4 stars out of 4. Forgotten classic and pure Hitch.
The forgotten film of the early American Hitchcock period. For every Suspicion, Hitch needed a adventure to clear the mind. Saboteur is 108 minutes of nonstop inventiveness and sheer storytelling. An obvious entry in his wrong man series and a quasi-retelling of his own The 39 Steps (1935), this is an odd cross between Foreign Correspondent (1940) and the Americana of Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
It is highly reminiscent of The 39 Steps, in fact so much so that it really resembles more of a transplanted version with updated effects and Americanized elements. But this is not a weakness. It is conscious desire by Hitchcock to get back to fast moving thriller storytelling, after making two back to back that were not of a highly stimulating nature. (Suspicion (1941) and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) respectively) It is of course no surprise to discover that Hitchcock himself wrote the original story idea. Here you can see the energy picking back up, along with all of the techniques form his silent films and his heavy German Expressionist influence. In fact, the famed final confrontation on the Statue of Liberty goes completely silent if you pay attention. It works just as well as his earlier British films, and with the greater technological resources of Hollywood.
Barry Kane (Cummings) is a worker at a wartime aircraft munitions factory. He bumps into a strange man named Frye (Norman Lloyd) just as a fire breaks out in the factory. He, Fry and another friend arrive first on the scene and Frye hands Kane a fire extinguisher before disappearing. The extinguisher is grabbed by Kane’s friend who dies in an explosion. The police discover that the extinguisher was actually loaded with gasoline and the blame then falls squarely upon Kane who escapes and travels cross country to clear his name and find the man responsible. Along the way he will pick up a beautiful if remote blonde, who will eventually come around by the end title card.
The film (like Foreign Correspondent before it) would not work if the original big name casting choices had been made available. There is an earnestness and certain realism in the use of lesser names and fresher faces. It provides a sense of urgency that might not have been equaled with star power. You truly believe it when Robert Cummings has to shove his hands into an automobile fan to cut off a pair of handcuffs. The political and patriotic implications are hard to miss. In fact they are so blatantly present that we are easily able to glide past them without getting caught up in a room full of talking heads. (Probably Hitch’s intention.) What is more interesting and far more sinister is the social criticism and far reach of the sabotage ring.
This leads to my favorite scene in the film, with the young heroes confronted and trapped in a charity gala dance. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to go, and they begin to do the only thing that will keep them out of the enemy’s hands and certain doom: dance.
Even with a bit lifted from Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Saboteur never strikes a false note save for perhaps its abrupt ending. (But quite a few of Hitch’s films end this way, with everything tied up neatly. Saboteur just needed to have the shot last a little longer. Though Hitch lamented in later years that the final confrontation positions should have been reversed to create better suspense.)
What Saboteur lacks in scope and lasting impact it makes up for with heart, ingenuity and a great sense of spirit. This makes it far more enjoyable and more Hitchcockian than the more lauded and lavish Selznick extravaganzas.
The 108 minutes are packed with set pieces: The aircraft factory blaze, the truck fire extinguisher gag, the taillight, the baby as a bullet shield, the capture and escape from policemen, and of course the movie within the movie. In a brilliant moment, Frye escapes into Radio City Music Hall in the midst of a packed movie. The events onscreen coincide and interact with the events onscreen on the screen. The mind delights with the amount of layers within.Then all of this is masterfully topped off with the precursor to North By Northwest‘s conclusion, men dangling and grappling on top of the Statue of Liberty.
Sometimes, Hitchcock just needed some time away from David O. Selznick. This resulted in a fresh wave of new creativity that abounds in what are typically disregarded by critics and scholars as B-thrillers from the Hitchcock canon. Saboteur is a highly assured film that displays a rougher quality than Hitch’s previous American output, due to being an independent production and working at Universal studios. It is the natural progression from Foreign Correspondent to Shadow of a Doubt on a re-shaped foundation of The 39 Steps.
EDITIONS: There are two DVD releases, one from the original batch of Universal owned Hitchcock films circa the early 2000’s and the later issue originally from the 2005 Masterpiece Collection and later sold individually. Nearly identical discs that seem to share the same transfer, menus and extras. The later edition is brighter and less grainy with enhanced detail that is more pleasing to the eye. The difference is less noticeable than with others in this Universal Hitchcock line. Sound on both is clear mono in Dolby 2.0 and there is a nice little doc on the film with those involved. Universal has recently announced their Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection for Blu-ray, and seemingly with the news of new HD transfers. Hopefully they have done so and not simply re-utilized the same transfers for the umpteenth time. This will make a stunning HD title.