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

Hitchcock’s first contribution to wartime American propaganda, can be considered a forerunner to North by Northwest (1959), which is superior.  Both films center on an innocent man accused of murder and chasing a group of insidious spies across the country.

Barry Kane (Robert Cummings), an ordinary factory worker, is falsely accused of sabotaging an aircraft plant, in which his best friend is killed in a fire. It turns out 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 plot than character-driven, but it’s useful as precursor to darker, visually and thematically 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.

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being timely in its message, about supporting the War effort by combating homegrown fascists, also makes the film outdated from today’s perspective.

Even so, there are some impressive Hitchcockian touches. In the last shot of the film, Barry scrambles back to safety up the Statue of Liberty, and then gets Pat’s embrace.

The lovers erase of their earlier tensions and misunderstandings is gradual. there are ardent kisses on the dance floor at the chairity ball of a Fifth Column society lady. Ï’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 offical authority member of society.

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