Hitchcock Collection: Saboteur Review

1942 should have been an Annus Mirabilis for Alfred Hitchcock. His first American film Rebecca had won Best Picture at the Academy Awards in the spring of 1941 and his second, Suspicion, was a huge popular success and won Joan Fontaine a Best Actress Oscar. His career had gone from strength to strength and, under the aegis of David O. Selznick, he was assured whatever resources he needed to develop his work in America. But in a pattern of moods which would recur over the years whenever success came knocking, Hitchcock was feeling at a low ebb. He felt undervalued at Selznick Studios and underpaid – according to Donald Spoto, he was earning three thousand dollars a week while his two leading players in Suspicion earned five times as much – and his assistant, Joan Harrison, was getting itchy feet and eventually decided to strike out on her own. He had plans to make films in Britain after the war but found that his trips to discuss them were resented by Selznick. To make matters worse, the veteran producer got bored of the project which eventually became Saboteur when Gene Kelly proved unable to appear in it, and his efforts to sell it led to rejections from Fox and RKO – the eventual buyer was an independent producer Frank Lloyd. In the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that Saboteur is such a disappointing picture. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it – apart from some of the casting - but it lacks spark – we’re dealing with Hitchcock, the uninspired player of variations on familiar themes rather than Hitchcock, the master of witty, exciting and psychologically insightful suspense.

Like his other early American films, Saboteur sees Hitchcock on familiar ground. It’s basically a rehash of The 39 Steps, one of his most popular British films, and designed specifically as an American chase from coast-to-coast which would end up on top of the Statue of Liberty. It also plays with the theme of the innocent man involved in what Andrew Britton and Robin Wood call “the double chase” – trying both to evade capture and track down the real villain. Robert Cummings makes the first of two appearances for Hitchcock playing Barry Kane, wrongly accused of being a Nazi saboteur when his best friend is killed in a suspicious explosion. The real saboteur, a man named Fry (Lloyd), vanishes without a trace and Kane runs cross-country from the police in the hope of clearing his name by finding Fry, In the process, however, he discovers that a treacherous conspiracy has burrowed deeply into American high society, making his efforts to prove his innocence all the more difficult.

It’s hard, when watching Saboteur not to feel that you’re watching either the dregs left over from The 39 Steps or a very early dry-run for North By Northwest. The fact that both of those films are vastly superior doesn’t help but the negative comparison might have been less damning were it not for some key defects. The biggest stumbling block is the casting. Hitchcock never paid the attention to overall casting that he should have done. Sometimes he got the stars he wanted – Grant, Fontaine, Bergman, Stewart – and then felt satisfied to let someone else fill out the rest of the cast. In other instances he would take a personal interest in the interesting parts – the psychopaths, the traitors, the quirky supporting characters – and then trust the rest to his luck. This would seem to be the reason that he ended up with miscast stars like Gregory Peck and Paul Newman or bland B-list actors like Robert Cummings, Rod Taylor, John Gavin or John Forsythe in vital leading roles Look at a film like Frenzy and you can see the love and attention paid to Barry Foster while poor old Jon Finch is left to flounder. In Saboteur there are quirks a-plenty from Norman Lloyd as the twisted bad guy and Otto Kruger as the respected society gent turned Nazi collaborator. But for long stretches we have nothing to look at except Robert Cummings and the film dies on the screen. He’s not a bad actor but he’s no more than competent and this episodic, somewhat illogical film needs a huge presence at its centre. Imagine taking Cary Grant out of North By Northwest and what would you be left with? That’s the biggest problem with Saboteur - there’s a vacancy where the hero should be. The presence of Priscilla Lane as the heroine isn’t exactly helpful either. She’s got the glacial blonde look that Hitchcock so appreciated – and eventually had to manufacture – but she was a second choice after Barbara Stanwyck and you can sense Hitchcock’s lack of interest in both her and her character.

In mitigation, it should be noted that the film was made under difficult circumstances. Pearl Harbour was invaded shortly before shooting began and it proved impossible to use the locations that Hitchcock wanted. Consequently, the film was shot on backlots and has a cheap and weirdly claustrophobic appearance. That this isn’t disastrous in itself is a tribute to Hitchcock’s visual pre-planning, Robert Boyle’s superb art direction and the wiliness of Joseph Valentine’s cinematography. It’s also only fair to mention some of the good things about the film. Otto Kruger and Norman Lloyd are entertaining bad guys, the latter producing a performance of considerable subtlety to contrast with the former’s tendency towards a style of acting more appropriate to a pantomime villain. The script – written by Peter Viertel, revised by Joan Harrison (before she left Hitchcock’s employ) and then polished by Dorothy Parker – may lack some basic plot logic (How did that fire extinguisher get filled with gasoline? Why is the gasoline necessary in the first place?) but offers dialogue which occasionally sparkles; my favourite line being Cummings to Lane when he meets her again in the company of the bad guys - “I should have left you back there with the snakes. At least you’d have learned how to rattle!” Hitchcock devotees might also find some interest in the politics of the film. Hitchcock was instinctively a conservative with an ingrained fear and respect of authority. However, Saboteur is interestingly liberal and democratic. This is partly because of its patriotic, anti-Nazi nature of course. But what is very noticeable is the sympathy given to the working class (represented by Cummings) and to social outsiders, represented by Priscilla Lane’s blind father and, in a touchingly comic scene, a group of circus ‘freaks’. The villains are all positioned in the upper-class and society is seen to treat them with instinctive servitude. The same was true of Godfrey Tearle in The 39 Steps and, interestingly, the theme continues to one extent or another in films as diverse as Strangers on a Train, Notorious, North By Northwest and Dial M For Murder. This has been a gift to theoretical readings of Hitchcock’s work and anyone interested in such subtexts is directed to the work of Robin Wood, especially his excellent book “Hitchcock’s Films Revisited”.

There’s also one major advantage that Saboteur has over all the other cheapjack spy dramas which were made during the war. It’s directed by a genius. Admittedly a genius who was only half-engaged in the task at hand but still capable of coming up with brilliant sequences.

There is the opening conflagration which begins with smoke swirling into the frame like ink into a glass of water and ends with unusually violent death. The central society ball scene, although overlong, is nicely choreographed and contains an image – a gun nestling amongst the curtains – which seems to sum-up the theme of evil hiding within the svelte furnishings of American aristocracy. We get a tense struggle to push a button which will trigger an act of sabotage followed by a superb explosion, reacted to with brief shots where faces seem to slide up or down the frame. Even a small moment such as Cummings discovering that Kruger is involved in the sabotage is nestled within an amusing family scene. Best of all we have the final confrontation with Fry, taking place atop the Statue of Liberty and blossoming into one of Hitch’s most memorable climaxes. This is one of the most memorable of Hitchcock’s use of national symbols – Mount Rushmore, Westminster Abbey, the Albert Hall, Covent Garden – and could only be improved if the roles were reversed and it were Cummings whose sleeve was coming unstitched rather than Lloyd’s. That would be genuinely suspenseful as we’d be on his side. As it is, the moment lacks emotional resonance. It’s a brilliantly planned scene though with a difficult but spectacular travelling matte shot that is a good example of Hitch’s inventiveness that goes back to his early work and would still be dazzling us in the 1970s with the backwards track of the camera in Frenzy.

If I’ve been a little hard on Saboteur that’s because I passionately believe Hitchcock to be one of the very greatest of film directors. As such, it’s essential to hold him to his own high standards and when one of his films fizzles, there’s no option but to admit it. Hitch himself felt that Saboteur was disappointing and his instincts were correct in this case (although that would not always be so). Still, the film is diverting, demonstrating that even average Hitchcock is worth watching. Thankfully, after this film the great director soon got back on track, producing in Shadow of a Doubt one of his finest films.

The Disc

Saboteur is the first disc in Universal’s new “Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection” and although the film is far from the director’s best work, the disc is well up to scratch.

The film has apparently been re-mastered since its original release by Universal and the result is a fine monochrome transfer, presented in the original Academy aspect ratio of 1.33:1. It’s a very crisp and elegant visual experience with plenty of detail and superb contrast. It does appear, from reports on the internet, that it’s a slight improvement on the previous release but I haven’t seen that one so can’t comment further. I'm endebted to the excellent Alfred Hitchcock DVD Information Site for their comparison. However, the film does look good here - the level of grain was ideal for me but some people may not like this as much as I do - and the only drawback I noticed was a little over-enhancement in places. The mono soundtrack is everything it should be, presenting dialogue clearly and not allowing Frank Skinner’s very strident music score to dominate all before it.

The extra features are interesting and useful without being overwhelming. I don’t think a film like Saboteur needs a feature-packed disc and what we get is absolutely fine. The centrepiece is a 35 minute documentary called “Saboteur: A Closer Look”, produced by Laurent Bouzereau and typically solid and uninspired. We don’t get a great deal of the background which explains some of the film’s flaws and it’s all a bit uncritical and bland. But it’s nice to see interviews with Hitchcock’s daughter, Norman Lloyd and Robert Boyle and the 35 minutes pass quickly enough. The storyboards and production drawings we see in this documentary are also present as separate items so you can savour them in some detail. We also get some brief production notes, a pleasant gallery of production photographs and the amusingly over-the-top trailer which involves Cummings speaking to camera in a less than comfortable fashion.

The film has optional subtitles in English, French and Spanish and this extends to the special features – one area in which Universal is admirably consistent.

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