Continuing to refine the ‘wrong man’ thriller that began with The 39 Steps and would reach its apotheosis with North by Northwest, Saboteur is as much a remake of the former as it is a dry run for the latter. Its world of spies and double agents recalls the earlier Foreign Correspondent, but the sustained suspense built over a series of loosely connected set-pieces, as aircraft factory worker Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) uncovers a network of homegrown terrorists whilst trying to clear his name, elevates it above the earlier film’s war time preaching, even if it lacks the psychological depth that distinguishes the best of Hitchcock’s 40s pictures.
It’s certainly a busy affair, crammed with ideas and sequences that often jostle for position. It may lack the clarity of narrative structure and momentum that marks North by Northwest or the svelte perfection of The 39 Steps, leading to a certain sense of disconnection between unfolding events, but much is forgiven in the face of Hitchcock’s execution of key scenes. In fact, it’s difficult to pick a standout moment from Saboteur, given quite how many are up for consideration. The nail-biting final Liberty showdown that prefigures the Rushmore climax toNorth by Northwest may have the indelible imprint of the iconic sewn up, but a party scene that finds Kane looking for an ally and an exit in a room filled with spies is steeped in claustrophobic intensity.
Cummings and Priscilla Lane, as the daughter of a blind man who offers him shelter after his initial escape (in a scene lifted from James Whale’sFrankenstein) aren’t the most charismatic of leads, and Otto Kruger as the villainous mastermind is no James Mason, but Norman Lloyd as the weaselly terrorist Fry steals some of Saboteur’s best moments.
It’s not a film to rank with Hitchcock’s best by any stretch, much is simply painted with too broad a stroke, but as an exercise in suspense and B-movie thrills it certainly has its place. Hitchcock’s former secretary, Joan Harrison is credited as principally crafting the by-the-numbers screenplay, and it’s by no means up there with her collaborations on either Rebecca or Suspicion, so one might like to think that we’ve Dorothy Parker to thank for Saboteur’s most interesting scene aboard a circus convoy populated with carnival performers. In deciding whether to help Kane and his reluctant accomplice, the pros and cons of both sides of the argument are put to a vote. Some choose to abstain, almost allowing the most vocal (and negative) to win out. With the unpredictable irrationality of the war torn world outside, it’s a picture of democracy in microcosm, Hitchcock for once making his humanist position explicit through a coterie of freaks.
Saboteur - 1942 - United States - 109 mins - Alfred Hitchcock