Week 11: Saboteur (1942), Arizona, and the Ultimate Hitchcock Movie

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Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

Here’s a partial list of some of the astonishing setpieces in 1942’s Saboteur:

  • A saboteur hands a fire extinguisher filled with gasoline to an unsuspecting man who rushes unwittingly to his fiery death
  • Our protagonist, Kane (Robert Cummings) is on the run from the law and jumps from a high bridge trestle to evade capture among the rapids and rocks below
  • Kane escapes from Tobin, a fascist ringleader, while using Tobin’s baby granddaughter to shield himself
  • Kane finds shelter and tries to hide hid handcuffs from an old man until it’s revealed that his savior is blind
  • Kane, now escaping with the old man’s niece Pat (Priscilla Lane) in tow, must break his handcuffs on the fan-belt of a car while Pat tries to signal for help
  • Kane & Pat seek shelter in a traveling circus sideshow which turns into a microcosm of American society on the brink of entry into World War II
  • Kane & Pat discover a seemingly deserted mining town that houses a secret spy ring determined to blow up a nearby dam
  • Pat escapes from a locked room in Rockefeller Center by dropping a handwritten note into the streets urging people to look up
  • Kane tries to keep the man who framed him from pushing a button to blow up a warship at its launching ceremony
  • Kane and Pat pursue the saboteur into the shadows of Radio City Music Hall, where their exchange of gunfire is mirrored by the movie the audience is watching
  • Pat finds the saboteur atop the Statue of Liberty and Kane battles him to the death atop the Statue’s torch.

All this in an hour and forty-nine minutes. Any two or three of these sequences would be enough for another movie. It makes The 39 Steps or North by Northwest look positively sedate by comparison. It should be the ultimate Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Yet Saboteur is no one’s favorite Hitchcock movie, certainly not mine. More than any of his films, even The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Saboteur is a collection of amazing scenes rather than a cohesive, enjoyable film. But what fantastic scenes they are.

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In some ways, this is a difficult film to write about, because each of these sequences is brilliant and worthy of discussion. I didn’t even mention the scene where, trapped in a room with the bad guys, Kane tries to signal to Pat by surreptitiously pointing to the title of a book marked “Escape.” Yet the evil Tobin (Otto Kruger) sees this subterfuge and laughingly indicates a more appropriate title, Jules Romains’ “The Death of a Nobody.” This is a movie bursting with wit and eager to show off.

But honestly, it’s all a bit exhausting.

The film doesn’t linger on any of these sequences (we’re worlds away from the wordless12 minute Albert Hall sequence of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) here), and while that’s generally a good thing, some room to breathe would be appreciated. Hitchcock himself said in later years that the film was “cluttered with too many ideas” and that the “script lacks discipline.”

When Hitchcock first came to the United States, he was signed exclusively to David O. Selznick. I’ll talk more about this when I watch Rebecca (1940), but suffice it to say that Selznick, the man who produced Gone With the Wind, wasn’t exactly the easiest person to work for. The legendary producers was a classic micro-manager and expected his directors to fall in line, which ruffled the notoriously independent Hitchcock. Hitch’s films before Saboteur (Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Suspicion) were either overseen by Selznick or were mid-budget productions for smaller studios.

With Saboteur, Hitchcock wasn’t working directly with Selznick, instead developing the film with producer John Houseman (fresh from his tempestuous time with Orson Welles) and Universal Pictures, who were eager for a big splashy picture from the director. Clearly Hitchcock, who had barely gotten to make his preferred kind of picture since coming to America, was in the mood to impress. Working with Houseman & writers Joan Harrison and Peter Viertel, Hitchcock spitballed scenarios and situations, enjoying writing the characters into a corner and then giving them a way out.

Dorothy Parker also worked extensively on specific sequences, contributing witty yet appropriately off-kilter dialogue in the scenes with the blind man and the circus sideshow members. This is one of the most best scenes in the film, as Kane & Pat are pleading for help from the chivalrous “Human Skeleton,” a neutral fat lady, a pair of diametrically opposed siamese twins, a little person who gets called a “fascist,” and a big-hearted bearded lady. The mind reels at this brilliant, bizarre concoction of characters and it’s a shame that this scene is over almost before it barely starts. Hitchcock clearly delighted in Parker, even filming his requisite cameo with her (they played a couple in a car who comes upon the stranded duo, but the scene was cut and re-shot with real actors after it was deemed too distracting).

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A microcosm of America in circus performers.

It’s also significant that this is the first Hitchcock film to truly utilize America as a setting (Mr. & Mrs. Smith took place in America, but the setting for this screwball farce is largely irrelevant). Hitchcock always enjoyed the West Coast, and while Saboteur doesn’t venture into his beloved Northern California, much of it seems to take place in the gorgeous, rocky expanse between Los Angeles and the Mojave desert. Hitchcock isn’t John Ford but he does demonstrate an impressive command of landscape that makes me wish he’d shot on location more often.

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Saboteur in the desert

I love this part of the country; a lot of people feel that the desert is bleak or empty but nothing could be farther from the truth. I grew up in Tucson, Arizona and spent my youth riding my bike around little trails carved through the low desert of my hometown. Just because there’s brush and scrub instead of tall trees doesn’t mean there isn’t life there! Horned toads scurrying around, birds galore, the Javelina (a Sonoran desert type of wild boar), a multitude of beautiful plants ranging from the giant saguaro cactus to wiry mesquite trees, and of course snakes.

One time I was riding my bike through the trails behind Dunham elementary school. Some enterprising kid had carved out a series of trails in the wild and us neighborhood kids would ride our mountain through them. We called them the “whoop-de-doos.” I was probably 11 or 12. At one point I stopped; I was thirsty and reached down to grab my water bottle. That’s when I saw it: a coiled rattlesnake, just waking up from me planting my foot a few inches from its head. I never saw if it was going to strike or crawl away; instead I was off like a shot, the first and last time (hopefully!) that I’ve seen a rattlesnake in the wild.

Other than that, I loved growing up in the desert. Having gone to college and lived in New York City and Pennsylvania for twenty years now, I rarely meet other people from out west. Arizona is a state that people are aware of, but no one has been to. And perhaps not unfairly we get judged by the state’s politics; once in New York a coworker asked me about a stack of blues and soul CDs on my desk. When I replied that I loved that type of music, she replied “Oh, I didn’t expect that, I mean, you being from Arizona.” Touché! My home state did vote to not have Martin Luther King Day until a massive public outcry forced them to restore it.

But I’ve been a lot of places and seen a lot of amazing things and I’m here to tell you: The American Southwest is some of the most magnificent country in the entire world.

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Portrait of the author in Sedona, Arizona

When I moved to Pittsburgh, I had to contend with everyone talking about how beautiful it was, and how great that we have the river and the woods nearby. And it’s true: Pittsburgh is nice. I’ve grown to love long walks with my dog, and I like getting out on the weekend with my girlfriend and enjoying what the trails have to offer.

But sometimes, I feel like it’s just a bunch of damn trees.

Arizona has cactus, stunning and beautiful yet prickly and pointy. Every kid who grew up in Arizona got a fistful of those needles at some point. Tucson, where I grew up, is surrounded by mountains, at its highest a 9,000 foot summit like Mt. Lemmon, where you have to chew gum all the way down to keep your ears from clogging.

I love the flat expanses of desert juxtaposed with giant crags of rock shooting up out of the earth. And scenery where a one hour drive can take you from desert scrub to pine trees and snow. Vivid red rocks, green ocotillo trees, yellow flowers on saguaros, and the brightest most brilliant blue skies you’ve ever seen.

Growing up in Arizona was mostly it was just a different culture, one where we had winter jackets but rarely wore them. Air conditioning (or in my case, evaporative “swamp” cooling) was everywhere. The fall & winter are pretty great if you like sunshine, but the summer (which is basically spring and summer) was a different story altogether.

It makes me laugh in movies like Saboteur where the hero is stuck in the middle of the desert yet he’s still wearing his leather bomber jacket. In reality, a t-shirt and shorts are all you can you wear in the desert, six months out of the year. And I don’t know where this idea of “it’s hot during the day and freezing at night” came from…maybe that’s true in less populated areas, but the concrete and sand keep it warm all night long too.

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It’s warm enough to swim here in the desert but I’ll keep my jacket zipped up, thanks.

Growing up we’d always keep a towel in the car to cover the steering wheel when we had to park in an open parking lot, and a washcloth or oven mitt to grab the seatbelt handle when you got back in, because it would literally burn you after sitting in the roasting sun. The heat in the Southwest is a physical force. “It may be hot but at least it’s a dry heat” is something that only snowbirds, the people who come to visit during the winter, will say. In reality it’s hot, really, really hot, the kind of heat that sits on your head and forces you into submission.

Yet it always feels like home. I’ve lived in New York City and Pittsburgh collectively longer than I lived in Tucson, yet the East never feels completely normal. Some days I’ll wake up, take my dog for a walk and think to myself “oh yeah. I live in Pittsburgh. Weird.” I suppose that wherever we grew up will always feel like home, that we keep that connection to the soil and the landscape. The heat is something that might keep me away from Tucson, but whenever I step off an airplane and walk out into the sun, it always feels right. The smell of the creosote, the sight of the mountains in the distance. Pittsburgh has a lot of great things, but we don’t have those mountains.

***

It is thrilling to see Hitchcock embrace America, the way he would in a later masterpieces like North by Northwest. Saboteur displays a restless type of invention that’s awe-inspiring, yet not “overstuffed,” but hamstrung by two other important factors.

First there’s the political overtones of the script. When Hitchcock made Foreign Correspondent in 1940, he was still fighting the isolationist policies of the day. But as Saboteur was developed after Pearl Harbor, the gloves are off. Ironically, the pendulum swung so far the other way, with constant preaching about the implications of fascism, that the film becomes that most dire of entertainment: propaganda. The sabotage of the aircraft factory starts out promisingly, but soon the film is bogged down in speeches. In some ways, it’s easier to appreciate the chutzpah of straight-up propaganda like 1942’s Hitler: Dead or Alive (where Ward Bond leads a team of amoral bounty hunters to capture & kill Hitler) than this mingling of thrills and tedious preaching. The best moments, as always with Hitchcock, are visual: the black smoke billowing from the aircraft factory, or the irony of the saboteur falling to his death from the Statue of Liberty.

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Hitchcock even included a shocking bit of reality. In a moment that might seem strange to modern viewers, at one point Frye the Saboteur is in a car driving downtown. He glances to the right and sees a gigantic ship sunk in the New York harbor, then smiles. This is the Normandie (also known as the USS Lafayette), an ocean liner turned troop transport that caught fire and capsized in February 1942. Sabotage was widely suspected (and stoked by post-Pearl Harbor hysteria) and while a congressional investigation cited simple carelessness, the rumor persisted. Some reviewers have cited this inclusion as an example of Hitchcock’s quick thinking and brilliance; I instead see it as grotesque and exploitative. It’s a throwaway moment that doesn’t compare to the rest of the film.

Second there’s the issue of the casting. Much of the budget of the film was taken up in the deal Universal had to pay Selznick to get the film. That meant that Hitchcock’s first choices, Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, were out of their price range (what a movie that could have been!). Instead the leads are played by  Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane, both excellent light comedians, but not terribly believable as a duo who could stop a fascist plot. “A major problem with this sort of film is getting an actor of stature to play the central figure” said Hitchcock. “I’ve learned from experience that whenever the hero isn’t portrayed by a star, the whole picture suffers, you see, because audiences are far less concerned about the predicament of a character who’s played by someone they don’t know.”

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Robert Cummings & Priscilla Lane

Having a strongly identifiable lead is vital to the success of Hitchcock. In his wrong-man films the audience knows that the protagonist is innocent but the people in the film don’t. Yet the plots rely on passersby, friends, and complete strangers trusting the man on the run, instead of police or law enforcement. Not only does this play up Hitchcock’s mistrust and fear of all authority figures (which I find endearing, especially in films made in the otherwise conservative post-war period), but it highlights just how strongly Hitchcock expects us to identify with his leading characters. With charismatic stars like Robert Donat in The 39 Steps or Cary Grant in North by Northwest, we’re willing to overlook these plot issues. Who wouldn’t believe anything Cary Grant told them? But here, with a likable yet bland Robert Cummings, the seams start to show. It’s inconceivable that, after a brief ride with a truck driver, that the same driver would help Cummings by lying to federal agents for him, unprompted.

It’s a good movie full of great ideas. Too many great ideas; the Radio City Music Hall sequence could be a standout in Hitchcock’s filmography but it rushes by in a few brief minutes (not to mention that Hitchcock had already filmed a more effective variation on this movie theater idea in the similarly-named Sabotage).

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Part of the brief but ingenious Radio City Music Hall scene

There’s one other point that’s worth exploring. Hitchcock also admits to a significant mistake at the end of the film: Kane and Pat have chased the saboteur Frye (Norman Lloyd) to the top of the Statue of Liberty, with the police in tow. In a spectacular combination of matte paintings and sets, Frye climbs up into the torch and accidentally tumbles over the edge, where he’s hanging from Lady Liberty’s hand as Kane tries to rescue him. There’s a nobility here as Kane tries to save the guilty Frye even while endangering his own life, but it’s also a big problem dramatically. As Hitchcock explains, “There’s a serious error in the scene. If we did had the hero instead of the villain hanging in mid-air, the audience’s anguish would have been much greater.”

Think of the difference between this sequence, when the hero is trying to save this reprehensible saboteur from falling to his death, and the reversal in North by Northwest, where Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are hanging from Mt. Rushmore while the villainous Martin Landau towers over them. Hitchcock relies so much on the audience identifying with the main character, that when a villain is put in jeopardy, we have little to no reaction.

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You blew up an aircraft factory and tried to blow up a warship but here, let me save you.

While Hitchcock didn’t invent suspense in moviemaking, let’s say he’s responsible for helping write the rulebook. And not just for thrills, but for much of how modern cinema manipulates audiences. Rather than relying on his bag of tricks, Hitchcock kept inventing and trying new things. In Vertigo he created one of the last unique camera moves in cinema history (a combination dolly-in and zoom out that Spielberg made famous with Jaws); he pioneered audience identification with protagonists, leading to the master class of point-of-view in Rear Window; he showed how long takes can both heighten and dissipate tension in Rope; he concentrated all his action to one location in Lifeboat (a prototype for the now ubiquitous TV “bottle episode”), and on and on. This boundless innovation makes Hitchcock’s lesser films interesting, and it makes Saboteur a better movie for the sum of its parts. It’s almost the ultimate Hitchcock movie.

Watch It: Saboteur (1942) is not available on any streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO). It is available to rent or buy on iTunes or Amazon Prime, and can be found at almost any existing rental store or library collection.

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