Saboteur was Alfred Hitchcock’s first all American film, and it’s not too bad at all. It sits very nicely between The 39 Steps and North By Northwest, while not quite reaching the heights of those two films.
The film begins in an aircraft factory in Los Angeles. Two friends Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) and Ken Mason are on their break when a fire breaks out at the plant. Naturally the two men rush to assist in putting out the blaze. Keane is handed an extinguisher by another employee, Frank Frye (Norman Lloyd). Kane then passes the extinguisher on to Mason who rushes into the hanger. As Mason tries to fight the fire, the hangars erupts in a giant fireball, and he is killed.
Later it is revealed that the extinguisher used was actually filled with gasoline, and attempting to fight the fire made the situation worse. Kane reports how he was handed the extinguisher by Frye, but when management looks at the records, they find that nobody by that name was employed to work at the plant. Suspicion falls upon Kane, who is accused of sabotage. Fearing false imprisonment, Kane sets out on a trek across America in search of Frye in an attempt to clear his name.
Recently I watched Showtime’s television series, Sleeper Cell which is an up to the minute depiction of a terrorist cell planning an attack on American soil. It is strange, going back and watching this wartime propaganda movie, which contains so many very similar themes. Back then though, they weren’t called Sleeper Cells, they were called Fifth Columnists.
Kane’s journey is not an easy one. Apart from being chased by the police, as he begins to unravel the mystery, he also becomes the target for the Fifth Columnists who seem to spring up everywhere. But if that isn’t enough, he then has to deal with the public, who are also on the lookout for the ‘dirty saboteur’. One civilian who gets caught up with Keane in his cross country quest is Patricia Martin (Priscilla Lane). When Patricia first meets Kane, she doesn’t believe his story and intends to turn him into the police, but as the story progresses, she becomes a useful ally as the story reaches it’s conclusion.
The film features some nice bumps along Kane’s journey. There’s a very nice sequence at an elegant ball, where Kane tries to impress on the other guests that they are in fact in the midst of a nest of Nazi spies. Much to Kane’s chagrin, the other guests either believe Kane is joking or he is drunk. Hitchcock also has quite a bit of fun during a chase sequence staged at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, where Kane chases his quarry into cinema. That action unfolding on the screen mirrors the pursuit unfolding around the patrons. The climatic scenes take place on and around the Statue Of Liberty. Presenting a famous landmark as a backdrop for Hitchcock’s unique kind of mayhem was a device he’d revisit when he made North By Northwest, where the resolution is played on the Mount Rushmore.
Although Priscilla Lane receives top billing, she is probably the weakest of the main acting ensemble. The three best performances come from Robert Cummings, Otto Kruger and Vaughan Glaser. Robert Cummings is excellent as Barry Kane, the everyman who gets caught up in the web of intrigue. The character isn’t as confident as Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps. Hannay had a bit of swagger, and was more than able to take care of himself, whereas Kane is just relentless. He just seems to walk into trap after trap, but his persistence in getting to the bottom of the matter and discovering the truth keep forcing him forward. You can almost sense his frustration. The next actor is Otto Kruger. Good films have good villains, and Kruger plays a classic sophisticated villain, in Charles Tobin. It is never mentioned in the film who Tobin works for, but it is clear that it is the Nazis. As with all the best villains, Tobin doesn’t have to rant and rave to show you that he is evil. In fact he is charming, and dare I say it likable, but that’s why he is so dangerous. He doesn’t lose his temper, and is always in control. The third performance that rates a mention is Vaughan Glaser as Phillip Martin. Glaser’s character is the heart of the film. And remembering that this film is a wartime propaganda piece, Glaser also has the job of extolling the virtues and strengths of American society. It’s a sequence that could be jingoistic and cringe worthy, but he delivers it with sincerity, passion and a hint of humour.
With the possible exception of Steven Spielberg, Hitchcock is the world’s most famous movie director, and as such, many words have been devoted to his films. As with all of Hitchcock’s output, the film has been examined and picked apart by the gamut of the world’s film critics. This attention to his work is quite simply due to the high standard achieved over the body of his work, and while Saboteur may not be a cinematic tour de force, like some of his other films, even a lesser Hitchcock is still a very good and highly entertaining film.