Alfred Hitchcock had a penchant for staging his film climaxes in high places, with a risk of falling posed to one or more of the central characters. We see it in his early British films like The Man Who Knew Too Much and Jamaica Inn, as well as later classics like Vertigo and North By Northwest.
One of the most striking early examples is the climax of Sabotuer, which takes place atop the Statue of Liberty. Our hero Barry Kane (played by Robert Cummings) has finally cornered saboteur Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd), a man he has tracked from coast to coast. Kane follows Fry out onto the arm of Liberty’s torch, which is where the sequence begins.
The sequence runs roughly 2 minutes and 38 seconds, with 47 editorial cuts. This averages out to approximately one cut per 3.4 seconds. One thing that makes this sequence unique is the amount of special effects work. There is a life-size reproduction of the statue’s hand with the torch, a smaller mock-up of the statue, as well as matte painting effects and live action film. For a black and white sequence shot in 1942, it holds up admirably.
Hitchcock continues to hold this shot for about 9 seconds, as Kane backs Fry up to the railing, which Fry then flips over and falls. Hitchcock wanted Norman Lloyd to do his own stunt here, so it could be done without a cut. Of course when Lloyd flipped backwards over the railing, he was only a few feet from the floor, with a nice soft cushioned landing. An impressive stunt for the young actor, nonetheless.
Hitchcock then cuts to a long shot as Fry (now played by a stuntman) falls, grabbing on between the thumb and index finger on Lady Liberty’s hand. Hitch then cuts to a medium shot of Barry Kane looking down, followed by this shot from Kane’s POV, looking at Fry (Lloyd again) holding on precariously. This scene was shot with the hand resting on its side, so the actor could rest against it without having to literally hang on. The lower portion and base of the statue are matted in here.
Hitchcock next cuts back to Barry Kane, first in a medium shot, then a long in quick succession. Then we get this shot, which holds for about five seconds. This is what I call the God’s eye view shot. Hitchcock loved to sneak one of these shots in to most of his films. This type of shot can break camera logic (whose point of view are we supposed to be seeing?) but add to the viewer’s sense of helplessness and awe. The composite pieces of film here all blend very well together.
As Kane lowers himself down, the pace of the cutting begins to pick up a bit. Hitchcock also does something interesting here. After showing us Fry from Kane’s point of view, he all of a sudden shifts to Fry’s point of view. We are looking up at Fry’s hands holding on.
After shifting the point of view from Kane to Fry, Hitchcock is going to shift it back to Kane again. But first he is going to “reset” the POV by giving us a neutral two-shot, which lasts a brief two seconds but serves its purpose.
Hitchcock will cut away from Fry’s suit, then back to it in a series of shots. Every time he cuts away, he gives us a completely different view of the Statue, all of them emphasizing the height, as Fry’s situation becomes more precarious.
Next comes the incredibly dramatic fall, a shot of about 4 seconds, as Fry falls away from us crying “Kaaaaaaaane!” This shot was done with Norman Lloyd sitting on a custom saddle-like chair, on the floor of the studio sound stage, against a black screen (the precursor of today’s green screen). The camera pulled up from the floor to the ceiling rapidly, as Lloyd flailed his limbs, pantomiming falling. Then the shot was run in reverse with the background matted in. It holds up very well over 75 years later.
This sequence is relatively short, at just over two-and-a-half minutes, and it is thrilling from start to finish. When you break it down, you can see that each of the 47 distinct pieces of film serves a very specific purpose. Hitchcock knew exactly how to represent visually what he wanted his viewers to experience emotionally, a skill at which he would only improve over time.