Saturday 16 November 2019

Movie Review: Saboteur (1942)

A spy thriller and propaganda film, Saboteur features several set-piece suspense highlights but also some creaky plotting and flat speechifying.

With World War Two raging, a deliberately-set fire destroys a military aircraft factory in Los Angeles. A worker is killed, and the victim's friend Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) believes he spotted the saboteur, a man calling himself Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd). But when no record or trace can be found of Fry, Kane himself becomes a suspect. He avoids arrest and sets out to clear his name.

Remembering an address on an envelope carried by Fry, Kane arrives at the rural ranch of respected businessman Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger), unaware he is one of the leaders of a treasonous cell. Tobin turns Kane over to the police but he escapes by jumping off a bridge, and finds refuge with kindly blind man Phillip Martin (Vaughan Glaser). Kane teams up with Phillip's initially suspicious niece Patricia (Priscilla Lane) as they dodge a nationwide search and pursue the dangerous saboteurs first to an isolated dam site and then all the way to New York City.

Filmed and released on either side of the Pearl Harbor attack, Saboteur is an evil-lurks-among-us cautionary tale. Director Alfred Hitchcock includes the requisite cringey propaganda speeches exalting the American way of life, and the film is fueled by sharply defined good and evil characterizations, with Barry Kane's innate goodness easy to spot, especially by the blind and dispossessed.

But what could have been a standard and stiff exercise in wartime morale boosting greatly benefits from Hitchcock's talent for building up suspenseful moments. Saboteur features several elegant setpieces, including Barry evading the police with a breathtaking jump from a bridge, then hiding his handcuffed hands at Martin's house, and a cat and mouse game at a lavish New York City ballroom party.

And finally the climax atop the Statue of Liberty is a classic cliffhanger with ingenious use of special effects, the famous monument a suitable reminder of what's at stake as her raised hand with the torch of enlightenment hosts the final battle between wholesomeness and hate.

Between the film's highlights Hitchcock stitches together a decent on-the-run thriller, although narrative coherence in the final third starts to slip, hampered by clunky and rushed scene transitions. The entire plot is also dependent on some sustained imbecilic actions by both the plotters and the enforcement authorities.

The cast is one of the most underpowered of any of Hitchcock's American-made movies. Neither Robert Cummings nor Priscilla Lane were first choice for the project, but their relative plain anonymity suits the theme of ordinary American resistance to homegrown malevolence. Saboteur lacks stardust, but compensates with sly craft.

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