Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Peter Viertel & Joan Harrison & Dorothy Parker
Having a more complete view of a filmmaker’s career often gives way to wonderful nuggets that you can pick up on in rewatches. This Alfred Hitchcock marathon features of a number of new discoveries, but it also features many rewatches, including this one and another one later down the line, one of Hitchcock’s most renowned films North by Northwest. These films seemingly have nothing to do with one another. Released 17 years later with a different cast, etc., this is not Hitchcock remaking The Man Who Knew Too Much, this is just Hitchcock dealing with very similar themes throughout. It’s easy to see looking at Saboteur that the two films are closely related.
Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is a handsome young man working at an aircraft factory in California when the plant is enveloped in flames. After a chance encounter with an unknown man named Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd), Kane’s best friend perishes in the blaze and the cops are looking to pin the arson on Kane, who must go on the run to find this Fry in order to clear his name. Along the way, he comes across a beautiful model named Pat (Priscilla Lane), who begins as a sort of hostage, but soon becomes an ally as the pair cross the country in search of the real villains so Kane can clear his name.
The clear parallels with North by Northwest include an innocent man accused of a crime he didn’t commit, needing to self-investigate to find the real bad guys in order to clear his name. The film even ends with a striking scene at a national monument (the Statue of Liberty in this case; Mount Rushmore for North by Northwest). In some ways, this is the lite version of that later film, but its effectiveness is not lacking. Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane are serviceable in the lead roles, but with most films by the master, Hitchcock is the real star of the film. His visual flourish is really like none of his contemporaries, and this film is no different.
We’re treated with a very evocative image right away as the smoke from the fire begins to creep into frame against the stark steel backdrop of the factory walls. But the real treat is the finale of the film at the Statue of Liberty, which features a rather memorable look at a man falling from the torch. It’s an image we’ve all seen many times, pioneered by Hitchcock. He is not afraid of using immense scale in his films, and while some of the effects may appear dated, the audacity of their use and the execution of the frame is tremendous. It’s even more important to end the film here to coincide with it’s outward patriotic themes. A crime such as arson on a military manufacturing plant at a time of war is terrible, and Hitchcock is clearly calling on the “everyman” to do their part to quell the bad guys. We see Pat appear as the queen of liberty in the crown of the Statue, standing up to Fry. And we see Fry burnt by the torch of lady liberty herself. Maybe a little heavy handed, and not-so subtle, but effective nonetheless.
Therefore, as an artifact, Saboteur is endlessly fascinating to observe. Standing on its own, it’s a very strong film, but not also without its faults. As mentioned, Lane and Cummings are servicable, but don’t leave a tremendous impression, but the largest detraction is the middle third seems to drag. After starting with a bang in the factory fire and subsequent moments of Kane eluding capture, there isn’t much to propel the story. From about the circus crew scene all the way through Soda City and Mrs. Sutton’s party, I kept wanting something more to pique my interest. But once the next act of sabotage begins, things pick up through the conclusion of the film. It is a minor quibble in an otherwise very notable and important entry into the Hitchcock filmography.