Film Review: Saboteur (1942)

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Filmography of Alfred Hitchcock is famous for many things, including having films in which Master of Suspense explicitly or implicitly remade his earlier works. The best known of them is his grand 1959 classic North by Northwest, which can be interpreted as Hitchcock’s remaking not one but two of his films. The first of those was his 1935 British spy thriller The 39 Steps and the other was his 1942 Hollywood spy thriller Saboteur.

The film was produced shortly after United States entry into Second World War and was actually one of the first Hollywood films that used this new situation as crucial element of the plot. Protagonist is Barry Kane (played by Robert Cummings), young worker in Los Angeles aircraft factory. One day catastrophic fire erupts and Barry’s best friend dies due to fire extinguisher that was deliberately filled with gasoline. The person who handed him over the device is Frank Fry (played by Norman Lloyd), mysterious co-worker whom Barry never seen again. When he tells authorities about this, they don’t believe him, because there aren’t any records about anybody named “Fry” and, instead, Barry becomes suspect for sabotage. Determined to clear his name and, more importantly, prevent Fry from doing similar acts elsewhere, Barry escapes and, thanks to the happy accident that gave same clues about Fry’s possible whereabouts, heads to desert ranch whose seemingly kind-hearted owner Charles Tobin (played by Otto Kruger) is actually revealed to be head of well-organised and dangerous spy ring. Barry is forced to escape again and finds shelter in cabin owned by Philip Martin (played by Vaughan Glaser), eccentric blind man who introduces him to his niece, billboard model Patricia “Pat” Martin (played by Priscilla Lane). Unlike her uncle, she is at first unwilling to believe in Barry’s innocence, but after some adventures on the road begins to believe him and two of them travel to New York City where they would try their best to unmask Tobin’s organisation and prevent it from even deadlier and more spectacular act of sabotage.

Saboteur is one of Hitchock’s relatively early works in which he has just perfecting the formula that would later lead to some of his classic works in 1950s. The formula included plot built around “ordinary man in extraordinary situation”, lot of suspense, strong memorable villain and some black humour. Hitchock has used bits of the formula in The 39 Steps, which included classic “innocent man on the run” plot that was used here and would be used in North by the Northwest. Another similarity with the latter film is spectacular finale that place at one of the iconic US landmarks, in this case Statue of Liberty. Hitchcock had good budget at the film, but he couldn’t use his formula freely, being constrained with the needs of wartime propaganda. United States has, mainly due to lack of experience and preparedness, suffered many defeats in first months of war, with Japanese conquering large swaths of Pacfic and German U-boats having all but free hand near US Eastern Seaboard. Like in many other countries, Axis successes in early years were conveniently explained with presence of large, well-organised and dangerous fifth column. Spectacular demise of famous French oceanic liner SS Normandie in New York Harbor, rumoured to be work of German saboteurs, gave further fuel to such sentiments (and Hitchcock actually used stock footage of wreck in the film). Saboteur was in some ways designed as some sort of public service announcement, asking citizens by support war effort by being vigilant and reporting many suspicious characters. Script, partially written by Dorothy Parker, famous writer with left-wing sympathies, went even further, not only filling the film with patriotic speeches by protagonists, but also by showing seemingly respected members of upper classes (like Tobin, played by chilling suaveness by Otto Kruger) as traitors, while working class people and people from the margins of society (like circus freaks who give shelter to Barry and Pat) as patriots who do the right thing. Saboteur is one of the Hitchcock’s most political and definitely most left-wing film.

Saboteur, on the other hand, definitely isn’t among Hitchock’s best works. The most noticeable flaw is relatively bland main cast. Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane are decent, but definitely not in the same league as Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck who were Hitchcock’s original choices for Barry and Pat. Their performance is easily overshadowed not only by villainous Kruger, but also by small army of capable character actors who deliver strong performances, including Alan Baxter as frustrated member of Tobin’s organisation and Norman Lloyd as sinister Fry. Nolan, whose character’s demise is one of the most spectacular parts of the film, would ironically until 2021 and enter history books as one of the longest living actors from Classic Hollywood era. But even the better cast couldn’t have helped with structural problems of Saboteur. Film is episodic in nature and functions almost as road film, with Hitchcock giving a lot of emphasis on eccentric side characters, but failing to bring into coherent plot. Before the finale Hitchcock appears to lose interest in his film and the wraps it all up in rather non-cathartic and almost banal fashion. Thankfully, Hitchock learned some of his lessons and in 1959 delivered exponentially better film with North by Northwest.

(Note: Sabotage sometimes causes confusion because its title is very similar with Sabotage, Hitchcock’s 1936 classic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Secret Agent, which had been ironically retitled in order to evade confusion with Secret Agent, another Hitchock’s film made roughly at the same time.)

(Note: USS Alaska, US Navy battleship which is target of sabotage in the film and “played” by SS Normandie wreck in the film, shares the name with the real life vessel which built during the production. Historic USS Alaska was battlecruiser, one of the two last ships of that type ever built, and, unlike its fictional counterpart, it was never sabotaged and instead served with distinction at Pacific theatre after being commissioned in 1944.)

RATING: 6/10 (++)

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Great movie.
Reviewed and Approved for an Ecency boost. Keep up the good work.

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