Review: Saboteur (1942)

Saboteur is basically North by Northwest (1959) set in 1942. Exchange the latter’s Cold War intrigue for Second World War paranoia about sabotage and passion for democracy, and substitute suspense on Mount Rushmore for the Statue of Liberty. Or maybe its The 39 Steps (1935) transported from an anxious pre-war Britain to a defensive mid-war United States?

Perhaps I’m being flippant with the Master, but I want to highlight the presence of one of Hitchcock’s obsessions: the wrongfully accused man on the run. Barry (Robert Cummings) works at an important national defense factory that is set on fire, and the circumstances make Barry look guilty. He runs away to track down the mysterious Fry (Norman Lloyd) who seems to have framed him. Because Hitchcock needs a love story, Barry meets up with Pat (Priscilla Lane) and the two bicker until they fall in love with each other.

The film is a very enjoyable light thriller. The first part focusing on Barry’s get away is a fun road movie containing desert vistas, eloquent blind hermits, and even circus freaks. In the second half, Barry finds himself in New York infiltrating a group of fifth columnists. The romance is cute, the plot is gripping, and I especially enjoyed the bizarre discussion about how the world really works between innocent, noble, man-of-the-people Barry and the villainous totalitarian capitalist (who eerily doesn’t sound all that different from some pragmatic neoconservatives today).

On a final note, I also liked how the film shows its seams. We can tell which of the desert vistas or tall forests are matte paintings and which are real, or that a stunt man jumps off the bridge into the river. I have always enjoyed this quality about certain old movies. Hitchcock’s thrillers are convincing enough for our suspension of disbelief, but they also cast a movie-world glow on the events. After all, no one looks to Hitchcock for realism. Today, everything’s slick and looks real fake.

8 out of 10

Saboteur (USA, 1942)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, and Dorothy Parker; starring Priscilla Lane, Robert Cummings, and Norman Lloyd.