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Los Angeles aircraft worker Barry Kane evades arrest after he is unjustly accused of sabotage. Following leads, he travels across the country to New York trying to clear his name by exposing a gang of fascist-supporting saboteurs led by apparently respectable Charles Tobin. Along the way, he involves Pat Martin, eventually preventing another major act of sabotage. They finally catch up with Frank Frye, the man who actually committed the act of sabotage at the aircraft factory. Written by
Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur is not one of his best-regarded films; made between two vastly more popular and critically praised pictures, Suspicion and Shadow Of a Doubt, it's generally regarded as a lesser effort. I agree that the later film is groundbreaking, drawing Hitchcock wholly into the American mainstream for the first time, but Saboteur is in its way at least as lively as Suspicion; its chief flaw being its less than charismatic star players, Bob Cummings and Priscilla Lane.
In Saboteur we find Hitchcock feeling his way around America, literally, as its lead character travels from California to New York in search of an arsonist for whose crime he was accused. Cummings is very youthful here, and quite engaging. His boyishness (but not immaturity) perfectly suits the character he is portraying, and seems appropriate, as the director, though middle-aged, was in the process of reinventing himself, and an older, more established star might have thrown things off. Priscilla Lane's spunky heroine, which not a typical type for the director, was very much a common type in American films at the time; and she and Cummings provide an openness and a youth the director needed both in his life and work at this time. I cannot imagine older, more solid types,--Cooper and Stanwyck for instance--doing any better, as they would have, between them, carried, well, too much baggage.
As is the norm in Hitchcock's films, nothing is as it appears. Where Saboteur differs from his better known films is that the audience is let in on the game early. Though Cummings is an accused arsonist, we know that he is innocent. The villains become apparent fairly soon; and the movie hinges more on its plot than its ironies. What pleasures there are are incidental, and here the Master does not disappoint. There is an interesting, Tod Browningish interlude with some circus freaks, who help Cummings elude capture. In another scene, reminiscent of James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, Cummings spends some time in the cottage of a blind man, who, as it turns out, is Lane's uncle. Was the director perhaps studying key American films of the previous decade? Whatever the case, these and other offbeat and discursive aspects of the movie give it a playfulness and variety, which, when one adds the factor of quite youthful leads, makes the picture seem like the work of a younger man, still learning his craft.
The film's later scenes, in New York, are more suspenseful and typical of the director, as the picture gradually becomes more Hitchockian as it moves along. In the end I find it a satisfying work; and as neither Cummings nor Lane has a dark side as an actor, neither does the movie have one. It is deliberately lightweight, and I suspect semi-experimental; an attempt by Hitchcock to see if he could pull off, in an American setting, the sort of story he had done so well in England. He succeeded admirably. The next logical step: Shadow Of a Doubt, a film in which the main character travels east to west, and with a wholly different set of values and plans.
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