Saboteur (1942)

It might be said that Alfred Hitchcock had been making his contribution to the fight against Nazi Germany long before the Second World War even began. While Germany is not mentioned in his British films, we can infer that the sinister conspirators and governments of his early films were really intended to be Fascists. (Examples include The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Secret Agent, Sabotage, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes.)

By the 1940s, as America became drawn into the conflict, Hitchcock was able to make blatantly anti-Nazi movies such as Saboteur and Foreign Correspondent. These films worked well entertaining thrillers, but they also contained a good deal of wartime propaganda designed to rouse people to support the values of their own country, and to fight against those who would threaten those values.

Saboteur deals with the enemy within. It warns people to be on the lookout for Fascist conspirators living among them. The atmosphere of paranoia is established during the opening credits where we see a sinister silhouette against a corrugated background. The background is that of an airplane factory, which will be the first target of the saboteurs. Later they will be targeting a dam and a shipyard.

Among the employees working at the airplane factory is our hero, Barry Kane (Robert Cummings). Kane bumps into a suspicious-looking man who drops several letters. The name on the letters is that of Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd), and Fry seems to be carrying a suspiciously large amount of $100 notes about with him.

Soon afterwards the factory catches fire. Fry passes an extinguisher to Kane, who in turn passes it to his friend. However the extinguisher is filled with gasoline, and Kane watches in horror as his friend is consumed by the fire, a dark figure amidst the burning flames. It is our first glimpse of the terror planned by the ruthless saboteurs.


In this world of suspicion and paranoia, the blame for the sabotage is placed on Kane’s shoulders, and he is forced to go on the run. Kane rightly suspects Fry and decides to visit the address on Fry’s letters. This sets off a whole train of adventures as Kane tries to find out the identity and plans of the saboteurs whilst avoiding being arrested by the police.

There is a curious tension in Saboteur. The story is about the need to protect your country from enemies who would undermine it, but the story persistently depicts figures of authority or power as menacing. It is not penniless revolutionaries that Barry  Kane is running from, but the police, and those who help to run the country. Worse still, the saboteurs themselves are highly influential and powerful figures in America.

The lead saboteur is Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger), an affable and respected citizen who has his own ranch with a swimming pool. (Hitchcock later used the same set for the Brenner house in The Birds.) Kane asks him, “Why is it that you sneer every time you refer to this country? You’ve done pretty well here.” Tobin has an explanation ready:

“You’re one of the ardent believers. Millions like you plod along without asking questions. I hate to use the word stupid, but it seems to be the one that applies. The great masses, the moron millions. Well, there are a few of us who…are clever enough to see that there’s more to be done than just live small, complacent lives. A few of us who desire a more profitable type of government. When you think about it, Mr Kane, the competence of totalitarian nations is much higher than ours. They get things done… Power. Yes. I want that as much as you want your comfort, or a job…We all have different tastes, as you can see. Only I’m willing to back my tastes with the necessary force.”

Kane has no relish for Tobin’s idea of power – the kind that bombs cities and killed his friend – and the scene is framed to support Kane’s view. While Tobin delivers his speech, the camera is placed some distance away from him, making his aims look small and petty as he delivers his grandiose speech.

Tobin is not the only traitor who wishes to undermine the country that has done so much for him. When the movie’s heroine Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) seeks help from a sheriff, it turns out that he is one of the conspirators. Another powerful member of the movement is Mrs Sutton (Alma Kruger), a wealthy lady and contributor to charities. She has a distaste for hearing about killing, and yet she allows her home to be a hotbed of conspirators.

The villains in this movie are among Hitchcock’s least likeable, but there are humanising moments. Tobin shows affection for his grand-daughter. One of the conspirators stops by the dam that they intend to blow up and makes a sentimental speech about it while lauding Tobin’s love of children as evidence of a good heart. The Nazi speaks about how his child smashes his toys and then feels sorry afterwards. We may wonder if this would be true of these affluent conspirators had they succeeded.

Fry is the least likeable of the villains. He personally carries out the ugly attack on the airplane factory, and he is only narrowly thwarted from blowing up a ship too. In one scene, he passes the wreck of the SS Normandie, a ship that burned down and sank in 1942, and he smirks, implying that this too was an act of sabotage. (This was suspected at the time, but the US Navy were unhappy that the movie appeared to confirm the rumour.)

Yet it is possible to feel sorry for Fry too at the end of the movie when he is left clinging from the Statue of Liberty, with Kane holding him by his coat sleeve. We watch as the seams rip and the helpless Fry falls to his death. (I find myself wondering if the Coen Brothers were thinking of this scene when they made The Hudsucker Proxy. In that movie, the stitch on Paul Newman’s coat also begins to give way, but he is saved by a double stitch.)

While people in power prove to be untrustworthy, Barry Kane receives a good deal of support from humble people. Our hero is himself only a factory worker, and the people that help him the most are a truck driver, a blind man and members of a circus freak show. These scenes include a certain amount of speech-making in favour of American democratic values.

While on the run and with handcuffs still on his wrists, Kane stops at the house of a blind man, Phillip Martin (Vaughan Glazer). The scene is reminiscent of one in the 1931 film version of Frankenstein where the monster stops off at the home of a hospitable blind man.

However whereas the blind man in the earlier movie is naïve, and does not realise that his companion is a monster, this blind man possesses an almost saintly wisdom. He can hear Kane’s handcuffs clinking, but he does not reveal the fact until his niece sees them. Pat Martin is horrified, and wishes to hand Kane in. She regards sabotage as worse than murder. Uncle Phillip speaks in defence of Kane. He insists that he can see things that Pat cannot, including intangible things such as innocence, and he insists that it is his duty as an American citizen to not judge a man until he is found guilty.

Pat is not so easily convinced. In this respect she is typical of many early Hitchcock heroines (see also Young and Innocent and The 39 Steps) who refuse to believe the hero at first, only to fall in love with him later. When her uncle asks her to take Kane to a blacksmith friend to remove the cuffs, she tries to drive to the police station, and has to be stopped before they get there.

It is only the simple faith of the circus folk that finally causes her to relent. Kane and Pat hitch a lift with the circus, and when the police ask to search the vehicle, the reactions of the freaks becomes a microcosm for American society. They put it to the vote whether to hand over the fugitive, and the responses of the circus members are affected by ignorance, malice and neutrality. An angry dwarf who refuses to abide by the majority decision is called a Fascist.


The story that holds Saboteur together is a series of picaresque adventures – the visit to Tobin’s mansion, Kane’s escape from the police, the blind man and the circus folk. The remainder of the movie becomes more suspenseful as Kane is obliged to spend time with his enemies. He visits a ghost town called Soda City and realises that they intend to blow up a dam. He tries posing as one of the saboteurs, but his cover is blown by the arrival of Tobin.

As Kane and Pat seek to escape from Mrs Sutton’s house, they find the exits blocked by the conspirators, and none of the guests take seriously their attempts to warn them. The scene is a tense and exciting one, but not without humour. Kane disrupts the party in a manner that is reminiscent of Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest. Only whereas Thornhill breaks up an auction, Kane starts one, asking the reluctant Mrs Sutton to put one of her own bracelets up for bidding.

Kane eventually escapes, and our attention is divided between the two scenes that are shown to us simultaneously. Pat, an unusually resourceful heroine, uses her lipstick to write a message on a sheet of paper that she throws out of the window of the room where she is held captive. We watch the progress of this piece of paper as it falls slowly to the ground and wonder if anybody will notice it.

Meanwhile Kane is desperately searching the shipyard in a bid to prevent a terrorist attack. Finally he sees Fry, and the two fight as Kane tries to prevent Fry from pressing the button that will detonate the bomb. Fry manages to press it, but he is too late. The ship has launched and he merely damages the launch. At this point Hitchcock throws in an unusual touch. We see camera shots of individuals rising upwards as if to remind us what it would have been like if bodies had been thrown in the air by the explosion.

With their plans defeated and the conspirators arrested, the climax of the movie focuses on Fry, the one saboteur who escaped from the police. The redoubtable Pat has seen him however, and she seeks to keep him in sight until he can be arrested. As is appropriate to the movie’s propagandist intentions, the final scene takes place on the Statue of Liberty.

This gives Pat a chance to quote the ‘tired and huddled masses’ engraving at the bottom of the statue, as she seeks to delay Fry. Finally the police arrive, and Fry has a suitably ironic death falling from the icon that represents the values of American liberty and democracy that he has sought to destroy.

Saboteur is one of Hitchcock’s many innocent man-on-the-run thrillers, and the films that it bears the closest resemblance to are The 39 Steps and North by Northwest. All three movies contain an innocent man seeking to clear himself, a nest of conspirators, and a problematic relationship with a heroine that will ends in romance. North by Northwest also depicts characters hanging off an important American landmark.

Nonetheless Saboteur has not attained the same level of affection and respect from audiences or critics as the other two movies. There are a number of reasons for this. Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane are not especially charismatic leads, and Hitchcock himself was reluctant to work with them. Also while there are many interesting scenes in Sabotage, there are fewer exciting ones than we find in the other two films.

The biggest problem is an ironic one – Saboteur suffers from the fact that it has a more serious intent than the other films. The 39 Steps and North by Northwest are essentially fun movies, and their artistic worth lies more in the technique than in content. However Saboteur is weighted down by its propagandist intentions, and the action occasionally has to stop to allow actors to deliver rousing patriotic speeches.

These speeches are by no means bad – I believe that these speeches were written by Dorothy Parker. I would not wish to make it sound like there is not a lot of fun to be had in Saboteur. There is. It contains a wide variety of incident, and it is never dull. There is a certain amount of humour in the film.

For example, Kane first sees Pat’s figure on a series of billboard advertisements, and these ads often include statements that are ironic in the light of Kane’s current predicament.  When the flesh-and-blood Pat tries to take Kane to the police station, they pass a poster of Pat which has the words ‘She will never let you down’ on them.  When Kane leaves with the saboteurs, he sees an ad for a funeral with Pat’s face on. There are moments of black humour in the film – it is apt that the saboteur who burns down the airplane factory is called Fry.

Hitchcock used various technical devices to make the movie more interesting. As so often in his films, he used back projections and matte paintings, but he ensured that the camera never showed them for more than five seconds before cutting, thereby giving the viewer fewer opportunities to find faults. The film also contains a number of long shots designed to allow audiences to see the American landscape.

For the climactic scene of the movie, Hitchcock had a mock-up of the Statue of Liberty built. To create the falling effect, he put Norman Lloyd on a black saddle on a black floor while the camera moved quickly away from him.

It may not be in the top league of Hitchcock thrillers, but Saboteur is still hugely entertaining. It offers enough suspense, variety and fun  to hold the viewer’s interest, and it provides an interesting historical document into the kind of movies that were being made during a time of war.

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