' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Saboteur (1942)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: Saboteur (1942)

There are times when Alfred Hitchcock’s “Saboteur” feels like a dry run for “North by Northwest”, given that it involves a wrongfully accused man attempting to prove his innocence by way of a cross-country chase with a blonde predominantly by his side. But “North by Northwest” found both humor and tension in a cocktail of screwball and suspense, all stirred together by the sublime Cary Grant who, in the company of Eva Marie Saint, rendered being the Mistaken Man as something of a gas. “Saboteur”, on the other hand, remains more serious, if not fairly hokey. It is telling that Hitchcock yearned for Gary Cooper to play the lead, before settling on Robert Cummings, suggesting the film’s inherent all-American attitude. The wrongly accused “Saboteur” is not simply out to prove his innocence; he is out to protect his country from harm.

That harm is swiftly established in the opening scene. The aircraft factory where Barry Kane (Cummings) works is blown up, presumably by the mystery man, Fry (Norman Lloyd), he runs into right before the explosion. Alas, no Fry works there he is told, meaning Barry becomes the prime suspect, forcing him to try and find Fry to prove his innocence, and trying to find Fry initiates a cross country chase in which the chase becomes something of a secondary concern. As one character says to Barry about his forced road trip, “I’ve always thought that was the best way to learn about this country, and the surest test of the American heart.”

Indeed, while there are several suspenseful set pieces, and while the action eventually concerns thwarting a nefarious plot to sabotage an American battleship in New York City, what Hitchcock really seems to be doing, in a movie that was released into a WWII world, is testing the American heart, taking his movie on a road trip to various American small towns, where so much apocrypha might lead one to believe that the heart is so much truer. That is not necessarily what Barry Kane finds, discovering so much treachery in plain sight, like that the home of Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger), whose omnipresent laugh and smile betray fascist leanings. “A man like you can’t last in a country like this,” declares Barry.

The question, however, becomes what is this country? You see remnants of what was, or the way it was thought to be, in a sequence like the kindly old blind composer, Phillip Martin (Vaughan Glaser), who briefly gives Barry a place to rest from the rain and get warm by the fire. And while Barry’s handcuffs, and the subsequent appearance of Phillip’s daughter Patricia (Priscilla Lane), allows for suspense, the sequence has much of its suspense strained out on account of Martin’s bemused dignity. He senses Barry’s handcuffs, and though he may be blind, he can see that presumed innocence is an American right.

Patricia does too, sent along with Barry at the request of her father to aid this presumed innocent man, though it takes her awhile to believe in his innocence, a crucial delienation; this is not a movie that forces motivation on characters but allows them to think for themselves, like the circus train where Barry and Patricia briefly hide out as the performers aboard have a debate and take a vote to determine whether to give them safe haven or turn them in. This sequence is democracy in action, people keeping people in check.

In these moments, and others, like Barry fleeing Tobin’s compound on a horse, which feels like a scene excised from some John Wayne western, Hitchcock presents American ideals with such straightforward sentimentality that it suggests parody, as if he finds the thought of virtue in the face of such evil as absurd, almost fanciful in comparison to Tobin’s argument for “the competence of totalitarian nations.” Hitch, after all, was rather famously something of an autocrat on set, one who reveled in directorial power, the sort of power that Tobin expresses his desire for, and so I can’t help but imagine Hitchcock kind of looking at Barry like the King George of “Hamilton” looked at his foremost American rival, not quite believing that President Washington would of his own volition resign his post. Hitchcock gives Barry Kane his due even if you can still sense him raising his eyebrows as he does so.

“Saboteur” quite famously concludes at the Statue of Liberty, a sequence that is still a stunner in the modern day, maybe more so because of the conspicuous absence of manipulative music, Hitchcock needing only his own dexterous moviemaking skills to play us like a piano, and taking our breath away even as he makes us gasp. Still, there is a moment that stuck with me more, when Barry and Patricia infiltrate a party of a high society woman in cahoots with the bad guys. Discovered, Barry and Patricia attempt to flee the mansion, only to find the exits blocked, and then drift to the dance floor in one another’s arms, disappearing amidst the upper crust with no idea what sinister forces lurk just behind closed doors and smiling faces. And Barry wonders aloud what that might be like, to allow all this pomp and circumstance to mask the myriad problems of the world, as if they didn’t matter. Momentarily, he does just that, but it is a self-indulgent realm where he nevertheless knows he cannot stay. Duty calls.


Alex Withrow said...

Nice review here. I loved discovering this film when I covered Hitch a while back. Great (semI) early Hitchcock, and yeah, that Lady Liberty ending is a killer.

Nick Prigge said...

Sadly I still have a few Hitchcock blind spots, like this one which I'm glad I finally got around to seeing. I also, by chance, watched it on the 4th of July and I couldn't imagine a better day to view it.