Alfred Hitchcock Encounters the “Saboteur”

22 08 2010

“I would say that the script lacks discipline. I don’t think I exercised a clear, sharp approach to the original construction of the screenplay. There was a mass of ideas, but they weren’t sorted out in proper order; they weren’t selected with sufficient care. I feel the whole thing should have been pruned and tightly edited long before the actual shooting.” — Alfred Hitchcock

The lack of discipline Alfred Hitchcock mentions in regard to his 1942 film “Saboteur” led to a picture with a dizzying diversity of settings and cast members who show up briefly and then go on their way. But really, what would “Saboteur” be without those strange detours and odd, colorful roles?

With “Suspicion,” Hitch fulfilled one of his primary goals in coming to Hollywood: He got to work with Cary Grant, who was just coming off the high of his early successes in romantic comedy and looking to subvert that image. Hitchcock gave him that chance in “Suspicion,” letting him appear charming at first, then revealing his character’s dark side.

“Saboteur” was a big step down in terms of star appeal from “Suspicion,” yet the story works in part because of it. The stars of the film – Robert Cummings, playing the wrongly accused Barry Kane; Priscilla Lane as model Patricia Martin; and Norman Lloyd as Frank Fry — were not well known enough for audiences to have much in the way of expectations for them (in fact, it was Lloyd’s film debut). “Suspicion” had to be revised at the end so that Cary Grant wasn’t a murderer after all. How likely is it that censors would feel the same way about Robert Cummings, though?

Of course, the film doesn’t work that way. It opens as Kane and his friend arrive at an airplane plant in California. On the way through the gate, they bump into a coworker who is rather unfriendly. Moments later, a fire breaks out at the plant, and Kane, his friend and the coworker all rush toward it. Kane hands his friend a fire extinguisher which turns out to be filled with gasoline, and the friend is killed in the inferno. Meanwhile, the coworker, Frank Fry, has disappeared, and the authorities’ chase after Kane is on.

Following a clue, Kane hitches a ride with a chatty trucker to a ranch, but is arrested while he talks to the owner. A breakdown on a bridge gives Kane the chance to escape, and he jumps into a river, then makes his way to a nearby house occupied by an old blind man. The blind man’s niece, model Patricia Martin, arrives at the house, and although she is believes that Kane is the saboteur in the news, her uncle asks her to help him.

They drive across the desert together, and when their car breaks down, they take refuge with a band of circus freaks in a caravan. Kane and Martin find their way to Fry’s next stop, Soda City, a ghost town where they gather hints about the spy ring’s plans before Kane is captured. He talks his captors into believing that he really is a saboteur, and they take him with them to New York City. There, Kane is taken to a society matron’s house, where a benefit dance is taking place. The money is going to the fifth columnist’s cause, of course, although the guests are unaware of this.

Kane learns that their next move will be to destroy a new ship; he escapes but does not manage to save the ship. He is again captured, but when the saboteurs get him back to their hideout, the police are waiting. The band splits, and both Kane and Martin pursue Fry to the Statue of Liberty. After a tussle in the torch, Fry falls to his death, and Kane is cleared of charges.

There’s so much going on in “Saboteur,” it’s almost a good thing that the lead isn’t as interesting as Cary Grant: A fire at an airplane plant; a road trip with a talkative trucker; a mystery at a ranch and, later, a ghost town; a wrongly accused man taking refuge with circus freaks; a chance encounter with a blind man; people taken captive in a society matron’s opulent brownstone and in a New York City skyscraper; sabotage at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; a life and death struggle at the Statue of Liberty — any one of these could have been the centerpiece of the film, but, except for the Statue of Liberty finale, none are particularly more prominent than the next. The suspense does not build as well here as it does in other episodic chase films of Hitchcock’s, like “North by Northwest,” possibly due to the ever-shifting supporting cast.

Robert Cummings is not the strongest leading man, and his mission is not as personal as it might be. At first, he’s out to clear his name, but that soon fades away, to be replaced by the new goal of stopping the saboteurs from harming America’s war efforts. The reason for their activities is not very clear, though: Their leader talks about having more power, and one of the underlings has a weird conversation with Kane that implies some sort of twisted psyche, but why they side with Germany is not particularly clear.

What is clear, though, is that Germany is indeed the enemy is this picture. Hitchcock had hinted at “trouble in Europe” and “the coming war” in several of his pictures since the late 1930s, notably the similarly named “Sabotage,” but there is no question about who the enemy is here. The airplane plant is guarded by armed soldiers, and the Navy is assembling new battleships. Someone asks Kane why he’s not in the Army, and while he doesn’t really answer, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of a war, and that able-bodied men who are not in the service are the subject of some suspicion.

“Saboteur” was an original idea developed by Hitchcock for David O. Selznick, with whom he was under contract. When the script was complete, though, Selznick did not want to make it; instead, he made Hitchcock shop the script to other studios, engendering ill will between the two men, as Hitchcock did not appreciate Selznick’s apparent lack of confidence in his abilities. The film was made for Universal, under a tight budget, which explains the relatively low-wattage casting. The great writer Dorothy Parker contributed to the final draft of the script, adding several patriotic speeches that hold up well. Despite Selznick’s lack of interest in the film, I believe this is the first of Hitchcock’s movies to be billed in the possessive, i.e. “Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur.”

“Saboteur” was praised for its timeliness and its message of warning about Fifth columnists. And while the scene with the circus freaks may seem odd, their different opinions about Kane’s innocence symbolized the different positions people were taking around the country at the outset of the war, when it was not yet clear to some Americans why we were in the fight.

“Saboteur” is also notable for Hitchcock’s use of location shots of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Statue of Liberty, although Hitch brings his technical expertise to bear in scenes like the finale, where Fry falls to his death from the Statue of Liberty’s torch.

So, for anyone keeping track, “Saboteur” marks the start of the second half of Hitchcock’s feature film career. I now have 25 films to go, not including some special entries that we’ll get to in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, our next film will be “Shadow of a Doubt,” starring Theresa Wright and Joseph Cotten and cowritten by Thornton Wilder.


Alfred Hitchcock Uncovers “Sabotage”

15 06 2010

“Aside from a few scenes . . . it was a little messy. No clean lines about it.” — Alfred Hitchcock

If “Sabotage” was messy, as Alfred Hitchcock said, it may have been because it was about a messy business. Released in 1936 and loosely based on a Joseph Conrad novel, this is a story about urban terrorism, and while it does not succeed entirely, “Sabotage” is a gripping story of suspense, filled with sympathetic characters – some, a little too sympathetic.

“Sabotage” starred Oskar Homolka and Sylvia Sidney as Mr. and Mrs. Verloc, and was released in the United States under the not very appropriate name “The Woman Alone.” Mr. Verloc is an older man who seems to be German, though it’s never specified, and she is a young British woman. They run a neighborhood cinema that’s next door to a greengrocer (Hitch’s nod to his own father’s business) where a good looking young man is employed.

The story opens during a blackout; the authorities know it’s the result of sabotage, but the theatergoers see it as a mere inconvenience. Verloc is responsible for the blackout, as he is a member of a local group intent of wreaking terror in London. It’s not stated that they are German agents, but no one watching this in England in 1936 would doubt it.

The young man from the greengrocer, Ted, is actually from Scotland Yard, and he’s trying to gather information on Verloc; he’s also convinced that Mrs. Verloc is innocent, and is trying to protect her, along with her younger brother, Stevie, a wide-eyed boy of about fourteen. Verloc, meanwhile, has been told that his blackout did not have sufficient impact, and that his next act of terrorism “must not make London laugh.” In other words, people have to die.

Realizing that Ted is watching him, Verloc sends Stevie with a bomb to the designated place. The tension builds and builds as Stevie is held up along the way, until the bomb goes off while he’s riding a crowded bus. Stevie and the other passengers are killed instantly. Verloc is stunned when he hears the news, but does not think much of it; his wife is crushed, though. She takes refuge in their theater, where the Walt Disney cartoon “Who Killed Cock Robin?” is showing, and when the robin is killed, she becomes hysterical. (There’s a prominent credit for Disney at the start of the movie, so I was surprised to see that all it added up to was a clip from one of his cartoon, rather than something new.)

Mrs. Verloc returns to their apartment over the theater for dinner, but she and her husband argue, and she ends up stabbing him. She escapes the apartment just as one of Verloc’s co-conspirators, the bomb maker, shows up. Ted, meanwhile, has alerted Scotland Yard, and they’ve surrounded the place. Ted tries to get Mrs. Verloc to run away with him to mainland Europe so that she does not have to face a trial, but when the bomb maker’s latest effort goes off in the apartment, destroying Verloc’s body, there is no longer any point to running.

Ted’s willingness to bend the law to his own end echoes “Blackmail,” when the cop-boyfriend was ready to frame the blackmailer to save his girlfriend, although here it’s handled a bit more smoothly. The big problem with “Sabotage,” though, is the death of innocent Stevie, who had no idea that he was in any danger. It was just too much for audiences to bear.

The other issue is a little trickier – it’s Verloc himself. Hitchcock liked his villains to have a human side, and here, Verloc does not want to hurt anyone until he is forced to. Through most of the movie, he seems like a sweet man, and it feels wrong when he shrugs off Stevie’s death. We also never get a clue as to what brought the Verlocs together, considering he seems about thirty years older than her, if not more.

As in the music hall scenes in “The 39 Steps,” the cinema and greengrocer here shows Hitchcock’s natural ability to bring an area he knows well to vivid life, and the bustling crowds are a pleasure to watch. There’s a great scene at the zoo where, while Verloc talks to a fellow saboteur, a young nerd talks about the sex life of oysters with his girlfriend.

After the triumphs of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “The 39 Steps,” “Secret Agent” and “Sabotage” were letdowns for Hitchcock. His next film, “Young and Innocent,” would reunite him with Nova Pilbeam, and would be a bit of a departure from the spy-thrillers he had released for the past few years.

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