Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Saboteur

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Saboteur

The only part of Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur I'd seen before my most recent viewing was the infamous climax on the Statue of Liberty. This is an obvious antecedent to the Mt. Rushmore scene in the director's 1959 North by Northwest and in fact, much of the film foreshadows the later movie. There's the man falsely accused, travelling across the country, attached to a woman who isn't sure if she can trust him. The element of national security is also present (though here it's more pronounced) as is the fugitive's acceptance of his false identity, in order to get in with the conspirators he supposedly knew all along. But as T.S. notes (and if you haven't checked out his recently initiated retrospective of Hitchcock, take this opportunity to do so), "Hitchcock re-tooled each theme and it got better as he career progressed. (North by Northwest is a much better film than Saboteur, for example.)"


Saboteur careens from comedy to suspense to moral parable and wartime propaganda. Hitchcock was usually a master of blending and switching gears between different styles while maintaining a singular tone, but here the mix isn't quite right. The saboteur of the title is not the main character, Barry Kane (
Robert Cummings), though everyone else in the movie seems to think it is. Robert works in the defense industry and is accused of torching several airplanes along with his buddy - the actual culprit was seen only by him. Barry becomes a fugitive, simultaneously trying to elude his would-be captors and catch up with the actual saboteur, which he eventually does atop Lady Liberty. This was not the first time Hitchcock would try this plot on for size, and the film not only looks forward to North by Northwest, but recalls The 39 Steps (all three movies contain the woman along for the ride, more skeptical in 39 Steps and Saboteur and given a more intriguing spin in the later film).

Some of the most compelling scenes in Saboteur are also the most odd, and the least suitable. The propaganda of the movie often seems forced (its portrait of fascism overlooks the ideological element completely) and the moral pronouncements of a blind old man seem embarrassingly out-of-place (when Barry wanders into the old man's cabin, it's as if he's wandering off a Hitchcock set and into a James Whale movie). But a strange, and quite funny, sequence on a circus train sticks in the memory. Barry and Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane), his unwilling travel companion, end up in a train car surrounded by circus freaks, including a bearded woman, an angry midget, Siamese twins, a fat lady, and a bony old gentleman (the "human skeleton") who appears to be their ringleader.

As the freaks debate whether or not to turn in their visitors (the police are making their way along the train, searching for the fugitive "saboteur"), the scene's implicit and somewhat absurd political undertones are exploded. The human skeleton suggests they vote on the issue since they are "a democracy," the midget tries to shouts, "That's subversive!" and the human skeleton barks back, "Fascist!" (They lock the little man away when the police come knocking). The whole scene is so ridiculous that it mocks the whole notion of mini-moral allegories as wartime propaganda (which was probably Hitchcock's intention), but it also works in a way. It's certainly far more effective than a more straightforward scene of this type would have been, and there's actually something quite stirring in its portrayal of American town-hall style democracy as a freakish but heartfelt sideshow (Norman Rockwell meets Brueghel?).

It also seems to reflect Hitch's macabre sense of humor and you can almost see him grinning with relish as he savors the human skeleton's breakdown of the vote: you see, the Siamese twins are on opposite sides and cancel each other out, the mini Major is of course a reactionary, the human skeleton a bleeding-heart liberal, and the fat lady sits on both sides of the issue. This weird moment stands in stark contrast to the ham-handed moralism of some scenes, as well as the straight-ahead taut suspense of others (Barry's second escape reminded me of both A Man Escaped and The Fugitive). Out-of-place detours like this feel more of a piece with Hitchcock's often quite quirky British work rather than his more tightly controlled American films.

But on the other hand, Saboteur introduces Hitch to the American landscape, travelling as it does from sunny California to cramped New York City. Though this road trip format mirrors The 39 Steps, its destinations and detours break Hitchcock out of the still pseudo-European shell that Hitchcock's earlier U.S. films were trapped in. From now on (and especially beginning with 1943's Shadow of a Doubt, filmed in an actual American small town) Hitchcock will be an American director, not just a transplanted British expat.

That about covers it, and T.S. will presumably be covering this film soon, so I don't want to step all over his territory. Suffice it to say that Saboteur had its ups and downs but, bizarre as it might have been, I'll probably remember the freak scene longer than anything else (save, of course, for the saboteur's sleeve ripping as he hangs perilously and tenuously from Lady Liberty's cawl).

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