Hitch criticised the screenplay, which is fair enough. However, the biggest impediment to Saboteur’s effectiveness is – as Hitch also acknowledged – the leads. The movie is often painted as proto-North by Northwest, a dry run for bigger and more elaborate things with handpicked stars, and that’s fair to a degree; all the elements are there for Saboteur being great, but the only consistent one is its director’s technical prowess.
Certainly, he delivers a series of top-notch set pieces in this tale of aircraft factory worker Barry Kane (Robert Cummings, much better used more than a decade later as Ray Milland’s would-be patsy in Dial M for Murder) going on the run to prove his innocence – and bring the guilty parties to justice – after being falsely accused of sabotaging his place of work and killing his best pal. The setup is clean and economical, identifying true culprit Fry (Norman Lloyd, also Spellbound and Dead Poets Society, and bearing a passing resemblance to Harpo Marx) and showing the before and after of the incident that kills Kane’s friend Mason (Virgil Summers). A number of tense sequences follow, as Kane, embarking on a breadcrumb trail, eludes the police at Mason’s mother’s house, dodges traffic cops and uses villain Tobin’s toddler granddaughter as a human shield in order to escape. Later, he desperately attempts to rid himself of his handcuffs in a fan belt before Pat (Priscilla Lane) can wave down a passing car and so get rescued.
Hitch apparently didn’t want Otto Kruger as Tobin but was unable to secure Harry Carey. I found him very good in his early scenes, milking the charming villain guise that would later work wonders for James Mason; less effective later on, when his true steel needs to emerge. Alan Baxter, as an extra polite, bespectacled henchman, ironically named Freeman, is strong throughout, armed with sinister sexual undertones: waxing lyrical about not cutting his boy’s hair while commenting wistfully “When I was a child, I had long golden curls”.
But after the initial Tobin sequence (during which the director comes his closest to making a western in the form of a very brief horseback chase), Saboteur’s episodic structure begins to become a hindrance rather than a virtue. Hitch said “it was too cluttered with too many ideas… I think we covered too much ground” but the problem might be more that you start to notice the convenience and unpolished nature of the structure due to the shortcomings of the leads. It casts a shadow on them, rather than they on it.
Added to which, the suffocatingly patriotic preaching paraded at every possible interval becomes more and more off-putting as the picture progresses. Even with Dorothy Parker receiving a co-writer’s credit – with Peter Viertel and Joan Harrison (the latter Hitch’s former secretary, and the last of five features on which she gets a nod) – there’s little to alleviate the insufferable virtuousness being voiced. Told there’s no way a man like him can last in a country like the US, Tobin scoffs “Very pretty speech! Youthful, passionate. Idealistic”.
More frequently, there’s nothing to counterpoint the pretty speechifying, though. I actually rather like the scene with blind Uncle Phillip, an undisguised echo of Frankenstein, in which it’s revealed he was aware Barry is wearing handcuffs as soon as he walked in, and yet “It is my duty as an American citizen to believe a man innocent until he’s been proven guilty”, along with his own ideas about his duties as a citizen, which “sometimes involve breaking the law”. Unfortunately, once the very sub-Tod Browning circus freaks are called upon to offer another rousing rallying cry to democracy, my patience was beginning to wear thin (Hitch testified to some of Parker’s more amusing touches during this episode, but it fell a bit flat for me).
Also a problem is Lane’s Patricia Martin. Initially at loggerheads with Kane (Phillip is her uncle and she tries to turn Kane in), she never gets a chance to come into her own, the victim of plotting that casts her unsympathetically towards the hero or lacking resourcefulness. She has a decent scene at the top of the Statue of Liberty with Fry, preceding the grand climax, but it isn’t really enough.
Still, there’s a well-devised sequence at wealthy New York socialite Mrs Sutton’s (Alma Kruger) party, in which Kane and Pat are unable to escape and none of the guests will listen to their protests; with anyone else, the hero desperately improvising an auction of Mrs Sutton’s jewellery would be a classic, but it ends up merely adequate.
A scene in a movie theatre gets all meta, with action also occurring on screen, just like its near namesake Sabotage (and includes another innocent victim; an audience member killed in the crossfire rather than a small boy). The near miss on the blowing up the launching ship is dramatically staged too.
And the climax on top of the Statue of Liberty remains a prime example of the director’s visual and technical prowess (as well as being a transparently influence on North by Northwest’s Mount Rushmore sequence). Barry attempts to save the villain, putting his own life in peril, as the seams on Fry’s sleeve slowly come apart.
But possibly Saboteur‘s best moment, and a sure illustration of Hitch’s sadistic streak, finds Barry surrendering to Tobin at the party (he yawns at Barry’s earnestness with a “I think we’ve discussed the Rights of Man stuff”). Butler Robert (Ian Wolfe) coshes Barry, then coshes him again. By that point, Barry has gone down, but the butler has his arm raised for another go: “That’s enough, Robert” instructs Tobin.