Monday, June 29, 2015

Film Review: Saboteur

"Saboteur"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, doesn't sabotage the entertaining story he has in the World War II American propaganda thriller, "Saboteur" (1942).

Many, if not all, movie lovers know Alfred Hitchcock was a British filmmaker who started his career in the United Kingdom before coming to America to make several of the most distinguished films of his career.

Hitchcock's first American film was the Academy Award winning "Rebecca" (1940) starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. That same year he also directed "Foreign Correspondent" (1940) with Joel McCrea. It was nominated for a best picture Academy Award but lost to "Rebecca".

"Foreign Correspondent" was a WW 2 espionage thriller, which unfortunately doesn't receive the credit it deserves from the public.

I mention this because "Saboteur" was Hitchcock's fifth American film and like many of his early American films deals with WW 2. Another example is "Lifeboat" (1944). But unlike "Foreign Correspondent", "Saboteur" is a piece of American propaganda. After telling an interesting story, the main goal of "Saboteur" is to portrayal America as a country filled with good-hearted people. A country that believes all men are innocent until proven guilty. And as a country that will, without doubt, win the war because Americans are morally superior to their enemies abroad.

One would think as a foreigner himself Hitchcock wanted to make sure the American public knew he loves this country.

"Saboteur" is not a great movie. I would never rank it along side Alfred Hitchcock's best movies but after watching it a second time around I must admit it made a greater impression on me. There is quality filmmaking displayed here. Hitchcock knows how to milk a scene for all the tension it is worth. The movie also has very good acting. Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane are very good in the lead roles though I was more impressed with Cummings. He has more screen-time and more is asked of him acting wise.

The movie doesn't go over any new ground for Hitchcock, even at this point in his career. The basic idea of the movie is an innocent man wrongfully accused of murder. Even by 1942 Alfred Hitchcock had made films similar in the U.K. A prime example would be "The 39 Steps" (1935), perhaps the best known of all of his British films, as well as "Young and Innocent" (1937). However, if we were to compare all three movies, "Saboteur" wins out. It is stylistically an improvement. I truly believe Hitchcock made his best films in America. He was given more money, worked with better stories and better actors.

Robert Cummings plays Barry Kane. He works at an aircraft factory with his best friend Mason (Virgil Summers). One day at the factory there is a fire. Barry is accused of handing Mason a fire extinguisher filled with gasoline which kills the man right in front of Barry's eyes. Barry pleads his innocence. Yes he handed Mason the fire extinguisher but the man the police really want is the man that handed the extinguisher to Barry, a fellow named Fry (Norman Lloyd). Only problem is, no one ever heard of a guy named Fry working at the factory. Barry must now find Fry and clear his name and prove he is not guilty of sabotage.

As good as Cummings is in the role some will find it interesting that most audiences in 1942 would not have expected to see Cummings in such a serious movie. Cummings was actually known for appearing in comedies and musicals. Prior to this movie he acted in "One Night in the Tropics" (1940), which served as the on-screen debut of Abbott & Costello, "The Devil & Miss Jones" (1941) with Jean Arthur and "Moon Over Miami" (1941) a Betty Grable musical. Directly before starring in this movie he was in "Kings Row" (1942), which was a drama and provided Ronald Reagan with one of his most memorable performances.

All of this works in Cummings favor. Audiences identified him as a "good guy". He could never hurt anyone. There was a certain innocence associated with him. He played nice, easy going guys that liked to kiss the pretty girls. Just an average Joe, who usually came from a family with money. So, it is fun to see Cummings play against type.Yes he is an innocent man but the movie requires dramatic moments from him. Hitch even casted him again in "Dial M For Murder" (1954).

Priscilla Lane's career didn't last as long as Cumming's did. She will probably be best known to audiences for appearing in Frank Capra's comedy "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1944) with Cary Grant. This time around she plays a woman named Pat. She is dragged into Barry's dilemma after her blind uncle agrees to help Barry by asking Pat to drive him to a blacksmith after he has been handcuffed and escaped a police car.

To appease her uncle she agrees to drive Barry but tricks him instead by taking him tot he police. Pat feels it is her duty as a good American to report Barry. He is an enemy of America. Pat on the other hand is a good citizen.

The relationship between Pat and Barry is not so different for the one between Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in "The 39 Steps". He is on the run, she doesn't believe him, wants to turn him in, for some reason she begins to trust him and a romance develops between the two.

Some of the choice scenes in "Saboteur" show how Hitchcock knew where to place his camera. In an attempt to take the handcuffs off Barry uses the fan under the hood of Pat's car to cut throw it. At the same time Pat is going to stop the first car that drives past the road they are on and ask for help to have Barry arrested. We see a car approach. We cut to the fan on the car with the handcuffs in sight. We go back to the approaching car. The music swells. Back tot he fan. The car is closer and close but those handcuffs aren't broken yet. The audience sits in suspense. Will those damn handcuffs cut or not!

Hitchcock was also a wit and injected dark humor into his movie. In "Saboteur" two men are fighting while a radio is playing. The radio broadcast almost serves as a play-by-play of the fight going on between the two men.

The final thrill sequence takes place on the Statue of Liberty. Which creates its own symbolism in the movie as a representation of freedom. Plus, since the movie takes place during WW2 and the story involves Fascist sympathizers (the word Nazi is never used), the statue symbolizes America and is suppose to be a showdown between good vs evil.

"Saboteur" does a lot right. I felt the story goes on a bit too long and the ending seemed unsatisfactory to me. I felt it didn't accomplish what it was suppose to. I also didn't care for the American pride speeches, which were a bit too forceful for me. Still the acting is good, Hitchcock's directing displays great craft and the movie does have a few suspenseful sequences. "Saboteur" is a fun ride and you can see hints of later films like "North By Northwest" (1959) and "Notorious" (1946) which would improve on the story created here.