Saboteur (1942)

Saboteur (1942) is an Alfred Hitchcock wrongfully-accused man espionage and propaganda war-time terror and adventure romance thriller, replete with Americana, American landscapes, oddity, comedy, suspense and tropes galore.

A sheer joy of rollicking war time entertainment, Saboteur (1942) refuses to suffer critiques that it is too preachy in deep pro-Protestant American messaging, promoting the great values of its great self, and going too far in its reaching into the pockets of the nation's moral code.

But this is not the case, given that Hitchcock would go on to film the country, re-recreate the country, give the States such direction and place an immortal stamp on the nation's culture and film industry.

Those naysayers are perhaps wrong, they who have pointed out that Saboteur suffers from unevenness both structurally and stylistically. The film’s pacing and transitions between scenes may not be as seamless as in Hitchcock’s more celebrated works, they say, but how could it be?

This unevenness could affect the overall viewing experience for some audiences but what is evenness but a standard, and the creativity of Saboteur is little appreciated. The effects, the trick-ups and the visually creative one-off gags, including the cinema screen work, the use of smoke to tell the story of the fire, in a purely emotional style, and not just the desert and the Hoover Dam, but a ranch horse chase, an epic bridge jump stunt, a circus of character actors, some cops and some more cops, topped with rather inefficient but scary nonetheless cops, and the launch of a warship as well as the Statue of Liberty chase, fight, rescue and a fatal encounter with the ground.

A significant criticism lies in the film’s dialogue. Those who might criticise should place Saboteur where it lies at the centre of the US cinema century and an adventure masterpiece, even a blueprint version of an action movie, an explosive action adventure classic.

And so the dialogue, you don't like it, you think it's silly, or too intense, or not the way you would like to rewrite it? During World War II, Saboteur served as propaganda, emphasizing patriotism and the fight against domestic sabotage. However, today, the dialogue can feel overly moralistic and unsubtle.

Hitchcock aimed to create a clear distinction between good and evil, but some viewers find the dialogue patronizing and lacking nuance. But those who feel thus do fail I feel, to place not just this film and its place in Hitchcock's own journey, oeuvre and evolution, but Hitchcock's and cinema itself's own journey from vaudeville to date and beyond.

Otto Kruger in Saboteur (1942)

Hitchcock himself expressed dissatisfaction with the casting of Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane. He believed their performances were adequate but not exceptional, but adequate for a perfect proto-action adventure masterpiece is perfect.

Cummings and Lane play ordinary people caught up in a conspiracy, which might have contributed to the film’s perceived lack of depth in character development.

This cop in Saboteur (1942) is the only person in all of film noir to wear his firearm here. Thought it was supposed to be called a sidearm?

Barry Kane, a factory worker, is unjustly blamed for starting a fatal fire at an airplane plant, suspected to be an act of sabotage. Convinced that another worker (Norman Lloyd) is the true culprit, Kane embarks on a cross-country journey to uncover the mysterious saboteur. Along the way, he reluctantly takes Patricia Martin (Priscilla Lane) hostage, but as trust develops, she transforms from an unwilling captive into a willing accomplice in his mission to prove his innocence.

Alfred Hitchcock's 1942 film Saboteur delves into the fears and paranoia of wartime America during World War II. 

He is a blind man routine in Saboteur (1942)

The film explores the fear of internal sabotage and infiltration by enemy agents. Set against the backdrop of World War II, it highlights the danger posed by individuals who may appear ordinary but secretly work against the nation's interests.

The protagonist, Barry Kane, is wrongly accused of domestic sabotage, emphasizing the need for vigilance within American society. Hitchcock subtly critiques the America First Party, a real-life isolationist organization that opposed U.S. involvement in the war. The film suggests that some members of this party may have pro-German leanings.

The character Charles Tobin collaborates with saboteurs, revealing how seemingly respectable citizens can harbor dangerous allegiances.

Hitchcock aims to pull back the curtain on wartime propaganda. He shows how the masses can be easily manipulated by misinformation and false narratives.

By portraying the protagonist's struggle to prove his innocence, the film underscores the importance of critical thinking and questioning official narratives.

The film's memorable finale takes place on the Statue of Liberty. Kane confronts the real saboteur, Fry, atop the statue, symbolizing the battle between good and evil.

The location reinforces the idea that threats can emerge from within, even in the most iconic symbols of freedom.

Alfred Hitchcock's films often share recurring themes and plot devices. Here are a few other Hitchcock films that explore similar themes:

Strangers on a Train (1951): In this film, two strangers meet on a train and discuss the idea of committing murders for each other, believing that their crimes won't be connected. Like many Hitchcock films, it delves into the theme of ordinary people being drawn into dangerous situations due to chance encounters.

The suspense and moral ambiguity are central to the plot, making it a quintessential Hitchcock experience. That quintessence does exist in an essential and sweetened manner in Saboteur (1942)

The 39 Steps (1935): This early Hitchcock film follows Richard Hannay, who becomes embroiled in a spy conspiracy after a chance encounter with a mysterious woman.

Themes of mistaken identity, espionage, and suspense are prevalent. Hannay must unravel the truth while being pursued by both authorities and spies. The film showcases Hitchcock's love for MacGuffins (plot-driving devices) and his use of public places to heighten tension¹.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943): In this psychological thriller, a young woman named Charlie suspects her beloved uncle of being a serial killer. Hitchcock explores the theme of evil lurking within seemingly ordinary families and communities.

The film masterfully builds suspense as Charlie investigates her uncle's dark secrets, leading to a tense climax.

There is a special place in the canon for Saboteur, and in so many ways it is a fond adventure that one can see many times, in a lifetime. It forms a keen part of the Hitchcock Sabotage and Espionage Trio, which includes the British suspenser Sabotage (1936), and the non-Conrad espionager The Secret Agent, which is also 1936. These are trio of adventure and close-themed Joseph Conrad and non-Conrad-inspired public espionage and sabotage thrillers and suspensers, made by Hitchcock.

Universal Studios brought in Dorothy Parker to write several scenes for the film, primarily focusing on the patriotic speeches delivered by the hero. Although Parker was initially tasked with "punching up the dialogue," Alfred Hitchcock also enlisted Peter Viertel to further refine the script.

Hitchcock described Saboteur as a series of "cameos," similar to his earlier film The 39 Steps. Originally, the movie was intended to conclude with a climactic scene at a movie theater showing Abbott and Costello's film Ride 'Em Cowboy. The New York Times believed that this booking would enhance the comedians' prestige. However, in the final version of the film, this scene was not included.

Principal photography for Saboteur took place from December 1941 to February 1942. Hitchcock employed extensive location footage, which was uncommon for Hollywood productions at the time. Second unit director Vernon Keays and cinematographer Charles Van Enger captured exteriors in the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California. Additionally, John P. Fulton filmed background footage in New York City.

For the New York City scenes, special long lenses were used to shoot from great distances. Notably, one background shot features a capsized ship in the harbour. This ship was the former SS Normandie, which had burned and sunk in February 1942, leading to rumours of German sabotage.

Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane in Saboteur (1942)

The film creatively combined location footage with studio shots, often using matte paintings for backgrounds. For instance, the western ghost town known as "Soda City" was a combination of real locations and studio elements. 

The Soda City segments are super, sectioned after the circus segment, the Soda City segments show a spy base located in the desert, and some super spooky spies, thugging it around and being outwitted by the cheeky-chap chapter and rehearsed verse of jolly patriot and fighter, Robert Cummings.

Cummings best friend who dies in the catastrophic aviation factory fire in the film, is rather forgotten, although his burned body and his mother are the catalyst, quickly forgotten, that is to say his memory in which all of this happened, is not memorialised although the speed that Saboteur switches environment is so exciting, so staggering really in its variety.

The iconic Statue of Liberty sequence occurs on the torch platform, which had been closed to public access since the Black Tom sabotage incident in 1916. A meticulously crafted mock-up accurately represented this part of the statue. Innovative visual effects were employed, including a shot where actor Norman Lloyd lay on his side on a black saddle while the camera moved from a close-up to 40 feet above him, creating the illusion of him dropping away from the camera.

Early in the film, but in fact also throughout, the authorities are portrayed as menacing figures. However, the well-respected rancher and kind grandfather turn out to be enemy agents. This inversion challenges our expectations and highlights the theme of deception.

Ordinary people—such as a long-haul truck driver, a blind householder, and circus freaks—perceive Kane’s innocence and offer trust. Their discernment contrasts with the suspicion cast upon him by those in power.

Saboteur exemplifies Hitchcock’s hallmark distrust of authority. The falsely accused protagonist must go undercover to expose the real spies, crisscrossing the USA in pursuit. This theme of questioning authority resonates throughout Hitchcock’s work.

Interestingly, the film’s structure and the final climactic battle on an iconic American monument foreshadow Hitchcock’s later masterpiece, North by Northwest.

François Truffaut’s book of interviews with Hitchcock, Hitchcock/Truffaut, openly discusses the parallels between Saboteur and North by Northwest. Hitchcock confirms that the latter film can be seen as a kind of remake of the former.

Both films involve mistaken identity, espionage, and thrilling pursuits across the American landscape.

As Kane drives along the New York waterfront, the capsized hulk of the liner SS Normandie serves as an ominous warning. Its presence hints at the potential consequences if the conspirators succeed in their destructive plans.

The film’s final battle, set on the torch of the Statue of Liberty, symbolizes the struggle between tyranny and democracy. This iconic location becomes a powerful backdrop for the climactic confrontation.

Alfred Hitchcock’s decision not to include a music score during the climactic Statue of Liberty scene and the Radio City sequence was deliberate. By allowing these scenes to unfold without music, Hitchcock heightened the tension and drew the audience’s attention solely to the visuals and action. 

The Radio City scene, in particular, effectively combined the action on the theatre screen (including gunshots) with the live action in the theatre, creating an immersive experience for viewers. It's not jst immersive but unique, as the movies goes to the movies and shots and shots combine in meta-tastic high modern entertainment.

As with many of his films, Hitchcock made a cameo appearance in Saboteur. Approximately an hour into the movie (at 1:04:37), he can be seen standing at a kiosk in front of Cut Rate Drugs in New York as the saboteurs’ car passes by.

Interestingly, Hitchcock initially filmed a different cameo with Dorothy Parker, portraying an elderly couple who observe Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane hitchhiking but drive away. Ultimately, Hitchcock opted for the existing cameo, which has become a trademark feature of his films.

Saboteur was produced swiftly, with scripting, pre-production, and principal photography completed in just 15 weeks—a record for Hitchcock. By January 1942, the film had entered post-production. However, it faced scrutiny from officials in the War Office due to concerns about the scene involving the SS Normandie (later renamed USS Lafayette). 

Hitchcock’s portrayal of the ship’s sabotage raised objections, but the scene remained in the final cut.

Hitchcock, under contract to David O. Selznick, initially pitched the film idea to Selznick. After Selznick approved the concept, a script was written, and John Houseman oversaw its progress and direction. 

However, Val Lewton, Selznick’s story editor, eventually rejected the script, which reviewer Leonard Maltin later described as ‘extremely offbeat.’ This decision caused tension between the producer and Hitchcock because it not only reflected a lack of belief in Hitchcock’s abilities but also allowed Selznick to profit significantly from the sale.

Despite this setback, Universal Studios signed on to produce the film. Hitchcock faced challenges in casting the leading roles. Gary Cooper was uninterested, and Barbara Stanwyck had prior commitments. Ultimately, Robert Cummings, under a new contract with Universal, took the lead role, while Priscilla Lane, borrowed from Warner Bros., joined the cast. Lane’s scenes had to wait due to her involvement in another production, “Arsenic and Old Lace,” which was eventually released in 1944.

In November 1941, Universal officially announced Hitchcock’s involvement in the film, which would be produced by Frank Lloyd and Jack Skirball. Hitchcock praised his young actors, emphasizing their intelligence and sensitivity to direction. He aimed to portray the boy and girl in Saboteur as unimportant yet vital figures, emphasizing their freedom and the danger they faced.

And into America it flashed, an exciting taste of war, and what war means to the solidity of this continent, with its incredible cast of indomitable goodies and tired old baddies, including Billy Curtis as a circus small man. 

Into America it flashed and did so with the following real actual all time tag lines to wind up the tension on the streets, and in the papers, and in the foyers, and in the lobbies and hallways of the cinema, with the following advertising and influencing catchy hook and tag declarations:

Unmasking the man behind your back!

IT CAN HAPPEN HERE! (print ad - Lubbock Morning Avalanche - Lindsey Theatre - Lubbock, Texas - July 3, 1942 - all caps)

EVERY JOLTING SCENE IS TRUE! (print ad - Lubbock Morning Avalanche - Lindsey Theatre - Lubbock, Texas - July 3, 1942 - all caps)

Taken from the Headlines of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow! (print ad - Lubbock Morning Avalanche - Lindsey Theatre - Lubbock, Texas - July 3, 1932)

HATS OFF to the FBI! They've made fiction come true! See this amazing Hitchcock drama of saboteurs right here in the United States! Spy killed on Statue of Liberty! Nazi fifth columnist hides in a theatre! Saboteur wrecks girl's love affair! Astounding parallel between film fiction and front-page sensation! (Print Ad-Philadelphia Inquirer, ((Philadelphia, Penna.)) 24 July 1942)

The EXCITING STORY of the Benedict Arnolds of today! (Print Ad- Newmarket Era, ((Newmarket, PO)) 21 May 1942)

What does he look like? How does he act? Would I recognize him? Director ALFRED HITCHCOCK reveals the answers to a million whispered questions about The-Man-Behind-Your-Back! (Print Ad- Eagle-Bulletin, ((Fayetteville, NY)) 11 September 1942)

SKUNKS WITHOUT A SMELL...plotting and scheming to blast into chaos and paralysis, the men, women and children of OUR LAND! (print ad - El Paso Times - Ellanay Theatre - El Paso, Texas - May 1, 1942)


You'd like to say - IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE!... but every jolting scene is TRUE!!

So hats off to the FBI may be the order of the day, even though the FBI have nothing, virtually nothing, zero to do or achieve here, for this is an adventure of one man's own American ingenuity, and the maximum strength of patriotic adventure a man may have, while also getting a girl, and of course she gets him too, as well as an adventure.

We do never hear no more of her blind father, the musician who lives in the mountainous middle of nowhere America, with a piano and no gun, and an intuitive and religiously magical knowledge of right and wrong able to blindly look into the souls of humans, with no use of his eyes at all. Not just cabins in film noir but blind men in cabins in film noir.

Sabotage newsreel van in Saboteur (1942)

Meta movie modernity in Saboteur (1942)

Barry Kane's daring escape by jumping from a bridge into the river adds an exciting and suspenseful moment to the film. Hitchcock was a master at creating tension through such thrilling sequences.

Saboteur exhibits elements reminiscent of a road movie, complete with a quarrelling couple. The resemblance to Frank Capra's style is evident, especially considering the Everyman hero prone to giving patriotic speeches. Interestingly, had Gary Cooper played Kane, the resemblance would have been even stronger.

The abrupt transition between Barry emerging from the stairs to the observation deck on the Statue of Liberty's torch and his confrontation with Fry creates a jarring effect. Hitchcock's use of editing techniques keeps the audience engaged and disoriented.

Charles Tobin, while possibly escaping immediate consequences, faces a bleak future. His alignment with one of the losing sides in World War II ensures eventual defeat. The concept of karma—whether immediate or delayed—runs through Hitchcock's narratives.

Barry and Pat's journey with the sideshow, featuring the bearded lady, thin man, little person, and conjoined twins, parallels the tumultuous situation in Europe. Hitchcock often weaves symbolic elements into his films, and this portrayal adds an eerie quality.

Frank Fry is another amazing creepy catalyst for adventure, and how an envelope and a hundred bill can be the call to epic human service, and he serves as a classic example of a MacGuffin—a plot device that drives the story but holds little intrinsic value. His pursuit and the mystery surrounding him keep the audience engaged.

The last piece of spoken dialogue in the movie occurs when Fry calls out Kane's name as he falls to his death. This moment adds tension and finality to their conflict.

The depiction of the Statue of Liberty serves as a visually striking backdrop in the film. Hitchcock's use of iconic locations enhances the overall cinematic experience.

Frank Fry, the actual saboteur, only appears at the beginning and end of the story. This narrative choice keeps the focus on Barry Kane, the protagonist.

The hero being named Kane was not coincidental. John Houseman, who collaborated with Hitchcock on the initial draft of the story, deliberately chose the name as a reference. Houseman had previously worked with Orson Welles, and this nod adds an interesting layer to the film.

Tobin, one of the antagonists, embodies the archetype of the smug snake. His cunning and self-assured demeanor create tension throughout the plot.

During the battleship launch scene, Fry and his fellow conspirators hide inside a newsreel van. Fry's mission is to push the button that will blow up the launch and sink the battleship. This covert operation adds suspense.

 The shot of the capsized ship, which some viewers might interpret as Fry succeeding in his mission, actually features the SS Normandie—a real-life ocean liner that caught fire and capsized in 1942. Barry successfully prevents the sabotage of the USS Alaska, but Fry's smirk hints at his group's involvement in the earlier loss of the Normandie.

Saboteur bears similarities to Hitchcock's earlier film, The 39 Steps. Robert Cummings, playing the protagonist, evokes the spirit of Robert Donat's character. Both films involve mistaken identity, espionage, and thrilling pursuits across the landscape.

Hitchcock's masterful storytelling and attention to detail make "Saboteur" a captivating addition to his filmography. The film features two monumental battles: the police chasing Fry through Radio City Music Hall during a movie and the final showdown atop the Statue of Liberty. These iconic locations heighten the stakes and create memorable visuals.

Hitchcock's recurring theme of distrust toward authority surfaces here. The notion that the bad guys may be cops adds intrigue and keeps viewers guessing.

Tobin justifies his collaboration with Germany by citing their efficiency. However, historical context reveals that totalitarian regimes often faced internal challenges and inefficiencies despite their outward appearance of control.

Barry's threat to leave a reptile (presumably a snake) in Tobin's bed adds tension. Hitchcock's use of phobias and fears enhances suspense throughout the film. The snake and the supposed female terror of it is used by cheeky but righteous bully frightener Robert Cummings, to fear Priscilla, when she is queening it up in the desert, tired of him and his chain cuff silliness, to fear her into jumping into a wagon and sitting on a big box of snakes.

SS Normandie in Saboteur (1942)

The portrayal of seemingly pleasant characters who are secretly involved in nefarious activities adds depth to the film. Tobin’s affection for his granddaughter and Mrs. Sutton’s charitable endeavours create an intriguing contrast with their true intentions.

Filmmakers often take artistic liberties for dramatic effect. While the torch of the Statue of Liberty has been inaccessible since 1916, Hitchcock chose to depict a climactic scene there. The film’s symbolic use of this iconic landmark transcends its real-world limitations.

Philip Martin’s character, a blind musician, becomes an unexpected ally to Barry Kane. His unique perspective and connection to Pat add an interesting layer to the story.

The classic “clear my name” trope drives the plot as Barry seeks to prove his innocence after being wrongly accused of sabotage. This theme of justice and redemption is a common thread in Hitchcock’s The final confrontation atop the Statue of Liberty is a memorable and suspenseful climax. The height and symbolism of this location intensify the stakes for both the characters and the audience.

The interruption by the radio bulletin during Barry’s confrontation with Tobin adds tension and urgency. It’s a clever use of dramatic irony, as the audience knows more than the characters at that moment.

Charles Tobin and Freeman’s family connections reveal that even villains have personal lives and relationships. This complexity humanizes them to some extent.

The choice of Soda City, an abandoned ghost town, as a key location adds intrigue. Its strategic view of Hoover Dam—a target for the saboteurs—heightens the suspense. Hitchcock often employs grand mansions as symbols of political power and influence. Whether it’s the government house in colonial Australia (“Under Capricorn”) or the embassy in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), these ornate buildings represent both the upper classes and political authority.

Norman Lloyd in Saboteur (1942)

The mansion in Saboteur follows this pattern. Although not an official government residence, it serves as the home of wealthy American Nazi sympathizers. Their desire to be part of a Nazi regime that has conquered the United States imbues the mansion with a sense of political significance.

The hero’s leather jacket in the film’s first half carries multiple layers of meaning. It symbolizes his working-class background and status as a “good guy on the edge of the law.” Leather jackets were also becoming a fashion statement during this period, adding a contemporary touch to the character’s attire.

Hitchcock’s fondness for rotary motion is evident in the film. The whirling motor in the car engine, used to cut the handcuffs, is a prime example. This recurring motif adds dynamism and tension to key scenes.

Saboteur (1942)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Genres - Drama, Romance, Action, Adventure, Mystery, Spy Film, War, Thriller  |    Release Date - Apr 22, 1942 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 108 min. 

The Story of Saboteur, Hitchcock’s First Truly American Film:

Saboteur (film) - Wikipedia

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