After being wrongfully accused of sabotage, a factory worker (Robert Cummings, Kings Row) embarks on a quest across the United States to clear his name with the unwilling assistance of a billboard model (Priscilla Lane, Arsenic and Old Lace).
Reaction & Thoughts:
“A man like you can’t last in a country like this.”
Playfully scatterbrained, quirky, cynical and filled with plenty of mystery, humor and romance, Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur has all the makings of a great adventure-thriller, and yet the film somehow falls short of greatness, feeling like a downgraded version of The Master of the Suspense’s 1935 masterpiece The 39 Steps.
First, it’s important to note that Hitchcock was in the midst of preparing the script when the Peal Harbor attack (December 7, 1941) occurred and this extraordinary event prompted some changes to the screenplay. While the film’s structure remained unchanged, some scenes were altered in order to reflect new fears and attitudes.
Though well-received by the public (critics were less enthusiastic, however), Hitchcock often spoke disparagingly about Saboteur. After re-watching the movie, I have to agree with Hitchcock that this isn’t one of his best efforts. However, second-tier Hitchcock is more interesting than anything else out there. Far from being dull, Hitchcock’s treatise on homegrown terrorism is fascinatingly offbeat and sardonic, hardly the kind of morale-boosting film Hollywood was cranking up at the outset of World War II.
Despite the propaganda elements, Saboteur can’t be dismissed as a mere flag-waving movie. Interestingly, the film doesn’t glorify America. In fact, the opposite is true: Saboteur paints the United States as a wacko land filled with mostly decent but disaffected and marginalized people. Hitchcock both praises Americanism and often savagely criticizes the country for not living up to its values.
Peter Viertel (White Hunter Black Heart) and Joan Harrison (Foreign Correspondent) wrote the script. Famed satirist Dorothy Parker (1937’s A Star is Born) was hired to spruce up the screenplay with humor. The script is essentially a collection of fascinating vignettes (except the one about the blind hermit, a silly recycling of a classic scene in Bride of Frankenstein). The problem here is that while most episodes are great by themselves (needless to say, the justly legendary climax at the top of the Statute of Liberty is superb!), together they fail to generate the required excitement.
Saboteur also lacks the sleekness of Hitchcock’s best movies. Lightweights Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane only serve to reinforce the production’s B-movie vibe. Hitchcock wanted, but couldn’t afford Gary Cooper (Sergeant York) & Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity) or Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath) & Margaret Sullavan (The Shop Around the Corner) or Gene Tierney (Leave Her to Heaven).
The film does have a handful of great set-pieces. There is an interesting encounter with a circus caravan. The shoot-out at a local cinema was very suspenseful. Finally, the Statute of Liberty finale is absolutely brilliant! I also liked the main villains. Otto Kruger (High Noon) is pretty awesome as the urbane but deadly terrorist. Kruger’s long, uninterrupted speech about the virtues of fascism gave me goosebumps! Norman Loyd (TV’s St. Elsewhere) is great as the serpentine title character.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
“I would say that the script lacks discipline. There was a mass of ideas, they weren’t sorted out in proper order; they weren’t selected with the proper care,” Hitchcock confessed years later (Hitchcock, by Francois Truffaut). He was absolutely right. Saboteur is overloaded with intriguing ideas, but this is a case of “less would have been more.” Hitchcock did learn his lesson: North by Northwest is Saboteur done the right way. But that doesn’t mean the film isn’t worth watching. While far from perfect, Saboteur remains an interesting and entertaining thriller. Recommended. B&W, 109 minutes. Not Rated.