Retro Daddy

The Past Isn't Over - It Isn't Even Past
Editor’s Pick
JUNE 9, 2009 11:01PM

Hitchcock's Saboteur

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saboteur title


Saboteur, starring Bob Cummings and Priscilla Lane, is Alfred Hitchcock's film about twenty-first century terrorism, even though it came out in 1942.


The evil terrorist mastermind is Charles Tobin, played by Otto Kruger, an actor you sort of remember from other roles in forties movies, as you watch him play verbal games with the traditional Hitchcock innocent victim Barry Kane, played by Bob Cummings.


One of Tobin's agents sets fire to the Los Angeles defense plant where Kane works, killing Kane's best friend. Kane is blamed for the arson but knows who the saboteur really was, and he chases the Nazi spy ring while avoiding the police who think he's a traitor. Kane uncovers more sabotage and terrorism planned by the ring and has only one day to prevent the Nazis from sinking a new ship at its commissioning in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.


saboteur desert nazis

Traitors are everywhere


In one of Hitchcock's perverse twists, the Nazis succeed in this act of sabotage. One of the Nazis looks out of a car window while escaping and sees the ship on its side. No action movie made today would have the hero struggle to prevent a terrorist attack and even partially fail. Kane stops the saboteurs from blowing up the Hoover Dam, killing thousands and devastating the Western economy, so he succeeds where it counts, but he isn't enough of a hero for a summer blockbuster today.


Tobin, the wealthy Nazi spymaster, looks equally elegant in a swimsuit and robe at his own ranch-style mansion in the Southwest, or in a tuxedo at a party in a New York brownstone where the guests are either admirals and generals paying respects to a rich society matron, or Nazi spies working with her to defeat America.


saboteur among the rich

The loyal American among the traitorous rich


In this film, the rich are the natural allies of fascism, and Hitchcock doesn't think much of the intellectual capacity of America's military leaders if they can be fooled by the Nazis all around them in a twentieth-century Masque of the Red Death.


But not everyone is so blind. For instance, the blind composer who recognizes Kane's innocence and who helps him avoid the police, and who convinces his niece Pat to help him. Pat discovers Kane is wearing handcuffs, but her uncle heard the sound as soon as Kane walked into his cabin, which despite its remoteness is tastefully decorated and has a piano.


saboteur the blind see

The blind can see


Pat tells her uncle that the police say Kane is a dangerous fugitive. He tells her the police couldn't be heroes if they didn't make Kane out to be dangerous. He asks Pat, “Are you frightened? Is that why you're so cruel?” Finally he tells his niece that sometimes one's duty as a citizen is to disobey the law.


For Hitchcock, a new American but someone who definitely chose the United States over other places he could have lived and worked, fear didn't justify cruelty. And cruelty wasn't American.


saboteur love and trust

Held by love


The least cruel people in Saboteur are the circus troupe that Kane and Pat ask for help. (They resemble some of the characters in the movie Hitchcock made a couple of years later, Lifeboat, in that they represent social types. It's almost a Marxist approach to storytelling, but Hitchcock was no Marxist. He was too much of a pessimist to believe in revolution. For him it was just movie-making shorthand.)


The Human Skeleton, tall and thin, looking like he could be starving, trusts Kane, and wants to hide him and Pat from the police who are searching the circus's vehicles. The Fat Lady, certainly not starving, isn't really afraid of Kane, but she is afraid of the authorities. The Siamese Twins are divided (another of Hitchcock's jokes). The only one with a title or rank is the Major, a little person who wants to appear grander than he is. The Major wants to give Kane to the police.


saboteur circus

Democracy among the outcast


The Human Skeleton wants to decide “democratically” and it's up to Esmerelda, the Bearded Lady, to cast the deciding vote. Esmerelda sees that Pat trusts and loves Kane (it doesn't take long in the movies) and, like Pat's uncle, the blind composer, she protects them from the police.


saboteur pat stops nazi

Held by the enemy


Even though most of the Nazis are captured or killed, it seems the masterspy Tobin escapes to Latin America to sit out the war. (“Havana will be lovely.”) And I wonder whether Tobin's fellow conspirator, the dowager, with all her money and friends in the War Department, won't be able to talk her way out of the accusations against her. If she's guilty of treason, all her important friends are guilty of stupidity.


That's why I prefer Hitchcock's style to contemporary action flicks. Hero fights spy; hero tries to save spy dangling from national monument; spy gets killed; hero and girl kiss; THE END.


Hitchcock doesn't show how perfect everything will be now, because as much of a fantasist as he is, he knows we won't buy that.


saboteur pat and kane dam


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First saw it back in the 70s and loved the blind man--it seemed so radical for the 40s, I wondered how Hitchcock got away with it.
The 70s crowd applauded it. Kruger as the intelligent, cynical fascist monster wasn't a character portrayed in other 40s films with that kind of subtlety.
The shots of the Statue of Liberty had the classic Hitchcock rear projection unique to him.
You might add to your meditation on the persistence of peculiar American political evils that (in an ironic artistic sense) the actual perpetrator of the final terrorist plot was played by Orson Welles' discovery Norman Lloyd. He has had a long, successful career in theatrical arts and is still active today, now in his 90's.
Almost all contemporary action movies are for the lame-minded.