In 1942, with the United States engaged in a two-front war, Alfred Hitchcock found himself no longer restrained by the Neutrality Act, which contained a clause circumscribing the portrayal of foreign nationals (i.e., Germans) in Hollywood films in positive terms (directors and producers, however, often "coded" their characters as German, in everything but name, as Hitchcock himself did in Foreign Correspondent). Hitchcock decided to combine his patented "wrong man"/double-chase formula with pro-American/anti-fascist political propaganda. The end result, Saboteur, however, is less than satisfying, especially for contemporary audiences prone to distrust and skepticism of our political institutions.
Saboteur is set in the United States, not in the Pacific or European theaters, an airplane factory in California to be more specific. The lead character, Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) works at a airplane factory in California with his best friend. An accidental encounter with the real saboteur, Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd, best remembered for his late career turn as a senior doctor in St. Elsewhere), who successfully carries out a fire at the airplane factory. Barry is implicated as the saboteur. From there, Saboteur follows the "wrong man" formula, element by element, from the protagonist on the run, attempting to find the real saboteur(s), to escaping inept police officers, to encountering both helpful and antagonistic forces, to, no surprise, encountering the female lead/potential love interest, Priscilla Martin (Priscilla Lane). The female lead is at first distrusting and afraid of the protagonist, but through his actions, and the actions of others toward him, her opinion of him changes, not always plausibly.
By accident or coincidence, the protagonist also encounters the main villain, a California rancher (and fascist sympathizer), Charles Tobin (Otto Krueger) early in the narrative. In the "wrong man" formula, the antagonist can be a foreigner living abroad (as in Foreign Correspondent and The Lady Vanishes), but he's always a man of power, wealth, and hidden motivations (as in The 39 Steps and North by Northwest). With power comes the ability to evade prosecution and suspicion, and turn that suspicion and persecution to the hero. In Saboteur, the main villain is revealed at the twenty-minute mark to the main character. But once revealed, the villain disappears for the entire second act, only to reappear, at a charity event in New York City conducted by a high-society matron (and Nazi supporter). Hitchcock and his scriptwriters (Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, and Dorothy Parker) ally themselves with the middle and lower classes. The wealthy, upper class consists of covert fascists or fascist sympathizers (and their patriotism and loyalty nonexistent).
Saboteur primary problem lies with a constantly changing focus between different antagonists. Multiple antagonists mean the protagonist (and the narrative) has to be driven by his search, and the antagonistic forces have to be supplied from other characters, either low-level Fifth Columnists who barely register with the audience, the (always) befuddled, misguided police, the skeptical female lead, and, in one memorable scene, a troupe of circus freaks traveling along the interstate. The encounter with the circus troupe leads to a debate about democracy vs. fascism (represented by a diminutive prima donna nicknamed the “Major”), community, and romantic love.
It's those moments of debate, however, of sermonizing by the major characters, especially Tobin, that arrest the narrative momentum in attempt to inject the conventional plotline with political relevance. Characters speak with a delicacy and insight not normally available to characters in conventional thrillers. Saboteur was made after America's entry into Second World War, and the overriding need to generate a positive self-image for all Americans, regardless of class or social station, as well as patriotism for the self-sacrifice ahead is evident in every non-naturalistic speech.
The romantic subplot is wholly unconvincing. Per the “wrong man” formula, the female lead oscillates between skepticism (and uncertainty) and self-willed belief in the protagonist's innocence. The change in her attitude toward the protagonist essentially covers her character arc. The script, however, attempts to transform her character through dialogue instead of character choice or action. When she first encounters Barry, her blind uncle expresses his conviction (unsupported by factual evidence) in the protagonist's innocence. She disagrees, but through a plot contrivance, leaves with the protagonist. The audience would expect her skepticism to change not through Barry's difficult-to-believe story about his innocence and Fifth Columnists, or an unsubstantiated affirmation from her uncle, but through Barry's own actions (i.e., through a selfless or compassionate act). Instead, the resolution of the romantic subplot adds another layer of (unintentional) implausibility to Saboteur.
No review of a Hitchcock film, however, is complete without a discussion of the set pieces. In Saboteur, however, the set pieces are kept to a minimum running time: the initial firestorm at the factory is followed by the protagonist's escape by diving from a bridge; another attempted escape via horseback is quickly thwarted; the charity event in the third act is less choreographed set piece than a suspense sequence dependent on character interaction. Only the final set piece at the Statue of Liberty displays Hitchcock's distinctive visual and technical skills. This set piece combines model work, background photography, angular camerawork, and taut editing. One set piece alone, however, will do little to alter Saboteur's critical reputation as a decidedly second-tier effort by a first-rate director.
© Mel Valentin, 22nd June, 2004
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