This is not a bad little film – it flits between drama and intrigue with good, solid performances but occasionally doesn’t help itself by lurching into the territory of evoking the propaganda pictures that were prevalent in the Second World War. It has some fantastic set pieces and inventive sequences and has a dark noirish look at times which is really appealing.
The plot involves a wrongly accused guy on the run – in this case Barry Kane (Robert Cummings), who is accused of sabotaging a wartime factory and then goes on the run to prove his innocence. He knows that the real suspect is a guy called Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd) who has disappeared without a trace, aside from some letters addressed to Fry that Barry has seen. His odyssey takes him across America and various encounters: the romantic, the profound and the plain oddball.
The opening titles are interesting – over a corrugated sheet metal massive door, a shadow silhouette figure slowly advances.
Hitchcock grew to love a title sequence (his feted work with Saul Bass later in the director’s career is amongst the best of all movie title sequences) and it’s interesting to see him starting to think of these parts of the movie as another place to apply his inventiveness. Traditionally, the title sequence would be a fairly throwaway item to communicate a few nuggets of star and technician information, but things would change going forwards into the 1950’s and beyond*.
The act of sabotage at the start is really nicely understated. Black smoke curls into shot from the edges of frame – prefiguring Kubrick’s blood bath around the lift doors of the Overlook Hotel in ‘The Shining’.
Being fearless types, the factory workers all steam in there to try to save their workplace (today everyone would just leg it out the door screaming ‘health and safety’). The director holds his nerve and has our hero’s work mate (Ken Mason played by the uncredited Virgil Summers) burnt alive. The sabotage sequence is pretty short, but it’s strong and effectively shocking.
Barry is a fairly innocuous hero – Cummings is kind of John Garfield-lite and has the swarthy unshaven look of someone who’s trying a bit too hard to look like some kind of desperate tough guy (whereas Garfield had a very genuine menace to him).
His cross country escape odyssey puts him immediately into a neat conflict with the smooth talking old villain Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger) in his lavish country farm/estate – the old geezer surprisingly trusting as he wanders off and leaves Barry in charge of Suzy the toddler near a swimming pool (Suzy promptly exposes the old guy as a liar by handing Cummings the Fry letters the old guy denied all knowledge of). There’s good acting from the toddler here, a tough scene to not seem contrived and awkward and Cummings handles it well. Tobin is genuinely nasty, smoothly coming back to say he has already rung the cops. Barry must get back on the road again, and employs a piggy back to Suzy (can’t seem to find a credit for the young actress who plays her – what is it with kids’ credits?) to make a western style horseback ride for it before being lassooed and handcuffed. The final image of the creepy Addams style villainous family is pretty spooky, and not a little kooky.
The movie is an episodic tale that allows the director to string together a series of disparate set pieces and gives him license to do pretty much whatever he, and his screenwriters, want. Our hero can turn up wherever the filmmaking whim takes him – the western style scene mentioned, a dramatic bridge jump and river escape (with an interesting p.o.v. shot as Barry hides underwater), heavy rainy scenes and the help of a benign blind old fella (Phillip Martin, played by Vaughan Glazer) who honks out a piano tune (fairly randomly), the help and eventual love of a good woman and the introduction to a melange of circus freaks. It must have been very freeing to create a film where anything in particular can happen – and it’s all the more entertaining for it.
There’s always room for a benevolent blind guy in a road movie like this and Philip Martin twigs Barry’s handcuffs before his niece does (this is Priscilla Lane playing Patricia – Pat – Martin) and he is likeable and anti-establishment. This kind of character is a staple in many movies (see Michael Caine in ‘Children of Men’/ John Cleese in the Keanu Reeves 2008 cheesefest ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ to name but two bad examples) and is put in place as some kind of soothsaying talisman in the hero’s journey to redemption, offering wise words and good council – and, in this case, an apple. ‘Go ahead, Barry, and do the things I wish I could do’ – bit sickmaking by that point…
As they drive off, Pat is ready to shop him to the law but again he manages to get out of it – using her car’s engine to grind through his handcuffs as they speed off in front of an elderly couple, Pat yelling for the cops. ‘My – they must be terribly in love’ says the old girl to her husband – it’s a lovely little scene, full of tension and ingenuity, and foreseen wisdom from ye olde wife.
Barry and Pat then rather randomly hitch up with a vehicle load of circus freaks, a skinny guy called Bones and a sex obsessed bearded lady:
Bones: ‘Esmerelda everywhere you search for sex – get your eyes out of the mud and look up at the stars’.**
There’s also a midget and a pair of Siamese twins for good measure. The dialogue here is freed up from the usual thriller constraints and the writers (including Dorothy Parker, slumming it from her day job) take full advantage. The two bickering Siamese twins are fun and an easy entertainment win as one complains to the other that she has been tossing and turning all night.
This is all fine and pretty funny but you can’t help feeling empathy with Barry and Pat – rather bewildered that they have suddenly found themselves amongst all these strange characters. The bearded lady’s long speech about the good people in the world, the camera slow dollying to Pat as she realises she must stick with and help Barry, is impassioned but does again feel a little manipulative in the plot (ie. ‘let’s have someone tell us what the lead lady is feeling just to hammer it home’).
When Barry blags his way into the villain’s car at his next port of call, Soda City, we see their journey – the genuinely creepy, and vaguely pervy, glasses wearing Alan Baxter as Freeman (talking about his kids and how he lets his two year old son’s hair grow long as he always actually wanted a girl…hmmm), and the two weirdfellas in the front who sing a mournful tune as they drive. He is slowly unravelling the terrorist plot to blow up a dam that supplies much of the power for various defence factories in the Los Angle-ease area (the city repeatedly pronounced with a hard ‘g’, a little oddly but pretty cool). By the way, Barry suddenly is all smart and clean shaven, a little unclear how he is so suddenly spruced up (it’s mentioned that he needs a change of clothes but quite how he comes by a barber and a tailor in the middle of bud-fudge nowhere is anyone’s guess).
The imposing tough theme music as they approach the city is striking and over the top , but good. Freeman is protective of their missions and general doings, clearly an undercurrent of weird sadism with this fellow. The scenes where they enter the large mansion by the kitchens is smoothly handled – it has that undercurrent of the rich meddling in terrorist matters, the wealthy Mrs. Sutton (Alma Kruger) fussing about – half guest-obsessed, half plotting against civilisation. She is simultaneously throwing a party in her posh, moneyed way whilst trying to destroy the very civilisation she represents.
I like all the conspiracy and the evil gang mentality as Pat appears, much to Barry’s surprise. There’s a bit of business with Barry pointing at a book spine called ESCAPE, smooth old Tobin popping up and pointing at a book called DEATH OF A NOBODY. It’s a typical Hitchcock moment, odd but effective. This whole sequence in the large mansion house reminded me a little of Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (Pat: ‘it’s like a bad dream’), all the posh guests in it together and he trying to justify himself and seeking understanding. He’s not dressed appropriately and he gets nowhere but rejected when he tries to seek help.
Every time he gets near to people they trap him – how to escape from this civilised trap? There’s a really long take of Barry and Pat dancing here, the only safe place for them as they kiss and discuss the impossibility of escape.
Barry’s big speech to the vast room is a masterstroke, he eventually using Mrs. Sutton as a shield to get them out of there (there’s a big old staircase here in this grand and corrupted mansion).
Henchman Robert (Ian Wolfe) then clonks Barry unconscious and the latter’s escape from the mansion is clearly clumsy – yes, he comes up with the ‘lighter under the sprinkler’ idea which gets everyone running about but then he is inexplicably out on the street in a wtf? kind of way. This is clearly random and feels like a cheat to get him out of an impossible situation – and overall a bit lazy.
There’s a classic Hitchshot @ 1 hour 25 minutes where Pat – herself locked up – looks out of her high window and we see her POV. It anticipates the Cary-Grant-as-Roger-Thornhill running from the United Nations in ‘North by Northwest’. Another lovely little bit of Hitchcockery is the note she writes in lippie and bungs out of her locked up room window, it floating down to rest upon a window ledge and then further down onto a taxi roof before the cabbies spot it, she flashing the lightswitch as a signal – really good.
Of course, the whole film is famed for its closing set piece: the Statue of Liberty scene. Barry and Fry battling it out and Barry eventually clinging onto Fry’s jacket sleeve as the stitching comes loose. Fry is genuinely creepy and has a strong flavour of violence to him. The scene is beautifully done and justifiably famed – the back projection and process shots are great and suffer only from a little generation loss, but it’s perfect all round. Lady Liberty stands impassive as Fry plunges to his death, unmoved by the puny human drama enfolding upon her. This scene is obviously a set piece style the director will return to again and again (see the British Museum sequence from ‘Blackmail’ or Mount Rushmore from ‘NxNW’), but is still great entertainment.
The closing of the film, as so often in Hitchcock, is astonishingly quick. From Fry’s death fall to The End (curiously French-ified as ‘FINIS’) is literally forty seconds.
There is much to recommend in ‘Saboteur’ – good set pieces, fun encounters, creepy villains and pretty good performances (Cummings is not a classic Hitchhero but is perfectly fine in the movie). It feels very much like an American remake of the director’s own ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ though not quite as good or classic, but this does in no way mean that it should be overlooked.
*I love a title sequence that really goes for it and does things in a new and interesting way, sometimes giving clues to the story and the characters.
**This is a paraphrase of the Oscar Wilde epigram ‘we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’.
I can’t seem to find any relation between Otto Kruger and Alma Kruger, the two big baddies in the movie. Neither can I see any family links between them and Hardy or Diane. Bit annoying. What’s the matter with these Krugers?
Appearing at a few points in the film is the newspaper/reel company American Newsreel. My theory is that if you put pretty much any word following the word ‘American’ you come up with a pretty good title for something (Beauty, History X, Pie, Psycho, Slang, Gangster, Graffiti, Idol, Gigolo etc.)