Saboteur (1942) / Thriller-Mystery

MPAA Rated: PG for some violence
Running time:
108 min.

Cast: Robert Cummings, Priscilla Lane, Otto Kruger, Norman Lloyd, Alan Baxter, Clem Bevans, Alma Kruger, Murray Alper
Cameo: Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, Dorothy Parker

Robert Cummings (Dial M for Murder, Kings Row) stars as Barry Kane, a worker at a military aircraft production plant who ends up taking the rap mistakenly for the murder of his best friend/coworker when the facility is set ablaze.  The real culprit is a mysterious fellow named Frank Fry (Lloyd, Spellbound), so to clear his name, Barry must evade the law while getting to the bottom of who Fry is and what the reasons were for his crime.  Along the way, Barry ends up taking on a reluctant tagalong in billboard model Patricia Martin (Lane, Arsenic and Old Lace), who initially is suspect of Barry, but later becomes his ally.  Their journey has them travelling across the entire country, from California to New York, in search of clues as to the whereabouts of the elusive saboteur.

Saboteur is one of Alfred Hitchcock's (Suspicion, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) most inconsistent thrillers, which is a bit of a surprise, as this is exactly the kind of film he not only excelled at, he practically invented the "innocent man accused" thriller subgenre.  The screenplay by Viertel (White Hunter Black Heart), Harrison (Rebecca) and Parker (A Star is Born) is mostly at issue, though casting issues (Hitch would have chosen to cast Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, but the studio that owned his contract had its say) and attempts to be hip and contemporary (for its day) also makes the film one of Hitch's most uncertain in tone and dated in delivery (a good deal of the film, created during the World War II era, smacks of Hollywood-ized propaganda).  Only a sinister Otto Kruger (High Noon) as shady figure Charles Tobin, seeming like a quintessential Bond villain before his time, manages to lift the scenes above and beyond the weak material.

There are memorable moments to be sure, including run-ins with Pat's blind and benevolent uncle, a train car full of circus sideshow attractions (a metaphor for how diversity and democracy are strengths), and a climax atop the Statue of Liberty.  These sorts of alternately funny or tense scenes are the real attraction in Saboteur, which plays more as a hammy collection of interesting set pieces than as a full-fledged story.  Hitchcock made a variation of this style of film, only much better, several years before with The 39 Steps, then perfected it nearly two decades later with North by Northwest, so unless you're a huge fan of the stars or are a Hitchcock completist, you're better off checking out one of those two films instead. 

 Qwipster's rating

©2011 Vince Leo