Monday, August 31, 2015

Saboteur (1942)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Looks can be deceiving. This is the case throughout Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 thriller Saboteur. This motion picture is filled with contradictions through perception from one being a hostage within a free flowing public space, the literal little people becoming at times the biggest problem, and those reaping the rewards of the establishment are those trying to bring down the system for their own greater gain. For Hitchcock this was his first American picture to feature an All-American cast, and despite not exactly getting everything he wanted in production its result remains an entertaining thriller that leaves audiences guessing throughout.

Saboteur is an espionage thriller about a wartime factory worker on the run to clear his name for wrongful accusations resulting is a cross country journey discovering a ring a fascists hell-bent on sabotage within America. Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is an aircraft factory worker falsely accused of sabotage for a deadly fire at his plant and sets out to clear his name while evading authorities. In attempt to find a mysterious man named Fry (Norman Lloyd) whom he believes is the real saboteur, Barry discovers this work leads to a much deeper ring of terrorism, uncovering a band of wealthy American fascists committing theses heinous acts throughout the country. A beautiful model named Patricia (Priscilla Lane) finds herself in the mix with Kane, first attempting to turn him into the authorities, only to realize Barry’s story is dangerously true.

Kane succeeds for a short time at infiltrating this sabotage ring and aids in preventing the destruction of a large damn and a new naval ship. Patricia and Kane track Fry to New York where their pursuit corner the saboteur to the top of the Statue of Liberty. They attempt to stall Fry until the FBI arrives to capture this mysterious man. In this climactic scene Fry realizes his eminent trouble and in a last ditch effort crawls out of the tallest point of the national icon, but slips and falls to his death before being apprehended despite Kane’s effort to save Fry.

Norman Lloyd as Fry dangling from the Statue of Liberty.
The film makes for a rather fun wartime thriller while at the same time not mentioning World War II or enemy nations in the picture. The leading players are cast with relatively lesser known actors, none of whom were names of merit at the time of its release. All would perform well, but did not stand out from the star actors of the era. The feature gathers together a gripping plot filled with suspense, intrigue, and action, leaving the audience gripping on the edge of their seats, wondering what our hero was to run into next. All said, it is an entertaining picture, but one that fell short for its time and in the overall library of Hitchcock material.

While under contract under David O. Selznick filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock conceived the espionage story that would become Saboteur, but when Selznick rejected the script Hitchcock was allowed to shop his property, eventually leading him to Universal. Hitchcock and Selznick had already butted heads over creative control of Hitchcock’s previous American endeavors and the rejection of Saboteur would further fan the flames between these two men of film.

Universal was a studio of far lesser financial means than the other major studios. With smaller pockets than even Selznick, Universal proved to be more of challenge for Hitchcock to actualize his vision for this motion picture. However with his great originality and cinematic drive Hitchcock was able to power forward to make the best film he could at that time. This partnership resulted with its lesser known cast, fewer constructed sets than perhaps Hitchcock wanted, but a stronger use of Hitchcock’s camera creativity to produce the picture at a time when Hollywood wallets were getting smaller because of the war.
Stars Cummings and Lane in one of their early scenes together.

Due to Universal’s lack of Hollywood clout and Hitchcock still being relatively new  to American cinema despite his critically acclaimed short list of pictures after moving West, Saboteur would be unable to attract the actors Hitchcock wished for.  If Hitchcock had his choice at casting we would have seen Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck headlining this motion picture, but because of Cooper’s lack of interest and Stanwyck’s prior commitments the starring players would be Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane. Cummings was a relative B-movie leading man while Lane was between contracts and landed Saboteur as a one-off deal with Universal after leaving Warner Bros.

Priscilla Lane was considered an actress on the rise just a short time before the picture. As Hitchcock’s fall back as lead actress the film’s production was put on hold for her as she finished filming Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant, her last Warner Bros. picture which would be held for release until 1943. Her performance here in Saboteur was critically noticed, even though she was not excited about the project.

Robert Cummings, however, was nowhere near what Hitchcock wanted for the role of Barry Kane. Unlike the multidimensional leading men that would become common for Hitchcock’s male stars, Cummings appears to be far too light of and actor for a film full of suspense. His performance is adequate enough to enjoy the picture, but is easy to understand Hitchcock’s point of view when he would state well after the picture’s release that Cummings was more of a comedy actor and not what he envisioned in this role.

Otto Kruger plays Tobin and respected man that is revealed to be an enemy.
The supporting cast would partially make up the for the leading players lack of solidity. Perhaps the most intriguing performance would be that of Otto Kruger as the proper, well spoken, well-respected, yet devious Charles Tobin. Kruger’s performance provides many of the film’s more memorable moments as an excellent villain. The picture also features Norman Lloyd in his cinematic debut as Frank Fry, the saboteur that set Kane on this journey in the first place. Lloyd’s time on screen in the feature is relatively short, but at every moment is clear he is a man that is up to no good, pulling you further into the plot, all the way up to his death scene. Lloyd’s career in motion pictures would start here and go on to span over eight decades.

Hitchcock’s production would be handcuffed by lower budget from the very beginning. However his creativity would go beyond making up for the studio’s pocket book as he intelligently used matte paintings, guerilla filming tactics, and surprisingly a great deal of location shooting to make up for the lack of studio sets.

The SS Normandie plays a quick role as a sunken war ship in this shot.
One of Hitchcock’s quick “stolen” shots would be an impactful image for the film’s story, but caused great problems with authorities. When Hitchcock heard news of the European liner SS Normandie in New York that had caught fired and capsized in the harbor where it continued to sit he sent his film crew to catch a passing shot of the damaged liner on its side. He would use it in the film as a hint of even more sabotage by Tobin and his ring of saboteurs. When word of this shot reached authorities it caused a stir within the navy. Military officers protested the use of the shot, due to its implied nature that there was sabotage within their ranks, casting a bad light on the American military. Despite objections the shot and scene remained in the film as a short, but powerful image.

Filmed within 15 weeks Saboteur was the quickest production in Hitchcock’s career, premiering in Washington DC in April of 1942. Critics had mixed to negative reviews for the Hitchcock film. Most noted were the lack of powerful casting and the perception that government agencies was weak, filled with a sort of bumbling crew of officers that cannot seem to catch an average man with not great skill of espionage. It is easy to agree with the sentiments that the picture had potential to be better than it was, falling short of being great.

The film failed to gather much profit and would become a disappointment for Alfred Hitchcock as a filmmaker. With the rise of World War II in America this film completely lack any mention of the war. Originally the enemy in the picture was written to be Germans, but was altered to make the villains much more vague. Looking back from a post WWII and Cold War point of view this may actually make the villains much more iniquitous than if they were German as evil from which is a far more intriguing idea for a enemy.

The picture is not Hitchcock’s finest work, featuring one of his weakest castings, but it is a very intriguing motion picture in the resume of Alfred Hitchcock. It was worth looking into for its subject matter at the state America was in at the time, having recently entered the Second World War. Do not let the film’s lacking areas dissuade you from taking a look at this picture as it remains a wonderfully entertaining Hitchcock story on celluloid worth watching.

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