SABOTEUR Deconstruction of a scene: The Statue of Liberty finale

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 opens on Barry Kane in a medium shot, opening the door and walking out onto the torch walkway.  He then pulls back to give the audience this establishing long shot.

 

After about 3 seconds, Hitchcock cuts to a standard medium two-shot, with Barry Kane holding a gun on Fry.

 

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.

 

Hitchcock then cuts to a long shot of Barry Kane climbing over the railing in an attempt to get to Fry.

 

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.

 

There are a few short shots here cutting between the two men, until Kane finally lowers himself closer to Fry.  “I’ll get your sleeve” Kane says, and we see his hand stretching down.

 

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.

 

Finally we are back to Kane’s POV for this shot, which lasts about 3 seconds.  Kane has grabbed a hold of Fry’s sleeve.

 

Hitchcock cuts back briefly to a medium of Kane, then back to Fry in close up.

 

Now we get the first close up of the shoulder seam in Fry’s suit starting to pull apart.  From here the cutting will become even more rapid.

 

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.

 

Finally we go back to a  POV shot, as Kane looks down at Fry.

 

Hitchcock then cuts to a close-up of the hands,which allows us to see the sleeve as it finally tears completely.

 

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.

 

Hitchcock then cuts to a close up of Barry Kane’s reaction to Fry’s plummet to his death.

 

And finally, Barry Kane climbs back up to the torch where Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) is waiting for him.  The film ends here, rather abruptly, almost before Kane can climb into her waiting arms.

 

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.

SABOTEUR (1942) : “Just a guy from Glendale.”

SABOTEUR (1942)  – Universal Studios  – Rating:  ★★★½

B&W – 108 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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.  This is Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite motif, which he used many times:  the innocent man, falsely accused.

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.

Overall, this is a very entertaining film; the action maintains a steady pace as the setting  moves from one location to another.   The performances of the leads are a bit uneven.   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 easy time holding the audience’s attention.  Neither Robert Cummings nor Priscilla Lane was an A-list actor,  and they were both known for more lighthearted material.  Their performances are not bad, but their golly-gee style of delivering dialogue, while very much in vogue in the 40’s, seems somewhat dated today.  Contrast this with the performance of Otto Kruger, the mastermind of the saboteurs, whose  characterization seems very real even by today’s standards.

It is the very lack of star power that has kept this film from getting greater recognition.  It is a hidden Hitchcock gem,  well worth 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 at 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 a bus filled with 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.)  Later the film features 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.”  There is also a scene that takes place in the library of the Sutton mansion, in which the visible book titles are carefully chosen;  beyond the ones pointed out by Barry Kane (Escape), and Charles Tobin (Death of a Nobody), some of the other visible titles  could relate to the plot of the movie.     There is also a great 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 sequence in Radio City Music Hall features a film within a film, which has dialogue that works for both the onscreen and off-screen characters in the theater.

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 are two monologues in particular that are being addressed directly to the movie-going public.  Hitchcock had done the same thing  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..  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 villain; but the villain is often 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’s story of innocence until very late in the film.

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 MurderIan Wolfe, who played Robert the Butler, played a very similar character in Foreign Correspondent.   Charles Halton (the uncredited second sheriff) and Emory Parnell (the husband in the film within a film) 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.  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.