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BFI Hitchcock Season – ‘Saboteur’


Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Starring Priscilla Lane, Robert Cummings, Norman Lloyd

Hitchcock at war began in earnest with this 1942 thriller, a film rushed like many into production by the proudly patriotic studios, horrified at the sneak attack of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Saboteur  was released a remarkably swift five months later –  that’s the efficiency of the studio, assembly line system for you. Hitchcock had already devoted energies to the overseas propaganda effort with his 1940 film Foreign Correspondent,  detailing American journalist Joel McCrea’s traversing of a quivering Europe on the cusp of conflict, uncovering a conspiracy of fifth columnists in Britain whose operations plunge the world into global conflict, it was one part Hitchcock learning the ropes of the Studio System with their vastly superior resources, technicians and urge to innovate – see this remarkable shot from the movie for example – as well as his desire to contribute to the wider war effort as he was stung by criticisms from the British press that he had cowardly fled to Hollywood just as the Blitz began to rain down on a somnolent London. Saboteur  was a further effort to combat the Axis propaganda machine with the Allies celebration of their values and strengths in the face of adversity, what it lacks in subtly and grace it recovers in prestige with some skillfully arranged sequences, not the least of which being Hitchcock’s first appropriation of the iconic infrastructure of the American geographic landscape for his own, peculiar ends….

If this time its war then the tactics and maneuvers bear similarities to Hitchcock’s previous campaigns, as the decent, resourceful manual labourer Barry (Robert Cummings) is cursed with yet another bout of mistaken identity at his noble place of work, an aircraft manufacturing installation that is torched by the fifth columnist Fry (Norman Lloyd), killing Barry’s friend and the only witness to the true culprits incendiary treachery. Framed for the inferno and swiftly on the run Barry discovers the lurking presence of a cabal of rich industrialists, a Koch brothers of the 1940’s, whose barely submerged fascist sympathies have urged them to fund a clandestine war against the USA’s accelerating war machine. After finding succor with a sympathetic elderly blind man out in his remote cabin in the woods Barry hesitantly recruits his saviors niece Pat (Priscilla Lane, a prominent Billboard model whose roadside appearances comment wryly on the action) to his desperate cause, as he simultaneously fights to clear his name, to illuminate the treasonous plot, and prevent the sabotage of a new battleship in New York City harbour.

Both Priscilla Lane and Robert Cummings were foisted on to Hitchcock by the studio and they don’t exactly have the screen presence of say Cary Grant or Grace Kelly, but Hitch manipulates them well enough and even invests Lane with slightly more plot driven activity and a fraught sense of heroism rather than the traditional simpering heroine who must be saved that is usual for the era. Like Young & Innocent  the hidden and malevolent  intrudes upon polite society with an extravagant ball being hosted by the slithering upper classes, when infiltrated by our bristling duo the murderers mock them with taut smiles amongst the high society guests, again it’s a politically and psychologically charged scene that raises the stakes.  The enemy is personified in the loathsome figures of the privileged Tobin (Otto Kruger) a twin to James Mason’s louche spymaster in North By Northwest, and the barely concealed Nazi derangement of the blonde hair fixated  Freeman (Alan Baxter) refracting back and through the maestro’s gallery of homicidal grotesques, from the murdering duo in Rope, to Uncle Charley in Shadow Of A Doubt, to Norman Bates in Psycho or the necktie strangler in Frenzy or…well… I could go on and on…

It’s another example of Hitchcock’s predilection for chase narratives, with an episodic structure of incidents and meetings that incrementally build the central romance, Saboteur being melded with a propaganda piece as some of the scenes are hilariously contrived in their dialogue, with the screenwriters foisting the most blatant celebrations of the American ideology and belief system as Mom and Apple Pie, although Hitchcock hilariously assigns these words at one point to the members of a local carnival freak circus, with a bearded lady proudly proclaiming the enduring freedoms of the democratic system and the strengths of economy freedom – I was more than a little shocked to see the esteemed lady of letters Dorothy Parker listed amongst the scribes duties, and she was in fact responsible for the crafting of the freak show scene, whilst I can certainly picture in my mind’s eye the necessary differences in language and subtly back in those dark years it comes across as faintly ludicrous today, even as placing these platitudes in the mouths of societies rejected and dispossed does spin them with a darker meaning.  Hitchcock used extensive location filming for the picture, quite an unusual choice for a quick studio picture, and the films most memorable sequence is of course the tense climax admidst the apex of the Statue of Liberty, foreshadowing his use of the San Francisco bridge in Vertigo,  or Mount Rushmore in North By Northwest, as the evil saboteurs are literally defeated with a fall from the liberty torch, a slightly less bludgeoning message than the aforementioned clumsy dialogue. As a film ‘cluttered’ as Hitchcock put it with chance encounters and implausible coincidences it is not the directors strongest, most coherent and refined whole, but it has its intriguing episodes with an equilibrium distressing finale which further sets the tone for the later masterpieces;

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– John McEntee