Saboteur (1942): Hitchcock’s War Film Starring Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane

Alfred Hitchcock’s first contribution to the Wartime American propaganda, Saboteur, is not one of his best films. More concerned with plot than with characterization, lacking interesting subtext, and cast with second-tier cast–Robert Cummings is the leading man–it is nonetheless an entertaining picture.

Among other merits, the movie can be considered as a forerunner to Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North by Northwest, which is superior in every respect. Thematically, both films center on an innocent man accused of a murder he did not commit, and the narrative of both films revolve around chasing a group of insidious spies across the country.


Theatrical poster


Barry Kane (Robert Cummings), an ordinary factory worker, is falsely accused of sabotaging an aircraft plant, in which his best friend Mason is killed in a fire.

It turns out that the extinguisher Kane handed him was filled with gasoline, engulfing his friend in flames before burning the whole factory.

An investigation points to Kane as the saboteur, forcing him to flee across the country to find the real murderer.

On the way, he meets Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane), the only person who believes his story. To clear his name, he goes after the real saboteur, Frank Fly (Norman Lloyd), who is in league with wealthy fascist sympathizer, Mrs. Henrietta Sutton (Alma Kruger).

Kane encounters a national network of unlikely spies, ending in a final dramatic confrontation atop New York’s Statue of Liberty. The movie is best remembered for its harrowing chase, shot on the Universal back lot, in which he chases his man to the Lady’s torch.

Originally, Hitchcock had plan to cast Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, bigger stars and more accomplished actors, in the lead roles, with Harry Carey, Sr. as master spy Charles Tobin, played in the film by Otto Kruger.

Saboteur is more of a plot rather than character-driven feature.  But it’s useful precursor to the darker, visually and thematically richer films of the late 1940s and 1950s.

The film is interesting for its depiction of the police as dull and unimaginative, and for showing ordinary people running away from both the legal authorities and the criminals at the same time. It suggests, like later Hitchcock movies, that under some specifiable circumstance, it’s the duty of loyal citizens to disobey the law.

Based on Hitchcock’s idea, Peter Viertel and Joan Harrison’s script is helped by Dorothy Parker’s witty additions to the dialogue and the charmingly bizarre encounter with the caravan-load of circus freaks.

The lovers erase of their earlier tensions and misunderstandings is gradual.  There are ardent kisses on the dance floor at the charity ball of a Fifth Column society lady. “I’m afraid we’re not behaving very well,” says Pat after the first embrace, to which Barry responds: “What’s the difference? We weren’t invited anyway?” He then embraces Pat for the second time.

And not to forget that the man who takes Barry to security and then to Pat’s arms is a policeman, an official authority member of society.

Saboteur echoes several ideas from Hitchcock’s British films. However, being timely in its message, about supporting the War effort by combating homegrown fascists, also makes the film outdated from today’s perspective.

Thriller and Frills

Even so, there are some impressive Hitchcockian touches, such as the several chases in the last reel, set in famous New York City monuments.

Kane reaches the Navy Yard a few minutes in search of the saboteurs. He spots Fry in a fake newsreel camera truck, about to blow up the slipway during the launching. Their struggle prevents Fry from detonating the explosion until after the launch of the USS Alaska battleship.

Fry takes Kane prisoner, and with his two accomplices, returns to the Rockefeller Center office. The police and FBI, alerted by Martin’s note, are waiting for them. The accomplices are caught, but Fry dodges into the back of Radio City Music Hall. He shoots a man in the audience and escapes in the panic.

Holding Kane in custody, the FBI refuses to follow Fry, so Kane tells Martin to shadow the saboteur. She follows Fry onto the ferry to Bedloe’s Island, and then to the Statue of Liberty. At the FBI’s direction, she goes into the statue to find Fry and distract him. In the statue’s crown, she talks with Fry, stalling him until Kane and the FBI arrive.

Kane escapes his escort, and pursues Fry onto the torch, confronting him at gunpoint. While backing away from Kane, Fry falls over the platform’s railing and clings to the statue’s hand. Kane tries to save Fry, but as the police and FBI arrive, he falls to his death.

In the very last shot of the film, Barry scrambles back to safety up the Statue of Liberty, and then gets Pat’s embrace.

Robert Cummings as Barry Kane
Priscilla Lane as Patricia “Pat” Martin
Otto Kruger as Charles Tobin
Alan Baxter as Freeman
Clem Bevans as Neilson
Norman Lloyd as Frank Fry
Alma Kruger as Mrs. Sutton
Vaughan Glaser as Uncle Phillip Martin (as Vaughan Glazer)
Dorothy Peterson as Mrs. Mason
Ian Wolfe as Robert
Frances Carson as Society Woman
Murray Alper as Truck Driver
Kathryn Adams as Mrs Brown (Tobin’s daughter)
Pedro de Cordoba as Bones – Circus Troupe
Billy Curtis as Major / Midget – Circus Troupe
Marie LeDeaux as Titania the Fat Woman – Circus Troupe (as Matie Ke Deaux)
Anita Sharp-Bolster as Esmeralda – Circus Troupe (as Anita Bloster)
Jean Romer as Siamese Twins (as Jeanne Romer)
Laura Mason as Siamese Twins (as Lynn Romer)


Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by Frank Lloyd, Jack H. Skirball
Written by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, Dorothy Parker
Music by Frank Skinner
Cinematography Joseph A. Valentine
Edited by Otto Ludwig

Production companies: Frank Lloyd Productions; David O. Selznick Productions

Distributed by Universal Pictures

Release date: April 22, 1942

Running time: 109 minutes
Budget $780,000
Box office $1,250,000 (US rentals)