death. After all, he had the fire extinguisher in his hands, before he passed it off to Ken’s hands. The rattling fire extinguisher inside the truck cab serves as a reminder. And the truck driver narrates a story where a fellow driver used an extinguisher to save his friend’s life, saying that if he didn’t have a fire extinguisher he would have seen his friend fried right before his eyes. Which is of course exactly what Barry Kane did observe. And the use of the word “fries” serves a double purpose as it reminds Barry Kane of Frank Fry, the real culprit.
Keystone cops: It’s worth pointing out that the police in almost all Hitchcock films are bunglers, bordering on incompetence, who generally do arrive just in time to arrest the baddies, but the baddies are caught in spite of them not because of them. This film is no exception, although in this case the police have no plausible evidence to believe Barry Kane.
Where’s Hitch? Alfred Hitchcock’s original cameo in this movie was rejected by the censors. It featured him walking down the street with a young lady, talking to her in sign language. After a couple of seconds, the young lady looks indignantly at him and slaps him on the face. This was considered a misrepresentation of deaf people, and was cut, the footage long since lost. Quite a pity, because as a result of this Hitchcock just threw in another cameo, almost as an afterthought. It occurs at about 1:04:33, with Hitch as a patron in front of the Cut Rate Drug store. It is one of the least noticeable and most forgettable of all Hitchcock cameos.
Recurring players: Robert Cummings would also appear as Grace Kelly’s love interest in Dial M for Murder. Ian Wolfe, who played Robert the Butler, played a very similar character in Foreign Correspondent. Charles Halton, the uncredited “second sheriff”, also appeared in Foreign Correspondent and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Vaughan Glaser (the charming blind man) appears in one scene in Shadow of a Doubt, in a non-speaking and uncredited role. Murray Alper (the truck driver) has very small uncredited parts in Strangers on a Train and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Frances Carson also appears in Foreign Correspondent and Shadow of a Doubt. Al Bridge and Charles Sherlock also appear in Strangers on a Train. Emory Parnell was in Foreign Correspondent and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Dale Van Sickel and Harry Strang were also in North by Northwest. Ralph Brooks, Ralph Dunn, James Flavin, Jack Gardner and Sayre Dearing were also extras in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Art Gilmore, the voice of the radio broadcaster, also lent his voice to Rear Window and the trailer of To Catch a Thief. Alexander Lockwood was also in North by Northwest and Family Plot. Jeffrey Sayre is in Notorious, Vertigo and North by Northwest. Sam Harris was an extra in Foreign Correspondent, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Paradine Case and Dial M For Murder. Henry Norton and George Offerman, Jr. were also in Foreign Correspondent. Frank Marlowe was also in Notorious and North by Northwest. And Norman Lloyd would later play the psychiatric patient Garmes in Spellbound.
Hitchcock moments: Hitchcock was a master technician, and most of his films contain scenes that are memorable for the groundbreaking storytelling techniques employed. In this film the standout scene is the climax atop the Statue of Liberty. This scene employs live action shots, small scale reproduction, matte painting, and black screen (the b&w precursor to today’s green screen), all put together in a way that holds up very well after nearly 70 years.
What Hitch said: In the Truffaut interviews, Hitchcock spoke of his displeasure with the leading actors in this film, with the exception of Norman Lloyd as Fry. His final analysis is that “…the script lacks discipline. I don’t think I exercised a clear, sharp approach to the original construction of the screenplay…I feel the whole thing should have been pruned and tightly edited long before the actual shooting.” – Truffaut – Hitchcock, p. 151, 1983.
Definitive edition: Universal’s 2012 blu-ray release (which can be purchased as a stand-alone or as part of the Masterpiece Collection box set), is far and away the best quality edition of this movie on the market. For a movie that is over 70 years old, in standard format, the picture quality is astonishing. There is amazing clarity and depth of focus, so it is definitely worth an upgrade if you own the DVD. The sound is 2-channel mono, and sounds as good as it ever has for home video. Extras include a 35 minute making-of documentary, which features interviews with Norman Lloyd and production designer Robert Boyle. Also included are storyboards, a photo gallery, and the original theatrical trailer.