When it’s on: Wednesday, 27 June (1.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
This house experienced a brief burst of excitement when Channel 4 teased at screening an unofficial Hitchcock season in its early afternoon slot. Sadly, it turned out to be nothing more than a coincidence of scheduling that two of his films appear on consecutive days. Tomorrow, we get the masterly Shadow of a Doubt. Today, it’s Saboteur, a relatively minor entry that explores similar narrative territory to The 39 Steps, and would later be polished to perfection for North by Northwest. The story of the ‘wrong man’ having to go on the run both to prove his innocence and catch the real culprit was retold various times by Hitchcock. Saboteur isn’t as good as the two films mentioned above, rather it rubs shoulders with Young and Innocent and Frenzy, which essentially covered the same ground.
Over time, I think I’ve come to prefer Young and Innocent to Saboteur and, in lieu of a critically sound, academic reason I’d suggest it’s because I like the characters more in his light-hearted, British escape thriller. Similarly, the shock value and jet black humour of Frenzy make it, for me, superior. If that makes it sound like I think Saboteur is a poor film, then I don’t. It’s fine. Viewers demanding welters of suspense won’t be disappointed. There are some lovely technical bits of business, fine plot twists and excellent cameo performances. The whole thing moves at breakneck pace, anticipating North by Northwest, and the scale of the trial faced by its hero at times at times feels impossible.
Yet perhaps it’s the identity of the actor playing ‘the wrong man’ who’s the problem. Hitchcock didn’t want Robert Cummings for the role. Gene Kelly, Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda were amongst his preferred choices, whereas Cummings was dismissed as having ‘an amusing face, so that even when he’s in desperate straits, his features don’t convey any anguish.’ It’s a fair point. The actor puts in a reasonable performance, but his natural place was in the realm of light entertainment and, whilst the camera stays with him throughout Saboteur, he gets lost in the thick of the detail and his fellow actors. Priscilla Lane as the girl who first loathes then joins him in his flight fares altogether better. Again, she wasn’t the perfect bit of casting in Hitchcock’s eyes; he wanted Barbara Stanwyck, who may never have come across as credible once the character teams up with Cummings and softens. Otto Kruger plays the main villain, whereas the role of the actual saboteur went to unknown Norman Lloyd, who gets across really well the lazy evil of his ill-intentioned character.
Saboteur could be dismissed as a propaganda piece, and it’s doubtless the film was part fuelled by Hitchcock’s own feelings about the war. Whilst no one refers to the people who are really behind the sabotage as Nazis, it’s clear they’re fascist sympathisers, not to mention a patrician lot with little but disdain for the common man. The traditional American value of freedom is instead writ large in the various diverse characters who help Cummings along his way. There’s the kindly blind uncle of Ms Lane, who offers Cummings some respite and claims, despite his lack of sight that he can see further than she, alluding to Cummings’s innocence. They’re also helped by a troupe of circus performers, adding weight to the sense of America’s less privileged elements believing in freedom and being prepared to uphold it.
It’s nicely done, but the identities of the villains (upper class) and heroes (working class) suggest an obvious liberal sentiment, and Hitchcock’s better than that. The limited budget doesn’t help either. With its wide canvas, Saboteur should have an epic feel, but it was treated from the start as a second rate project by David O Selznick, who doled both the film and its director to Universal in order to get it made. The studio trimmed costs by not allowing Hitchcock to hire the first rate actors he wanted and, whilst letting the production go over its modest $700k budget, wound up with a picture that looks like it has the bottom line in mind.
Still, the eye on cost produces some cool effects, such as the early sabotage scene, for which Hitchcock simply filmed the front of a factory and let black smoke steadily fill the frame from the bottom right, not only effective on a stylistic level but suggesting strongly the looming menace that faced the ‘Free World.’ There are also dialogue-heavy scenes to replace costly moments of action, such as Cummings’s encounters with the blind uncle and the circus performers, which feature the parts of the screenplay penned by Dorothy Parker.
The result is a decent potboiler, and nothing more than that. Saboteur includes some signature moments – the Statue of Liberty climax, for one – but a weightless whole that places it firmly beyond the front row of Hitchcock’s films.