Saboteur (DVD)

“The world’s choosing up sides and I know what side I’m on.”

By 1942, Alfred Hitchcock had been in America for two years after agreeing to a contract to direct four films for producer David O. Selznick. So far, only Rebecca (1940, Selnick) had materialized from this arrangement and Hitchcock had spent more time on loan-out than with Selznick. In fact, he was now beginning his fourth film away from Selznick and his first at Universal (a collaboration that would bear much fruit in succeeding years). The film in question was Saboteur, a Hitchcockian contribution to wartime patriotism.

Universal has now released Saboteur on DVD as part of its recent flood of Hitchcock special editions. It is available alone or as part of a multi-title box set.

Barry Kane works at a wartime aircraft plant in California that is destroyed in an act of sabotage. Kane is wrongly accused of the crime and the death of one of his friends, and soon realizes that only the saboteur himself can clear him. Suspicious of one of his co-workers, Frank Fry, Kane sets out to trail Fry.

The trail leads Kane eastward, first to the ranch of master spy Charles Tobin and then to a deserted mining town. In both cases, he just manages to elude being caught and jailed by the police. Along the way, he picks up a reluctant helper, Pat Martin. Pat is distrustful of Kane at first, but after an encounter with a troupe of circus freaks, she finally comes to believe in his innocence.

Eventually, Fry’s trail leads to New York and the grand home of a wealthy socialite — another front for the work of the spies. Kane is trapped in the home and must somehow escape to prevent another major act of sabotage. In attempting to do so, the climax leads him to the Statue of Liberty.

Saboteur is a very interesting way station in Hitchcock’s film career. Some elements of the story draw from his previous efforts (for example the sequence in the Radio City Music Hall is reminiscent of the movie scenes in Sabotage [1936, Britain] and the handcuffs and escaping couple remind one of The 39 Steps [1935, Britain]) while others are precursors to similar but more elaborate ones in the future (such as the Statue of Liberty climax which presages the Mount Rushmore sequence from North By Northwest [1959, MGM]).

The basic story was apparently Hitchcock’s idea and David Selznick had intended to produce it with Gene Kelly in the lead role. By 1941, Selznick had changed his mind and Hitchcock shopped the idea around other studios, eventually selling it to producers Frank Lloyd and Jack Skirball for a Universal release. The story is a fairly black and white affair much in tune with the propagandistic nature of Hollywood wartime product, but the script has interesting flourishes that raise it above the norm for this type of film. This is probably due to the wit of script contributor Dorothy Parker. Particularly memorable are the scenes with the circus freaks. Among the characters are Siamese twins who aren’t speaking to each other, a bearded lady whose beard sports curlers all night, and a wise-ass little person who trusts no one. Also, the exchanges between Kane and a blind old man whose house he runs across in the woods provide a restful break in Kane’s single-minded pursuit, both for Kane and us. Overall, despite the dated nature of the subject matter, the film holds up well due to its somewhat intricate plot and good pace.

Filming was mainly carried out on the Universal lot, but some location work was done in New York. The New York mansion, however, was strictly a studio set built at a cost of $45,000. Over 1000 scenes and 4500 camera set-ups were involved all told. Hitchcock made some use of footage of the sunken ship Normandie. This displeased the U.S. Navy for it implied that the ship was the victim of sabotage when that was not the case. As a consequence that sequence was edited out in some parts of the country.

The lead character, Barry Kane, is played by Robert Cummings, who would appear also in Hitchcock’s later Dial M for Murder (1954, WB). Cummings, who was best suited to light comedy, never manages to convey convincingly the grit really necessary to make Kane’s persistence in trailing the spies totally believable. Unlike other Hitchcock leading men such as James Stewart and Cary Grant, he just didn’t having the acting range that was needed. The same thing was later true of his work in Dial M for Murder and well as other serious films like King’s Row (1942, WB) and The Accused (1948, Paramount). Pat Martin is played by Priscilla Lane, who had gotten her start at WB in the late 1930s, but she too doesn’t ring true. She is more the girl-next-door type rather than the cool, sophisticated Hitchcock woman. The villains of the piece, Otto Kruger as Charles Tobin and Norman Lloyd as Frank Fry, are a different matter. Both convey the air of menace and mystery that one expects in a Hitchcock film. Lloyd was somewhat of an unknown at the time and so fit the bill as a saboteur who tends to blend into the crowd. The veteran Kruger has the polish and suaveness expected of the leader of the spy ring, and in him we see the seeds of James Mason’s similar role in North By Northwest.

The image on Universal’s DVD is a good effort for a film of this vintage and is presented full frame in accord with the original aspect ratio, utilizing 18 scene selections. The source print is in good condition with only the odd speckle visible. Blacks are deep and whites are clean. There’s the occasional hint of darkness to the image with some loss of shadow detail, but overall the results are quite positive. The audio is a two-track mono one that delivers the dialogue clearly with virtually no age-related hiss. Subtitling is available in English, French and Spanish.

The highlight of the supplementary material is a new documentary from Laurent Bouzereau — “Saboteur: A Closer Look.” At just over 30 minutes in length, it provides some fascinating insights in the film’s making, principally via reminiscences from actor Norman Lloyd (who played Frank Fry) and associate art director Robert Boyle. This is everything a documentary of this sort should be, and I was sorry when it was over. On the disc, there is also an extensive package of storyboard, sketch and photographic material along with the more standard cast and crew information, production notes and a theatrical trailer.

I can only hearken back to the capability of the two lead performers. Had we had two actors with more of an edge than Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane, Saboteur could have ranked with Hitchcock’s top films.

Cummings and Lane aside, Saboteur is an entertaining film from Alfred Hitchcock. It’s certainly not completely original or deep, but it’s fun to recognize previously used set pieces as well as others that would become more famous ones in future films. Universal has done a fine job with the disc and its extras and I have no hesitancy in recommending it.


Saboteur, although obviously guilty of crimes against the nation, is found innocent of any against the filmgoing public. Accomplice Universal is exonerated and cited by the court for fine supplementary work. Court is adjourned.

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