Saboteur (1942)


After being wrongfully accused of sabotage, a factory worker (Bob 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 better 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 WWII.

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.

Hitch’s cameo


24 responses to “Saboteur (1942)

  1. I thought Hitchcock was above reproach and beyond criticism. I’m glad some one has finally thought to cast doubt on the master filmmaker’s ‘mastery’.
    A number of his other movies have significant flaws – probably the most consistent of those in my opinion being pacing (of the interminably slow variety; then again, that was also at least a partially era-related trait).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hitchcock and Kubrick are my favorite directors, but neither one was perfect. HATE, HATE today’s fanboy-ism (for example, Chris Nolan’s fans think he IS God!). It’s perfectly okay to criticize your heroes… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, Hitch is repeating himself and it really does feel like a retread of The 39 Steps. Maybe if he’d got the bigger stars he wanted that would have made it more appealing and would have papered over some of the cracks. It does seem a bit like Hitch by the numbers but, as you said, that’s still better than most people. And it has some good moments and individual scenes that make it worthwhile despite that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Saboteur (1942) — Diary of A Movie Maniac | Under 5 minute & Smartphone festival·

  4. I agree, Eric…it’s worth a watch, and there are some really neat parts, but overall there’s this pervasive lack of the ‘something’ that makes a great Hitchcock film so great. Here, in my opinion, it’s a lack of star power and a misguided plot, with too many sidetracks away from its espionage storyline. And yes, I love The 39 Steps, and Young and Innocent, and of course North by Northwest, so this has no choice but to pale in comparison. And I’d heard about Fonda and Stanwyck, but Cooper and Tierney would’ve been cool alternatives, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well I’m going to be the dissenting voice here. I like this movie a lot more than you, or Hitchcock for that matter, do.
    Following up on certain themes and trying to refine them is something Hitchcock did all through his career and the sheer abundance of ideas is engaging in itself. I think it’s a bit mean to describe the scene with the blind man as silly; it has warmth and, along with the carnival freaks sequence, is all about making it clear that the real American values are to be found among the marginalized and the underprivileged rather than the wealthy and polished, which is quite a daring approach for a wartime flag waver.
    Personally, I like Cummings and Lane, and I believe Hitchcock spoke well of them. They have a simple charm and bigger names might have overbalanced the story.
    No, overall, there are a lot more good than bad things on display. If the movie appears flawed, that’s only because the director made so many masterpieces. Taken on its own merits, this is far from a poor film.

    Liked by 2 people

    • “If the movie appears flawed, that’s only because the director made so many masterpieces.” Yes, that was precisely my problem. I expect a whole lot more from Hitchcock. Maybe it isn’t fair, but I blame Hitch for making so many great movies! Mind you, I don’t think Saboteur is a poor film. I just thought it was a bit of a disappointment. I couldn’t help but compare it to 39 Steps and North by Northwest.

      Anyhow, I LOVE to see people defend some of Hitchcock’s non-classics. For example, I’ve always thought Topaz and Family Plot deserved more love. And the much-maligned Torn Curtain has a few great scenes.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’d be prepared to stand up for parts of Torn Curtain and Family Plot, there are enough good things in both to make them passable entertainments anyway. But Topaz has little to redeem it in my eyes – a very poor show all round.
        The one I do stick up for even though a lot of people have issues with it is Marnie. I actually find it a wonderful movie, the last truly great one from Hitchcock.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Agreed. I consider Marnie Hitch’s last masterpiece. After that, he kinda run out of juice. But his last 4 movies are worth a look (while I do need to re-watch Topaz, but I remember liking it more than most people). I thought Frenzy was very exciting, and Family Plot was a delight from beginning to end.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Frenzy isn’t pleasant and suffers from the lack of a sympathetic lead but, I’m with you on the excitement. It’s tight and tense.

            I think Family Plot has actually improved with age.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. Excellent. This is my first day at your blog and I have to say, it is SO nice to find such a thoughtful writer giving these movies their due. Even if they’re not as great as we want them to be. I love that you still consider this one fun, even with these things that make it a less than perfect Hitch. This is interesting, and really makes me think about how the movie came together and why it is what it is. Terrific job. Terrific writing.

    I keep saying I’m gonna watch 39 Steps. I see I better do this sooner rather than later.

    Liked by 2 people

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