Another thriller from Alfred Hitchcock’s uneven 1940s, Saboteur is an overstuffed triumph of mediocrity. It features underwhelming lead actors and a tangled knot of a plot, but the location shooting and relative excitement of some of the set pieces nearly makes up for the slapdash production. There’s also some good humour, although sometimes the muddled script goes too far for the joke.
Once more, Hitch is employed in the propaganda effort with a tale about fifth columnists and the like. It, like Foreign Correspondent, appears to be the sort of rousing thing that might draw the admiration of Joseph Goebbels. And it, like Foreign Correspondent, leans largely on its action scenes and draws little energy from anywhere meaningful.
Robert Cummings stars as Barry Kane, a factory worker falsely accused of starting a fire at an airplane plant during World War II. Kane believes he knows who the real culprit is, but he flees the investigators and sets off to find the man named Fry (Norman Lloyd). This leads him to a ranch where he finds Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger) and connects with Tobin’s niece Pat (Priscilla Lane).
Pat knows who Kane is and tries to take him to the police, but he convinces her of his innocence and she joins his attempts to discover the real saboteurs. This uncorks a load of double-crosses and mysterious identities, revealing a plan to sabotage the Brooklyn shipyard. Kane races to warn officials of the plot but is once more drawn deeper into intrigue and danger.
Just as Rear Admiral Pierce is piped in from the Brooklyn naval yard with words of uplifting patriotism, Saboteur once more paints the villainous terrorists as men and women without morality or goodness and highlights its heroes as heroes with hearts of love. This sort of simplicity is commonplace in movies of this sort, of course, but the lack of ambiguity and complexity stings.
Also problematic is the wooden Robert Cummings in the lead role. Hitch had to settle for him thanks to that old Hollywood magic. It’s hard to buy the comic actor in the part and even his more earnest moments land flatly, but it’s his lack of charisma with the equally dead Lane that sinks this ship from a character standpoint. Hitchcock said that Lane was “imposed…on me” – hardly a ringing endorsement.
Perhaps the good news is that the stakes are higher than anything the two lead characters could ever mangle. Hitch seems to know this and he keeps his foot on the floor through several interesting chase scenes and big moments. Like The 39 Steps, the movie the director was kind of remaking here, Saboteur attempts to force audiences through an ever-accelerating chase.
But the picture wasn’t exactly satisfactory for Hitch, as he’d try to tackle it again with the grander North by Northwest (that time he’d get his man, too). The disenchantment shows in spite of the broad sets and chunks of action. For every Statue of Liberty sequence there’s a dead-stop speech or bit of mechanical meandering that draws things shut.
Indeed, Hitchcock would reach the same conclusion. “I would say that the script lacks discipline,” he told Truffaut in their famous interview. “I don’t think I exercised a clear, sharp approach to the original construction of the screenplay. There was a mass of ideas, but they weren’t sorted out in proper order; they weren’t selected with sufficient care.”
Another note: there is some discussion about the closing scene atop the Statue of Liberty. In Hitch’s estimation, the finale should have had the hero hanging in midair rather than the villain. But Saboteur’s ending instead seems to strike a moral blow: Cummings’ Kane is so virtuous that he tries to save Fry even in such dire circumstances.
Saboteur is about on par with Foreign Correspondent in terms of quality, although I do prefer the latter picture because it does a better job building suspense. The acting is also superior in Foreign Correspondent and the plot is easier to navigate, making it a tighter thriller. In its own right, Saboteur is worth seeing for the action but worth ignoring for just about everything else.