Saturday, July 18, 2009

Saboteur (1942)

Before the War on Terrorism had made terrorists a much talked about topic by the media a fear that many Americans and governments from all over the world had was of the saboteur. Unlike terrorists, saboteurs were not primarily out to inflict as many casualties as possible through their actions. Their methods entailed subversion, obstruction, disruption, and if need be destruction. Unlike terrorists who thrive primarily on fear and paranoia the saboteur is the hidden menace. They can set allied governments against each other, wreck havoc on the urban infrastructure, create a general mood of distrust within a population, and they can accomplish all this because a saboteur has the ability to completely assimilate into the enemy camp and become like one of them.
During World War II Alfred Hitchcock was criticized by the British press for staying in America and not taking a more active role in fighting the Nazis. The presses attacks were unwarranted though since Hitchcock was still under contract to David O. Selznick and also his talents were more suited to directing a film crew rather than directing a company of soldiers into battle. By 1942, with the country embroiled in a world war on two fronts, Alfred Hitchcock would release Saboteur. The film would be the first of two that he would make for Universal Studios and also the fourth time that Selznick would loan him out, this time to producers Frank Lloyd and Jack Skirball. The film was a comic reworking of his 1935 British hit The 39 Steps but after more than 60 years since its theatrical release Saboteur has not faired all that well. The film's detractors call attention to the slapdash screenplay, especially the heavy-handed dialogue, and B-list casting as the primary reasons why the film falls just short of being a masterpiece. Closer examination of the picture though reveals that the Master of Suspense may have been trying to stretch his genre muscles with this film.
Saboteur, like its British counterpart The 39 Steps, is structured like a road movie. An aircraft factory worker by the name of Barry Kane, played by Robert Cummings, is on the run after he is framed for sabotage and the subsequent death of his best friend. While on the run he meets an eclectic group of people, some who help him and others that are out to harm him. This eclectic range of characters that he runs into consist of a wisecracking truck driver, a blind hermit living a Thoreau-like existence, a caravan of sideshow performers, and a cabal of fifth column subversives.
Hitchcock and his screenplay collaborators, Joan Harrison, Peter Viertel, and Dorothy Parker, use the film as a platform to discuss the inherent class divisions present in the country. Contrary to how Nazi sympathizers were portrayed in films during that time the film opts not to portray them as tough, scary, or monstrous. In fact the film associates the fascist sympathizer with the effete intellectual. The characters who go out of there way to help Barry are part of the lower rung of the economic ladder and/or have some unique physical characteristic. Be they blind like the hermit, suffering money woes like the truck driver, or born with some sort of medical abnormality like the bearded lady or the conjoined twins in the sideshow act all of these characters in the story lie at the periphery of society. While the fascist sympathizers are rich, educated, and cultured; you would not mistake them as one of the "huddled masses yearning to breath free". In fact these upper class saboteurs would like nothing better but to exterminate those who do not fit their description of a superior individual, something that real-life Nazis were doing in Europe at that time. By making the villains in the film wealthy effete intellectuals Hitchcock attacked the habit that many people from so-called advanced countries had of toting their pedigree, expensive education, and good grooming as signs of their superiority.
A motif that Hitchcock constantly returns to in this film is that of fire and water. The film opens with the fire at the airplane factory, Barry's friend is engulfed in flames after handling a fire extinguisher filled with gasoline, the saboteurs plan to blow up a dam and sabotage a U.S. Navy ship, and the final climactic scene of the film takes place around the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Fire is representative of unchecked aggression and fervor. Making it not such a coincidence that the villains in the film are linked to that element whereas Barry is connected to the element of water since it represents purity and justice. Barry escapes from the cops by jumping into a river, he also escapes imprisonment from a cellar by activating the sprinkler system, and the man that framed Barry for sabotage, Fry, plunges to his death into New York Harbor finally bringing some semblance of justice for all the death and destruction.
One aspect of the film that I wish Hitchcock would have developed further are the elements of screwball comedy in the story. For those unaware screwball comedy is a genre precursor to the modern romantic comedy, but unlike romantic comedies of today the male-female relationship in the screwball genre were more mature. To get around the Production Code writers and directors had to practically invent a new language consisting of verbal and visual cues; so a slightly raised skirt, a glance, or a careful turn of phrase spoke volumes. whereas today the topic of sex is talked about in a more direct manner this directness does not always yield the most honest depictions of contemporary mores and taboos.
In Saboteur the audience's attention is focused on the relationship between Barry Kane and Patricia Martin, played by band singer turned actress Priscilla Lane. They are a typical Hitchcockian couple, Kane is a dark-haired everyman while Patricia Martin is a blonde ice queen who gradually warms up to Kane after realizing his innocence. All throughout the film Kane and Martin fight and bicker like a married couple, each trying to gain control over the other. As in all screwball comedies the topic of gender is always at play. And although Patricia Martin is a pretty model from New York City she is no shrinking violet. After being taken hostage she devises and executes a plan to get the attention of some cab drivers which eventually leads to the cops arresting not only her kidnappers, but practically the entire network of saboteurs. Hitchcock never just casts a pretty face for the female lead in his movies. His female stars were beautiful but they overturned typical gender conventions by facing danger and not only proving that they could handle a crisis but also retain their femininity while doing so, just like all starlets of the screwball genre.
Although Saboteur may never be considered a masterpiece Alfred Hitchcock should be commended for his attempt to blend genres together. He may not be all that successful, but the final result is a wonderful document of an era when political fervor blinded so many individuals of their ability to think for themselves.

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