There are a number of Hitchcock films that follow a format whereby a case of mistaken identity forces a reluctant hero on a cross country search for justice. It’s a good template and one of my favourite set ups for a Hitchcock film. He employs it to good use in The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much and in 1942 he did it with Saboteur.
Robert Cummings plays Barry Kane, a fresh faced American auto-engineer who is working in a hangar bay with his best bud Mason. They’re two swell guys that are probably both quarterbacks for the football team and scout troop leaders. You know the type.
A fire erupts in the hangar causing a freak explosion that kills Mason. Kane is interviewed and investigated for the murder but he slowly comes to believe that the real culprit must be the foreigner Fry, who he met moments before the accident. Kane flees from the law and embarks on a journey across America, hoping to clear his name and find the villainous Fry who we presume to be guilty because he talks funny and squints.
Saboteur is a really fun film. Kane really gets about in his quest for justice and there is a real workmanlike approach from Hitchcock to include a little something for everyone. I can see the pitch to a potential producer now. “It’s got Romance! Comedy! Action! Suspense!” Saboteur has plenty of memorable moments. There is a chase sequence on a bridge where Kane dramatically dives into the river below in an attempt to evade capture. There’s a tense scene where he realizes a seemingly sweet-natured grandpa and house maid are really gun-totting anti-American spies (!). And who can forget the scene in the log cabin where Kane hopes to seek refuge with a blind old man but he cannot let on to him that he is wearing handcuffs? It’s good stuff all round.
While I enjoyed all these different scenes for what they were, I did notice that, uncharacteristically for a Hitchcock film, Saboteur is a shameless and full-throated panderer of The American Way. I think this is a direct result of being produced in the middle of World War II. It doesn’t spoil the film but there are some pretty cheesy moments where a stranger idealistically decides to help Kane because “…in America, we believe that people are innocent until proven guilty!” Of course we, the audience, know Kane is innocent but how likely is it that the average person is going to bump into a handcuffed stranger on the highway and give them a hand?
Funnily enough, my mileage for American cinematic propaganda must swing pretty wildly because although the idealistic dialogue caused me to roll my eyes, I loved the villains in this film precisely because they were so hilariously dastardly and two dimensional caricatures of foreign spies. I don’t think it gets much better than a gun-totting grandad who threatens the hero whilst playing with his grandson on his lap. And Fry exits the film in a suitably unsubtle yet spectacular demise when he falls off the Statue of Liberty.
Saboteur is an easy recommendation in the Hitchcock catalogue. It’s constantly throwing new challenges and drama at the audience and it really does have a bit of everything. Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane are maybe a little bit vanilla as the two leads in the film but the fantastic performances from Norman Lloyd and Otto Kruger more than make up for it.