*/**** Image A Sound B Extras C
starring Priscilla Lane, Robert Cummings, Norman Lloyd, Otto Kruger
screenplay by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, Dorothy Parker
directed by Alfred Hitchcock
by Walter Chaw When I think of Saboteur, which isn't often, it's as the first American project Hitchcock developed largely without his beloved assistant Joan Harrison, who left after co-writing the first draft (seeing in the opportunity to produce The Phantom Lady her chance to wriggle out from under Hitch's shadow), and, maybe more significantly, without his most essential collaborator, wife Alma Reville, then away in New York with their daughter Pat, who had just won the lead role in a play. They left creative absences Hitch tried to fill--disastrously, I think--with Algonquin Roundtable alumni Peter Viertel and Dorothy Parker. (If there's a case to be made about the importance of Alma to Hitchcock's career, it may be useful to examine those films where we know she was absent.) I also think of Saboteur, when I do, as an attempt at an "all-American" film of the kind Hitchcock, fearing he'd left Britain trailing with him too much of the old country, was desperate to make. The desire to embrace his adopted culture is so conspicuous it becomes uncomfortably obvious in multiple instances (stops at the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, and even the Hoover Dam) that setting has fatally superseded narrative. His follow-up, the Thornton Wilder-penned Shadow of a Doubt, is the all-American Hitchcock that works, locating the country's heart in the introduction of a human stain into a small town and a wholesome family.
I also consider Saboteur at once a lumbering redux of The 39 Steps (Hitchcock initially wanted that film's Robert Donat to play the lead again) and an obvious-in-retrospect dry run for North by Northwest. All three share the master plot of a man, wrongly accused, desperate to clear his name and, in the process, save the girl and a nation. Saboteur is such a flub it actually functions as a helpful tool for dissecting the strengths of The 39 Steps and North by Northwest. It's lugubrious where those are sprightly, arid where those are sexy, shallow where those are rich. The trouble with Saboteur may be as simple as this: it doesn't have a MacGuffin. In other words, it doesn't have that thing everyone in the movie cares a lot about but no one in the audience cares about. Saboteur is all text, no subtext. Like a phone book, say. It's an artless, straight-line exposition concerning a fifth column of homegrown saboteurs looking to take down America's war machine, featuring a dishwater-dull lead and a romantic interest with no interior life who changes her mind because the plot demands a conflict and is therefore unworthy of emotional investment.
They're dreary tatters buffeted in a light wind. Who cares whether they fall in love? They are nothing to us but devices who march us through to the telegraphed end. There's nothing else to invest in, not even the dark pleasure of rooting for the bad guy in a rogues gallery so tiresome and prone to proselytizing that, as devils, they fail to muster anything much like sympathy. Maybe it's their lack of a coherent plan that renders these villains so bland, this impression that they're agents of a listless chaos. At one point, it's suggested they're planning to blow up a dam, and then...and then the scene shifts to New York, and nothing is ever mentioned of it again. Worse, one could infer that Hitchcock, wounded by his former producer and friend Michael Balcon's suggestion he was a coward and deserter for not returning to Britain during the Blitz, is using Saboteur to further rebut the character assassination by adopting a distinctly Rousseauian philosophy: Men are essentially good, Hitchcock says, and surely other good men can see that. But this doesn't remotely square with Hitchcock's best-known work. If anything, Hitch's heroes are typically vile, Hobbesian animals interested in personal validation (or absolution) at best, venal gratification (Norman in Psycho, Roger in North by Northwest, the list goes on) at worst. Consider how Devlin in Notorious, Jeff in Rear Window, and of course the reptilian Scotty in Vertigo all send their love directly into the line of fire to quell their dark curiosities and deadly kinks. Saboteur, in other words, is bullshit Hitchcock himself doesn't believe.
The technical aspects are so consistently good across Alfred Hitchcock's fifty-plus surviving features that it feels almost supernatural to see a master already fully-formed in "first" things like The Pleasure Garden (1925) and Britain's inaugural talkie, Blackmail (1929): the floating tracking shots and near-subliminal push-ins; the use of the crane and extreme God's-eye views; the mattes and process shots that signal to me at their best not the limitations of technology but a self-announcing manufactured artifice. Yet Hitchcock is only firing on every cylinder when his characters are suffused with complexity and shadow. To put too fine a point on it, his films are only good when the characters are manifestations/confessions (conscious or, most likely, unconscious) of his own failings and weaknesses. If they aren't, if the scripts or performers harbour no uncomfortable depths to plumb, then Hitchcock's lack of interest is palpable unto fatal. Every "imperfect" element suddenly becomes loaded catalytic material for investigation and starts to resemble mere error or sloth.
The uncanny but not quite expressionistic mattes in Saboteur, the astoundingly poor decision to cut between surprised reactions with the camera cascading downwards to suggest people being thrown into the air by a bomb, the clumsily-lit rear projection; Saboteur feels clumsy and dated in ways Hitchcock's best films never do. Hitchcock scholars might detect the origin of the Psycho shower in the expressive configurations and timings of said explosion sequence, but that sort of reading also relegates Saboteur to the status of incubator for better ideas executed with more flair down the line. The artificiality of Vertigo or Marnie versus the amateurishness of Saboteur is the gulf between a Duchamp and a Nagel. There's an air of arrogance to the sloppiness of the piece in regards to both its technical aspects and its script, a sense of Here is a director who, in the midst of this, is already looking ahead to the next thing. I've watched and taught Saboteur dozens of times across the decades, hoping each time I'll find something to love rather than merely this hollow mess of fragments and echoes, threatening to fly apart at any moment under the stress of its insincerity. Alas.
Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is a bleached bit of sodden cardboard working as an airplane mechanic when his factory goes up in flames and he's falsely accused of sabotage. This libel rests on Barry having unwittingly handed off a fire extinguisher full of fuel to a buddy who promptly perishes in the conflagration. As the man he blames for the faulty equipment, Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd), is absent from any work rosters, Barry, still in cuffs, goes on the lam. Because Saboteur is at its essence a soapbox, Barry finds succour in the home of a blind man, Miller (Vaughan Glaser), who in his kindly, patronizing way tells his meticulously-coiffed niece, Pat (Priscilla Lane), that, in many ways, the blind can see things the sighted cannot--like kindness. Simultaneously a weird homage to Frankenstein and an airy, faux-philosophical wank, the scene stinks of the Algonquins, who were good at taking the piss, after all, but terrible at taking on the plight of the common. And there's no one more common than Barry. Indeed, he is so common it strains credibility to breaking that he's incapable of blending into essentially any group of schlubs in the country. A late reveal of his fugitive photo is hilarious, not only because it shows Barry with a giant grin (not unlike the Reese Witherspoon photo in Freeway), but also because it looks nothing like Barry and everything like 85% of white men in America circa 1942. If Barry is Frankenstein's monster, what has created him? Misidentification? Patriotism? Decency? Or is the reference intended to show Barry being a misunderstood fugitive? It's, again, simultaneously arrogant and hollow. Miller drivels on and on until instructing Pat to ferry Barry to a local blacksmith--the better to lose his handcuffs, you see--but Pat decides instead to loop Barry's handcuffs over the steering column, the better to...I have no idea. It's nonsensical. The tension is in how Pat doesn't trust Barry until, suddenly, she does, and then, equally suddenly, she doesn't. Then, suddenly, she does again.
Pat is an advertising model, and when she first declares she doesn't trust Barry, Hitchcock has them drive past a billboard featuring a saucy-looking Pat with copy reading, "She'll never let you down--if she keeps a case of Cocarilla on ice." "Well!" Barry says, indignant at the thought, perhaps, that this girl currently letting him down would be in advertising so misleading, though I look at the term "ice" and wonder if there's not a different critique of Pat we're meant to surmise. Later, while Barry is riding in a car with the baddies, he glances out the window again to see another of Pat's billboards, this one hocking "A Final Tribute/A Beautiful Funeral $49.50 (and up)," which plays as gallows humour for Barry's predicament while also pointing to some of the Coen Brothers' comic sensibilities in stuff like their remake of The Ladykillers. If the first billboard correctly diagnosed Pat as frigid, this one correctly diagnoses her, too, as deadly in the dull sense. Pat is the most un-fatale of Hitchcock's femmes. Despite the weird throwaway comment where Barry suggests Pat might like to fuck him to stay warm--a comment delivered with such malign creepiness it kills any lingering audience empathy for Barry--there's not a moment of sexual interest, let alone heat, between them. Compare this to Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat in The 39 Steps, specifically that first scene of them shackled together at an inn where he helps her remove her stockings while she holds a sandwich between her thighs--one of Hitchcock's ruder visual puns on the various definitions of the word "consummation." Or compare them to Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in the dining car of a train, where their shared meal becomes code for another hunger altogether. Cummings and Lane may as well be in separate rooms for the intensity of their interest in each other.
When Barry, out of nowhere, calls Pat "darling" midway through, the disconnect suggests either scenes establishing their relationship have been jettisoned or stands as further evidence of how poorly- written and cast are these two actors in their roles. Hitchcock wanted sex-machine Barbara Stanwyck for Pat (he told Truffaut how Lane "simply wasn't the right type for a Hitchcock picture") and Joel McCrea, Gary Cooper, or Henry Fonda for Barry. Imagine The Lady Eve's Fonda and Stanwyck reuniting in Saboteur! It's instantly a better film. Cummings and Lane's complete lack of romantic fission makes the time spent in the company of performers from a travelling freakshow particularly puzzling, as it hinges on what these nobly-disabled folks "sense" about the couple. Still, a couple of moments do point to a superior version of Saboteur. The first is when Siamese twins (Jean and Lynne Romer) bicker over a lost lover, with one declaring how he was "nothing but a common novelty seeker." The second comes immediately after, when Tatania, "The Fat Woman" (Marie LeDeaux), calls bellicose little person Major (Billy Curtis) "Major, honey," hinting at a romantic relationship between the two. Mostly I'm fascinated by the bearded lady, Esmerelda (Anita Sharp-Bolster), getting scolded for her libido by pontificating leader Bones (Pedro de Cordoba): "Everywhere you search for sex. Get your eyes out of the mud!" There's a lot of horny going on, taboo-shattering horny between characters society deems unacceptable or alien, certainly asexual. Never mind how Pat's inexplicable tears point to a conclusion entirely at odds with her character and the progression of the plot to this point. Never mind how Barry remains a sucking black hole in the middle of every scene. I love how the police, tossing the compartment in search of the fugitives, are warned away from opening the basket Pat is sitting on with a story of how she's a snake charmer perched on a barrel of snakes. A good movie would've cast Barry with someone who has a sexual charge; a great movie would have had him hidden beneath her, squatting there like the Oracle at Delphi over a volcanic vent. Lost opportunities aside, it's only here in the mud that Hitchcock feels playful, perverse, dangerous.
The chief villain is urbane Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger), a doting father and grandfather who nonetheless wants to see America burn. His key henchman, the Leonard to Tobin's Vandamm, is sociopath Fry, and, um, another saboteur is Mrs. Henrietta Sutton (Alma Kruger, no relation), who throws a party Barry infiltrates late in the film--a scenario executed with clearer stakes and tension four years later in Notorious. Oh, there's another saboteur, Freeman (Alan Baxter), a genuinely creepy, fey, fastidious goon who wonders if it's wrong to dress the son he wishes were a daughter as a girl, given that he, himself, with his flowing golden locks, was once paraded around as a girl for the admiration of strangers on the street. Between Freeman and the freaks, I have a sense of the kind of film Hitchcock wanted to and did make many times throughout his career. Dubbed "the master of suspense," "the master of subversive takes" is probably closer to the truth--enough that J. Edgar Hoover's FBI opened a case file on him for seditious ideas that posed a threat to the national interest.
It's a real pity how Saboteur veers from its perversion into the drabbest of the quotidian drab, so weightless its contrivances mortally scuttle the whole enterprise. I'm talking about a sequence where Barry is unaccountably locked in a pantry and escapes by setting off a fire alarm: there's no shot of him being let out of the pantry, no explanation for why he wasn't simply killed, nor at last explanation for how he got a can of food open without a can opener. Hitchcock's films are full of things that don't make a lot of sense (the best way to kill a man standing by the side of the road is not with a cropduster, for instance), yet the leaps of faith Saboteur requires owe to a lack of imagination rather than a surplus. Consider how Pat plans to signal her imprisonment in Rockefeller Center by throwing a note out the window instructing the recipient to look up for a flickering light. In a skyscraper? In the middle of the day? And would New Yorkers really snap to attention over a piece of garbage? Besides, how would Pat "flicker" the lights in the first place?
The legacy of Saboteur is as an object lesson and insight into how Hitchcock, for good or for ill, was helpless to his impulses and bound, too, to his clever, if ultimately finite, bag of tricks. It tells the tale by its very failure of how dependent this greatest of filmmakers was on his collaborators--especially Alma, who, whatever she brought materially, seemingly manifests in his pictures as the source of a naked, transparent, vulnerable humanity. One of the spied-upon neighbours in Rear Window is sculpting a piece called "Hunger": a human form with a space in its middle. Saboteur is the void in the middle of a body of work about desire. What works here is how the bad guys appear to be rich people, captains of industry who pledge their allegiance solely to their stockholders. Capitalism is the bad guy here--just as it is, covertly, in North by Northwest--and that likely feels more current now than it did when the American war machine was on the verge of conjuring an economic miracle. Hitchcock had wanted Harry Carey for chief baddie Tobin, to underscore the idea of America's greatest villains being the fetishization of its heroes: John Wayne in a bolo tie, heralding the fall of the empire in a shower of poisonous nationalism dressed in clothes stitched from Wall Street ticker tape.
Between the ludicrous sinking of a battleship with a tiny, conventional bomb (who needs saboteurs when our vessels are made of crepe paper and prayer?), a clever if underplayed sequence involving a shooting in a crowded movie theatre, and a vaunted albeit contrived chase to the tip of the Statue of Liberty that would inspire the tailor gag in The Hudsucker Proxy, there are pages of un-ironic monologues, delivered awkwardly, about the greatness of America. The seed of class warfare buried in some of these speeches could potentially have borne fruit, had Hitchcock cared to nurture it. One joke does land in Saboteur, however, when Barry is dancing with Pat and tells her that nothing will ever come between them just as a handsome stranger cuts in on them. A pity Barry isn't portrayed as a doofus for the rest of the piece, a Chauncey Gardiner type stumbling his way through this thing like Roger Thornhill will in North by Northwest. But even this musty pratfall only works because the timing, finally, is right for it. Hitchcock was a lot of things, but Mack Sennett isn't one of them. When taken as a part of a whole, i.e., the entirety of Hitchcock's legacy, Saboteur becomes academically useful as an artifact evincing recognizable visual and thematic motifs. Taken by itself, Saboteur is garbage of the first order, lugubrious dreck that I assume would have faded into obscurity were it not a piece of the Hitchcock puzzle.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Universal brings Saboteur to physical 4K UHD in a standalone release or as part of a new box set of Hitchock titles. The 1.33:1, 2160p image, which includes HDR10-encoded HDR, is, to begin with, dazzling. Every single rivet in the bridge Barry leaps from to escape his captors, every single rock in the dirt trucked onto the Universal backlot, pokes through with tactile sharpness. (Lamentably, every seam in the matte paintings that substitute for the wide-open spaces Hitchcock loved for their beauty but abhorred for their unwillingness to play by his rules, pops in similarly stark relief.) HDR lends a pronounced gleam to various specular highlights like the candlesticks in the blind man's home while adding considerable depth to the overall contrast. Returning to the 2012 Blu-ray packaged with this disc revealed a comparatively dim, flat image--the striped wallpaper in Mrs. Sutton's drawing-room, enchanting in 4K, is virtually washed-out in 2K--rife with print deterioration that's now a thing of the past. I will say that there's something slightly unnaturally fuzzy about the film grain, although it doesn't seem to negatively impact detail. And I'm not convinced it serves the purposes of a film about shady dealings for it to be quite this luminous, but hey, it's Saboteur. While the original mono soundmix, presented in two-channel DTS-HD MA, is a less impactful improvement (it reduces the tinniness of Barry's more strident hysterics, at least), the purist in me appreciates the gesture.
The same relatively scant selection of extras accompanies the film on the UHD and HD platters. Launching these is "Saboteur: A Closer Look" (35 mins., SD), a Laurent Bouzereau doc from 2000 that opens with a two-minute montage recapping the film you've presumably just finished watching. Dominating the rest is the late Norman Lloyd in his dotage, recounting old stories like how he was recommended to Hitch by Mercury Theater co-founder John Houseman and spilling the beans on how the fall from the Statue of Liberty was accomplished--an effect Hitch recycled for the murder of Arbogast in Psycho. Production designer Robert Boyle also shares fond memories of working for the Master, including his awe at Hitch's impressionistic sketches, which conveyed more than reams of detailed instruction to him. Rounding out the presentation are galleries of production stills, storyboards, and Hitchcock's pencil sketches that run as slideshows, as was all the rage back in the early Aughts. The storyboards last almost four minutes and seem focused on the Statue of Liberty finale, as does the 1-minute montage of Hitchcock sketches, highlighting how little of the rest of Saboteur is memorable. Whenever I meet anyone who's seen this movie, the climax is the only thing they talk about. And...same.
The "Production Photographs" gallery is the longest at 8 minutes and features poster and marketing art from around the world, plus lobby cards that somehow make the film look less interesting than it is and a glimpse of the press kit. I did like a couple of behind-the-scenes shots (precisely two) of the models and the set for the, yes, Statue of Liberty sequence. I liked less the publicity stills of the remarkably bland Robert Cummings and the almost as bland Priscilla Lane grinning vapidly at the camera. A BTS shot of Alma posing with Hitch and Lloyd along with a few other pics of the couple at home and with their daughter Patricia on a tennis court constitute the only real reason to endure this, and, suspiciously, these images come at the end of the presentation. The theatrical trailer (2 mins.) pushes a "ripped from the headlines!" approach, and you realize after going through all of this supplementary material how non-descript the film's heavily excerpted, brass-heavy music is as well. Composer Frank Skinner would go on to score The Naked City, and his pounding, repetitive march for Saboteur became shorthand for the inexorable hand of justice closing around the criminal element. Here, though, it's pounding a nail you bent with the first strike. Cummings sets the scene in character (or not; I don't feel like he's acting much) and does some hand-holding via a standard synopsis that does not, as later trailers would, contain Hitchcock himself offering droll observations. The trailer's story is, in many ways, the story of Saboteur's fate as a teaser: it's all about "wait and see"--not this movie, but what Hitchcock would be able to create as soon as his next film. A voucher for a digital copy of Saboteur is included with the purchase.
109 minutes; PG; UHD: 1.33:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), HDR10, BD: 1.33:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); UHD: English 2.0 DTS-HD MA (Mono), French DTS 2.0 (Mono), Italian DTS 2.0 (Mono), German DTS 2.0 (Mono), Japanese DTS 2.0 (Mono), BD: English 2.0 DTS-HD MA; UHD: English SDH, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish subtitles, BD: English SDH, French, Spanish subtitles; UHD: BD-66, BD: BD-50; Region-free; Universal