Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Patricia "Pat" Martin: I'm afraid we're not behaving very well.
Barry Kane: What's the difference, we're not invited anyway.
There are two ways to watch Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur. The first is to take it completely seriously. If one choses to, they will discover a sophisticated film by a sophisticated director in the midst of a serious transition. But more on that later. The second way to watch Saboteur is to bask in its inherent campiness. And yes, I do mean camp. Saboteur is one of Hitchcock's most easily entertaining films. It involves several of his favorite tropes: the wrongly accused man, the icy female love interest, and scenes taking place on famous and recognizable landmarks. And yet, if you watch with a close eye, you will realize that the story is almost too preposterous to take seriously. The story is believable enough. But how the characters go about acting it out is almost too outrageous to comprehend. But it is important to watch Saboteur as both a great piece of campy entertainment and an important transitional work by one of the great masters of the cinema.
Saboteur was the fifth film made by Hitchcock after he relocated to America. It is part of something that I lovingly call the “Glorious Nine.” The “Glorious Nine” are the first nine pictures that Hitchcock directed after he moved to America. It is my humble opinion that they represent some of his best work. “The Glorious Nine” represent the first high point in his career where each of his films would fire on all cylinders (and yes, I am including Mr. & Mrs. Smith, a film which many consider to be Hitchcock's only bad film, but I personally enjoyed it). The second high point would be from the mid-50s to the early 60s where he would direct many of his most well known films like Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960). I happen to refer to these as the “Glorious Ten,” although I would debate the quality of Dial M for Murder (1954). But if they let me have The Trouble With Harry and The Wrong Man (1956) then I suppose I can make one exception. But anyway, back to the point.
The reason that I love the “Glorious Nine” so much is that we get to witness the full blossoming of a cinematic genius. Hitchcock did direct some good films while in Great Britain. But that's just the point. They were good. They weren't necessarily great. Yes, yes, I know that The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) are two of his most beloved films. And, yes, I know that there will be a huge flock of cinema lovers who will be rearing to lynch me for saying that his British work was inferior. But seriously, for every film that Hitchcock made in Britain that really worked, like The 39 Steps, there were others that completely misfired. For example, The Lady Vanishes was followed up by Jamaica Inn (1939), a film that has a promising beginning, but ends up as a tedious melodrama. Hitchcock's work in Britain can be likened to an energetic amateur. But once he arrived in America, that was when Hitchcock the professional arrived.
Probably the first sign of this is how his first film in America, Rebecca (1940), won the Academy Award for Best Picture. But there were other signs, too. Hitchcock began to develop an eye for how to balance humor and suspense in the same film. While The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes did succeed in having both, his other work was usually only able to display one or the other. But by the time that his second American film, Foreign Correspondent (1940) came around, he had figured out how to utilize both. He also began to develop more complex characters to drive the suspense with. In his earlier work, we knew bad characters were bad, good character were good, and whenever they encountered each other things would get interesting. But when he came to America his characters became ambiguous. Characters who we originally liked would reveal themselves as the villains. Probably the best example would be the superb Shadow of a Doubt (1943) where the audience is horrified to learn that one of the main characters, Charlie Oakley, was a serial killer. Or what about another one of the “Glorious Nine,” Lifeboat (1944) where the entire story is driven by character development wherein we see people devolving into monsters under stress and desperate circumstances. And then, of course, there is the last member of the “Glorious Nine,” Notorious (1946), widely considered to be one of Hitchcock's finest masterpieces. At the start of the film, we don't know whether to root for Ingrid Bergman or not. It is only after she marries a Nazi in hiding does the audience really begin to trust her.
But I believe I have rambled on long enough. I should probably get to the story of our feature film, Saboteur. It starts with a fire at a California airplane plant. A small fire breaks out which is quickly strengthened after one worker is unfortunate enough to discover that the fire extinguishers have been filled with gasoline. Through a series of unfortunate events, one worker, Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is singled out as the perpetrator. Of course, he is innocent and actually knows who the real criminal is. He goes on the run from the law while he tries to find him. The real criminal is named Fry. Kane just so happened to get ahold of his personal information, so he goes to a ranch in Central Valley to confront him and clear his name.
He actually manages to find the saboteur's boss. It turns out that he is one of the leaders of an international sabotage ring intent on blowing up Boulder Dam. One thing leads to another, he acquires a woman who doesn't want to go with him named Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane), they travel across country to New York where they confront the ringleaders, and they foil another plan to destroy a new US navy ship at the Brooklyn Shipyard.
What's remarkable is that Hitchcock manages to balance two distinct styles of drama in the same storyline. On the one hand, there is a grand plot akin to North By Northwest where the main character gets chased around the States and has confrontations on big national landmarks. I should probably mention that the climax takes place on the Statue of Liberty. On the other hand, there is tense, interpersonal drama. Kane has great chemistry with Pat. He has to drag her along with him because she knows who he is and is desperate to tell the police. Through another series of unfortunate events, Kane ends up in handcuffs which are eventually transferred to Pat. It's really quite reminiscent of The 39 Steps where the two protagonists were handcuffed to each other while they were on the run. So, for most of Saboteur, Kane is running around trying to stop an international terrorist plot AND keep a lid on Pat. It creates some delightful chaos that keeps the movie interesting even when the police are not hot on their trail.
But wait, I think I mentioned that this movie has camp value. A lot of its inherent campiness comes from Kane and Pat trying to avoid the law. Throughout the film, Kane manages to ride and jump a horse over a fence while being chased by a horseback brigade of police officers, jump off the side of a hundred foot bridge into raging water and survive, and sneak his way into a spy organization. Along the way, he will hide out with a blind man (who channels the blind man from Bride of Frankenstein (1935)), a circus troupe of carnival freaks, a jolly truck driver who doesn't mind distracting the police for Kane, and run into a bevy of American traitors loyal to some foreign power. He will end the film hanging from the torch of the Statue of Liberty while he tries to save the real saboteur's life. Now, look me in the eye if that doesn't seem fantastic. I know Hitchcock was known for amazing plots, especially during his later career, but that is just ridiculous. He bounces from one movie cliché with such energy that it morphs into something fantastically original. Like I said, if you want to, you can take it all in stride. But from a realistic standpoint the entire plot sounds absolutely stupid. But it works, and it is awesome.
And isn't that the real charm of Hitchcock? His movies are outrageous, but that is what makes them so much fun. We like being taken away to fantastic locations with impossible storylines. In a way, I personally feel like other film franchises like the James Bond series owe a lot to Alfred Hitchcock. The love of international landmarks, the beautiful female live interest slash sidekick, the handsome male lead who knows how to handle any situation, and plenty of suspense. And Saboteur remains one of his most enjoyable ventures. It is a turning point where we find Hitchcock channeling his past while he looks toward the future.