Sir Alfred Hitchcock's original cameo was cut by order of the censors. He and his secretary played deaf pedestrians. When Hitchcock's character made an apparently indecent proposal to her in sign language, she slapped his face. A more conventional cameo in front of a drugstore was substituted.
The set used as the ranch house of Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger) was used as the home of the Brenners for another Sir Alfred Hitchcock movie, The Birds (1963). It originally was a leftover set from a Deanna Durbin movie shot on the Universal backlot.
The shot of the ship on its side toward the end was an actual shot of the ocean liner S.S. Normandie, which had caught fire and capsized at its pier in New York. The fire was an accident, not sabotage (a cutting torch accidently set fire to some kapok life vests), though there were rumors of sabotage at the time.
Sir Alfred Hitchcock thought that Robert Cummings was "a competent performer", but found his performance, and the movie, suffered because Cummings "belongs to the light-comedy class of actors" and had "an amusing face, so that even when he's in desperate straits, his features don't convey any anguish." He thought Priscilla Lane "simply wasn't the right type for a Hitchcock picture."
Sir Alfred Hitchcock wanted to be sure of a degree of authenticity for certain roles and was not averse to unconventional casting to achieve it. For instance, he pulled the company's best boy from the electrical crew to play the friend killed in the factory fire because Hitchcock thought he looked perfectly like a working man.
When the French liner, the S.S. Normandie burned and partially sank in New York City harbor, Sir Alfred Hitchcock quickly dispatched a Universal newsreel crew to the scene to get footage that he incorporated into this movie, intercut with studio shots of the saboteur smiling from the back seat of a taxi as he looks out on the supposedly sabotaged ship.
Before he sold the property and the services of Sir Alfred Hitchcock to Frank Lloyd Productions and Jack H. Skirball for twenty-four thousand pounds sterling, David O. Selznick had originally planned to film it with Gene Kelly, who had not as yet made a movie, in the leading role.
For the shots of police inspecting the long circus caravan at night, Sir Alfred Hitchcock created perspective by using vehicles and people of different sizes, starting with full-sized trucks and extras at the closer end of the caravan, using smaller trucks and shorter people as it receded into the distance, and finally miniatures and cutouts with workable arms with tiny illuminations to simulate flashlights at the far end.
According to Associate Art Director Robert Boyle, Sir Alfred Hitchcock knew "almost any shot will not hold longer than five seconds, and that a matte in particular is going to be on for no more than five seconds. Then the audience doesn't have time to find the problems."
Sir Alfred Hitchcock was particularly distressed about not getting the villain he wanted. To convey the sense of these homegrown fascists being regular people, the ones you would least likely suspect, he wanted the very All-American former silent movie actor and Western star Harry Carey. However, Carey's wife Olive Carey was very indignant about the suggestion. Hitchcock told François Truffaut she said, "I am shocked that you should dare to offer my husband a part like this. After all, since Will Rogers' death, the youth of America have looked up to my husband!"
Universal Pictures was concerned with the fifty plus sets Sir Alfred Hitchcock ordered, including a vast desert scene to be built on Stage 12 with a reconstruction of part of a river and waterfall, as well as the set for the Park Avenue mansion's grand ballroom.
The only actor that Sir Alfred Hitchcock gave much direction to was Otto Kruger, who never pleased him as the head villain. Otherwise, he preferred to let the actors and actresses work out their roles in rehearsal and gave them direction mostly on timing in front of the camera. He believed he could solve any acting problem with camera work, such as filming Kruger's lengthy fascist soliloquy from a disconcerting distance.
For the factory sabotage, Sir Alfred Hitchcock simply used a shot of the front of the building with black smoke slowly billowing into the frame. Robert Boyle said Hitchcock made a drawing "in which he drew just the big doors and then he did a big scribble. He said, 'There will be an explosion.' And I thought that scribble more illuminating than the finest drawing you could make."
Sir Alfred Hitchcock cut corners wherever he could. The mansion set was built onto a staircase leftover from a Deanna Durbin musical, a backlot storage building became the doomed aircraft plant. He also included numerous mattes and rear projections, the use of which has long been the subject of debate about Hitchcock (ingenious cinematic statement or obvious special effect?).
While being held in the library of Mrs. Henrietta Sutton (Alma Kruger), Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) was trying to signal Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) by highlighting a book title with his thumb. The books next to "ESCAPE" are: Method of Criminal Investigation, Coaster Captain, Sketch of a Sinner, The Rash Act, Conquerors of Time, and Bad Company. Coaster Captain actually foretold the next sabotage event, which was in the New York City harbor.
To achieve the sensation of the people at the ship launch being thrown up in the air during the explosion on the dock, Sir Alfred Hitchcock had the cameras pan quickly down each of the extras, from head to toe, and cut them together quickly.
Sir Alfred Hitchcock tried to get John Halliday for the villain role. He was living in Hawaii, and travel restrictions imposed after Pearl Harbor made it difficult for him to be available in a timely fashion.
Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger) suggests as a book for Barry Kane (Robert Cummings), "Death Of A Nobody". It was meant as a portent of Barry Kane's future. There was such a book (released in 1911) authored by Jules Romains. It is an author's view of life and events, and not a murder mystery.
As Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger) is coming down the staircase, notice that the scene is printed backwards. The handshake is with left hands, the dancers are facing vice versa, and the musicians are playing left handed.
Evelyn Ankers was one of Universal Pictures' top three female stars along with Maria Montez and Deanna Durban. Evelyn Ankers could have easily been cast as Pat Martin. Evelyn Ankers and Priscilla Lane were the same type. However, Universal Pictures was grooming Ankers to be their answer to Fay Wray, and was planning on putting her in many horror movies, and Sir Alfred Hitchcock may have preferred an actress more known for drama movies. As well, Universal Pictures hired Lane to be a movie team with their contract player Robert Cummings.
There actually was a U.S.S. Alaska. She was the first of two ships in the Alaska class. She was designated CB-1, and was a heavy cruiser. She was ordered in 1940, and laid down in 1941. She was launched in 1943, and served with distinction in the Pacific until the end of the war. The other Alaska class cruiser was the U.S.S. Guam. Four more ships in this class were planned, but never built, when the war ended in 1945.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The famous shot of Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd) falling from the Statue of Liberty was an optical illusion. Instead of falling away from the camera, Lloyd was actually leaning back on a saddle, while the camera moved upward and away from him.
A couple of slightly different versions have been offered about how Sir Alfred Hitchcock got the shot of Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd) falling from the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur. One version claimed Lloyd sat on a revolving, tottering chair, making appropriate movements. Another says he was suspended on a wire. What is for certain is that he was shot against a black background while the camera swiftly pulled up and away from him, and the Statue and ground below were matted in later.
Sir Alfred Hitchcock used the idea of "looks can be deceiving" throughout this entire movie. Examples: 1) Fire extinguisher filled with gasoline; 2) Charles Tobin playing with his granddaughter when he is first introduced; 3) "Blind" Man Philip Martin who is "totally aware" of everything that is going on; 4) Patricia Martin (Priscilla Lane) believing that Barry is a saboteur, because she believes he "looks" like a saboteur, and he has a saboteur's disposition; 5) The "little" Major in the Circus Caravan who is a "big" troublemaker; 6) "Abandoned" Soda City; 7) Freeman (Clem Bevans) believing Barry based on what he saw, and the "surface" information Barry provided to him; 8) Patricia Martin believing the Sheriff (Charles Halton and his words; 9) A party for charity affairs hosted by Mrs. Sutton (who secretly works with spies and saboteurs); 10) People ignoring Barry and his words (about Mrs. Sutton and others with her being spies and saboteurs) by saying that Barry is drunk and he is not even dressed; 11) Barry and Patricia Martin are "trapped" at a public place (Mrs. Sutton's big party); 12) Patricia Martin using "lipstick" to write the information about her; 13) The cop not taking Barry and his words seriously about the ship being sabotaged; 14) Frank Fry and the bomb detonator are inside of a fake American newsreel truck. Another example is the use of an old-fashioned field telephone in the visually "abandoned" office at Soda City. The message that comes through this telephone is what matters, not the physical appearance of the phone. Another interesting touch is Barry doesn't reveal anything about Patricia Martin to Freeman (Clem Bevans) in Soda City, but he later learns that Freeman knew far more than he did about Patricia Martin when they reach Mrs. Sutton's room.