“Unmasking the man behind your back!”
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Priscilla Lane, Robert Cummings, Otto Kruger
Synopsis: Aircraft factory worker Barry Kane goes on the run across the United States when he is wrongly accused of starting a fire that killed his best friend.
Although filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur began within two weeks of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, it’s noticeable that no mention is made of Nazis or Germans, although there’s little doubt that the dapper spy Tobin (Otto Kruger) and his cohorts are indeed supposed to at least be in league with Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, the nearest Tobin’s spy ring comes to being identified is when wronged airplane factory worker Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) accuses him of being a Fifth Columnist, that is a clandestine organisation working to undermine a larger group or country. Today, of course, we all assume that the movie is about undercover Nazi spies, but it could just as easily be about the Commie menace, about which American politicians’ were making capital with increasingly calculated incendiary rhetoric prior to the US entry into the war and the sudden shift in alliances as a result.
The main theme of Saboteur — that of the innocent man wrongly accused — was a favourite one of Hitchcock’s and Saboteur bears quite a close resemblance to his earlier British movie The 39 Steps in the way a mismatched couple (Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in the earlier movie, Cummings and Priscilla Lane here) evade capture by the authorities in order to uncover a spy ring. Barry Kane is forced to flee following an act of arson at the airplane factory where he worked during which his best friend died after operating a fire extinguisher, passed to him by Kane, which turned out to be filled with gasoline. However, there was a third man with them at the scene, a surly, arrogant man named Fry (Norman Lloyd), who disappeared immediately after handing the fire extinguisher to Kane.
Realising that his only chance of proving his innocence is by staying free as long as possible, Kane goes on the run. He remembers an envelope dropped by Fry before the fatal blaze with the address of a ranch in the High Desert, and makes that his first port of call. The ranch is owned by a wealthy businessman named Tobin (Otto Kruger) who, once Kane spots a postcard written by Fry, freely admits that he is a spy because he is confident that nobody will take the word of a blue collar worker over a man of his status. Of course, he’s right, and Hitchcock repeatedly returns to this theme of appearances being deceptive. Those characters who take Kane at face value and offer him aid are almost all working class or social outcasts in some respect, while the privileged ‘respectable’ members of society are seen as the subversive undercover menace at the core of America’s society. It’s not long before Kane finds himself in handcuffs, but he manages to escape from his police escort with the help of a truck driver who had previously given him a lift.
Kane finds temporary respite from the manhunt for him in the home of a blind man whose disability doesn’t prevent him from seeing the innate goodness in his visitor. However, the man’s niece, Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) isn’t so perceptive, and although her Uncle instructs her to take him to a blacksmith friend to have his shackles removed, she attempts to drive him back to the police instead. Kane overpowers her, though, and has her drive the car into the desert, which means for the rest of the movie that trusting old blind man is probably beside himself with remorse for sending his vulnerable young niece off with that nice wanted man in handcuffs. Anyway, Kane resourcefully breaks the chain of his cuffs by holding them against the fan of the motor car’s engine, and the two of them eventually hitch a ride with the freak acts of a travelling circus. Not only does Hitchcock once again show us the misunderstood outcasts prepared to help strangers in need, but within this group of midgets, skeleton men and conjoined twins he provides us with a microcosm of American democracy.
To be honest, the manner in which Saboteur preaches about the goodness of the American people and the ideals they hold dear compared with the grasping connivances of the wealthy Tobin — who has prospered so much under the ideology he despises — and his gang, is a bit like being repeatedly hit over the head with a mallet. But then, with America’s direct involvement in the war only a month or so old, Hollywood was still learning the art of propaganda, and was yet to attain any level of subtlety. Perhaps, considering that line from Kane to Tobin about how ‘we’ll win even if it takes as long as for the cows to come home’, the movie machine doubted the American public’s ability to absorb anything but the most obvious message…
It’s this heavily propagandistic tone that ultimately weakens what is otherwise a typically fast-paced and exciting spy drama. Cummings and Lane aren’t exactly the most charismatic of leads — a consequence of Hitchcock having to go to the cash-strapped Universal Studios to get the movie made when his own employer, David O. Selznick, refused to bankroll the project. And although that finale atop the Statue of Liberty is rightly famous, the symbolism is even less subtle than those propagandistic speeches.
(Reviewed 20th October 2013)