Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, and Dorothy Parker
Cinematographer: Joseph A. Valentine
Producer: Frank Lloyd and Jack H. Skirball
by Jon Cvack
Saboteur stems from the possibly apocryphal story of five year old Hitchcock whose father sent him to the police for acting up, in which the officers then placed him in a prison and told him, “This is what we do to naughty boys.” Allegedly it had such an impact on Hitchcock that he’d obsess over the idea of the wrongfully accused long into his career.
The film is about a munitions plant worker Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) during WWII (it was released in 1942) who, when breaking for lunch with his friend Mason (Virgil Summers), bumps into an abrasive and unfamiliar man Fry (Norman Lloyd) who drops a letter which they pick up. They head off to the cafeteria when a fire alarm breaks out in the factory and the workers race to put it out. Fry hands Barry a fire extinguisher filled with gasoline, who then hands it to Mason as he runs inside to save the factory and dies in a pool of flames. Barry attempts to tell the cops about the man Fry, but when the authorities can’t find anyone with the name on the roster, they suspect Barry is the saboteur.
Barry goes on the run, deciding to check out the address he saw on Fry’s letter which he hopes could provide some answers. He hitches a ride with a truck driver (Murray Alper) in which the nameless character provides the film’s best scene, as the driver rants about his personal life, specifically his wife’s love of hats, completely unaware of Barry’s predicament. Soon they end up at a stateline police roadblock, positioned over a bridge. He escapes by jumping into the water beyond, hiding behind some boulders as the officers close in. The driver shouts that he saw the man in the other direction, risking his career - and all those hats for his wife.
It’s interesting to note that Robert Cummings was often a comedy/western actor with few serious or memorable roles before this film. Combined with his Handsome Everyman face, the actor exudes innocence, allowing us to buy why so many people seem willing to help him; something an A-list leading man would’ve failed to convey.
He works his way to a cattle ranch where he meets a charming older man Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger) who’s playing with his granddaughter in the pool. He warmly welcomes Barry into his home where Barry then finds a letter indicating that Fry had gone to Soda City. Charles returns with a gun, and Barry attempts to use the granddaughter as leverage, though not before Charles’ cronies capture, handcuff, and take him away back to the police. Barry jumps out of the car, heading deep into the woods where he ends up at a cabin where an old blind man (Vaughan Glaser) resides, once again welcoming Barry into his home. Moments later, the blind man’s ad model niece Patricia "Pat" Martin (Priscilla Lane) arrives, immediately sees the handcuffs, which the blind man then admits he knew of all along; operating out of the presumed innocence of another man; trusting that Barry is a kind and good man in trouble. He implores Pat to take Barry to his blacksmith friend, which she does reluctantly. She then flips Barry’s cuffed hands over the steering wheel and vows to instead take him to the police; providing a classic Hitchcockian sexual tension as the two argue inches from each other’s face.
Barry soon attempts to gain control of the car, causing it crash, though he uses the engine’s fan blade to cut the cuffs and the two continue on into the desert where they board a passing carnival caravan, finding themselves in the sleeping compartment of the troupe’s best performers - including siamese twins (Jean Romer; Laura Mason), a fat woman Titania (Marie LeDeaux), a midget named Major (Billy Curtis), and their gaunt leader Bones (Pedro de Cordoba); in which Major demands they kick the free riders off their car before getting them into trouble; fortunately saved by Bones and the others who vote to keep them in the car and get them to Soda City.
They arrive at Boulder Dam (which is large enough for you to think is the Hoover Dam) where the other saboteurs have planted an explosive, wired up to the detonator in a small hut with a hole cut through the door in order to spy on the place with a telescope. This is another great sequence as what looks like an ordinary cabin is uncovered to be the control center for their next sabotage; first by showing some of the machine, then finding the hole on the door, before finally getting the telescope and looking out to see what it all adds up to. It’s Hitchcock operating at top level in piquing and exciting our interest in discovering where the story goes alongside the characters.
Barry hides Martin in the back as Barry convinces the others that he’s there to assist with their next mission, which once again, they agree to. However, moments before they leave, they hear a noise in the back and just before finding Martin, she dips below an escape entrance; which would be absolutely absurd if not for the rest of the mysterious cabin.
Barry returns to New York where the next target is a U.S. Navy battleship due to launch to sea in just a few days. Barry was so good at the act that Martin heads to the authorities to inform them of the plot, who then enters into the cat and mouse game for Barry while Martin finds herself within a corrupted police system, in which it’s impossible to trust just about anyone.
It’s writing this out that I realize that Hitchcock has achieved the rare and miraculous; in which words do nothing to justify what he accomplishes, in which nearly every scene is a thrill to watch. Only at the party does it take a breath, allowing the plot’s details to get spelled out before descending back into a thrilling final act as Fry and Barry end up at the top of the Statue of Liberty. To list things out is an injustice to the story and like Truffaut and other scholars, to capture screenshots to show the sequence fails to capture what Hitchcock accomplishes within each and every frame. Even with a topic of domestic terrorism, Hitchcock avoids politics, instead opting to immerse the viewer with the experience of an ordinary person placed within extraordinary circumstances. His films are an experience, in which the only assessment to be made is to explain the feeling one gets from his films. From the truck drive to the carnival caravan to allowing the battleship to explode, it all adds up into a film that provides both thrills and escape. The greatest thing you could ask from the pinnacle of cinema. The movies aren’t about any grand ideas or universal truths so much as an experience; a type of thrill ride in which questions lead to answers which lead to more questions, and becomes all the more exciting in each subsequent scene.
BELOW: Norman Lloyd talking about the Statue of Liberty scene since the real thing ain't on the YouTube
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