Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Alfred Hitchcock, 1942
Starring: Priscilla Lane, Robert Cummings, Otto Kruger, Norman Lloyd
A few years ago I worked my way through the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection boxset, which I heartily recommend to any cinema fans, as well as a number of other later era Hitchcock films. You simply need to see most of these. However, there are a couple of titles I've been stuck on, namely Saboteur, which I've spent a few months wishing could be Foreign Correspondent instead. Like most of his films I'm doubtful of, Hitchcock proved me wrong yet again.
Barry Kane is accused of setting the fire that killed his best friend and blew up his place of employment, an aircraft factory. Only Kane knows that the crime was the work of a saboteur named Fry who mysteriously escaped and disappeared. As a result, Kane goes on the run from the law until he can find Fry and prove his innocence. Following a lead, Kane heads to a ranch owned by a respected businessman who turns out to be one of the saboteurs. At his wits end, Kane accidentally comes to the home of a blind man who instantly believes his innocence and cares for him. His visiting niece, Pat, is not so convinced, and she inadvertently drags the two on an adventure that plunges them into the heart of the conspiracy and gives Kane the opportunity to clear his name.
I was so reluctant to watch Saboteur because it is essentially a propaganda film and was made in the midst of the US involvement in WWII. For newer audiences unfamiliar with filmmaking from this time period, a lot of dialogue is going to seem sorely dated. There are some lengthy speeches about patriotism and what it means to be an American (many of these were written by Dorothy Parker!!!) that will seem awkward and ham-fisted to modern viewers. While I tend to hate American propaganda films, I watch a lot of WWII-era films and am familiar enough with this type of dialogue that I can ignore it or at least wince my way past it.
It is unfortunately also a "wrong man" film, one of Hitchcock's favorite premises. I wind up loving many of these, but always initially encounter them with gritted teeth. Robert Cummings, who stars as Barry Kane, doesn't have the aplomb of Cary Grant or the grim desperation of Jon Finch in Frenzy, but he doesn't really make the film, the writing and directing does.
Up until the half an hour mark, Saboteur is fairly dull. A good-hearted, hard working, blue collar American is framed by a bunch of wealthy pro-fascist traitors. He has to use his wits and will to survive and figure out who the real saboteur is, which of course is bolstered by the fact that he is a Patriot and a Real American. I don't care about any of these things. At best, I tend to find most '40s American attitudes toward the war uninteresting and, at worst, despicable.
But then Barry Kane wanders into the blind man's house and this becomes a completely different film, both visually and narratively. Kane and Pat's adventure is a bizarre amalgamation of fairy tale and propaganda film. Their budding romance has a decidedly non-sexual flavor, making them seem more like youthful siblings on an accidental adventure. The extreme innocence of both characters places them worlds away from a film like Casablanca, where the two leads have pasts, mature sexual relationships, and understand the value of sacrifice. They know losing means a concentration camp or firing squad.
In Saboteur losing means the theoretical, dinner-table fascists win and one man goes to prison. Really though, we understand that Kane won the moment he convinced Pat of his innocence. For them, this is really a struggle about what it means to be American. Hitchcock puts his unique and thoroughly non-American spin on this with the assistance of British screenwriter Joan Harrison (who also penned Rebecca) and German screenwriter Peter Viertel. The film tells us that true Americans are people with open hearts, a willingness to trust, and the firm belief in "innocent until proven guilty." They are also freaks. Pat's uncle, the first kind person Kane encounters, is blind and decidedly eccentric. The next group of people to support him are literally circus freaks, traveling by train to their next performance.
On the other hand, the pro-fascist ring of traitors and saboteurs are mostly upper class Americans - people who dress well, have parties, hold public offices, and donate to charities. In a way, they are also innocent. They believe they are protecting the sanctity of their families by financially supporting the fascist cause. Fascism, in this case, means the rise of big business and the abolishment of socialist unions, not the formation of ghettos and martial law.
Visually, Saboteur is a masterpiece. Hitchcock takes us through a symbolic representation of what it means to be American. We move through farms, corn fields, and small towns until Kane and Pat find themselves in cities and mansions. The conclusion is one of the grandest in Hitchcock's early American works and involves, somewhat unsurprisingly, the Statue of Liberty. It might seem hard to believe now, but many of these visual effects were ahead of their time and hugely influential. Though I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, I would only recommend Saboteur to seasoned Hitchcock fans. It feels rushed and preachy and probably will seem dated. Keep in mind that it was made almost immediately after the bombings at Pearl Harbor, which definitely colored the production and reception of the film.
Check out the single-disc DVD from Universal or find it in the Masterpiece boxset. Both have some making-of special features that focus mostly on the visual effects.