Many have noted how Alfred Hitchcock often reused the same basic story through his films: a man accused of a crime he did not commit, and forced to go on the run to prove his innocence, attempts to prevent a larger attack by the same perpetrators. The director executed this plot most famously in North by Northwest, but had used the structure previously for his British hit The 39 Steps in 1935, and least successfully with Saboteur in 1942.
In Saboteur’s rendition of the plot, factory worker Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is accused of setting a fire that kills his coworker. Kane suspects another man and goes after him, uncovering a whole organization of saboteurs planning an even bigger attack. Along the way, he meets an advertising model (Priscilla Lane) who reluctantly joins him on his journey across the country, culminating in an iconic suspense sequence on the Statue of Liberty.
Hitchcock signed with producer David O. Selznick when he came to America, but the two did not enjoy working together. Saboteur writer Peter Viertel claimed, “Hitch would have made any picture to get away from David.”1 Selznick lent Hitchcock to Universal, but working at the low-budget studio frustrated him no less than the alternative. He hated the fact that he could not get the caliber of talent he wanted for Saboteur, as he had for his previous American films like Rebecca or Suspicion. The studio gave him two total duds for his leads—the exceedingly bland Cummings, and the charmless Lane. Hitchcock told François Truffaut that Cummings was “a competent performer,” but that “he has an amusing face . . . his features don’t convey anguish.”2
It doesn’t help that this flat cast had some subpar material to work with. Hitchcock began drafting the story in August 1941 with Joan Harrison, and they handed it off to Peter Viertel to develop into a full screenplay. The notoriously left-wing and later blacklisted writer Dorothy Parker came in for a rewrite, and likely brought in much of the movie’s political content. Saboteur can be seen as one example of a writer inserting supposed “communist propaganda” into a film. The Production Code pushed back against many of Parker’s lines, with president Joseph Breen writing, in one particular case, “We recommend that Barry’s line ‘Just because he’s got a big ranch and a fancy house and a million . . . dollar swimming pool—that doesn’t mean he’s a good guy!’ be rewritten to avoid its anti-social flavor.” Many similar comments were made, and many revisions of the script were approved throughout production.3 These moments, the most interesting of the movie, are often deflated by Cummings’ unconvincing line deliveries. Less interesting is the mostly overbearing sentimentality running through the film, such as in a final speech given by Vaughan Glaser as a kindly blind man. Frank Skinner’s mawkish score often makes these moments even more cringe-worthy.
What Saboteur does have, however, is a number of exciting individual sequences that let Hitchcock experiment on a larger scale than in previous films. The opening factory fire is particularly horrifying despite its brevity, and the director wrings a lot of suspense out the handcuffs Barry is trapped in for much of the first act. At times, the limits on his budget show—a semi-climactic ship launch plays especially cheaply, without any of the impact it needed for the story to work. Hitchcock makes the questionable choice to play out the iconic final showdown on the Statue of Liberty in near-silence, lessening its impact. Some music could have heightened the sequence’s tension—with just the sound of the wind accompanying the shots, we spend more time admiring the effects than we do caring about the situation.
Many of these mistakes Hitchcock later admitted himself, and indeed, going forward, he corrected them. Saboteur is a growing pains film, one through which Hitchcock learned many valuable lessons; it ultimately served as a test run for perhaps the ultimate Hitchcock picture, North by Northwest. Perhaps if he had a different leading man and composer, Saboteur could stand closer to the masterpieces he would make, but instead it remains simply a minor Hitchcock film.
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References [ + ]
|1.||^||Bill Krohn, Hitchcock at Work (London: Phaidon Press, 2003), 41.|
|2.||^||François Truffaut, Hitchcock/Truffaut (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 104.|
|3.||^||Joseph Breen, memo to Universal, December 16, 1941.|