Saturday, November 9, 2013

Stubs – Saboteur

Saboteur (1942) Starring: Priscilla Lane, Robert Cummings, Norman Lloyd, Otto Krueger, Dorothy Peterson. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, Dorothy Parker. Produced by Frank Lloyd. Run Time: 108 minutes, Black and White. U.S., Spy Thriller Drama

By 1942, the U.S. was committed to World War II. Two weeks before Saboteur went into production, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and while the movie sounds like an idea ripped from the headlines it wasn’t. Hitchcock, who seemed to be ahead of the atomic curve with Notorious (1946), pitched the idea for this film to David O. Selznick, the producer he was under contract to months before. While Selznick liked the idea well enough to have John Houseman keep an eye on the script, Val Lewton, Selznick’s story editor, passed on the screenplay. Hitchcock was then free to offer it to another studio.

In November, 1941, still before Pearl Harbor, Frank Lloyd and Jack Skirball bought the script and Hitchcock’s services for $20,000 and set it up through Universal Pictures. No doubt the fact that we were involved in World War II impacted the story and made it seem current to what was going on in the world and in the United States.
Saboteur should not be confused with another Hitchcock film, Sabotage, a 1936 British pre-war spy thriller that only hints at Nazi involvement in bombings. While I don't recall hearing the word Nazi in Saboteur we all know who is behind the sabotage in this film as well..

Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) and his best friend, Ken Mason (Virgil Summers), at work.
The film opens with Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) working at the Stuarts Aircraft Factory in Glendale, California outside of Los Angeles. His best friend at the plant is Ken Mason (Virgil Summers). One day on the way to lunch, a female co-worker catches Ken’s attention and he accidentally runs into Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd). Out of Fry’s pockets fall some envelopes and cash, including a $100 bill.

After Ken bumps into Frank Fry a lot of interesting things fall out of his pocket.
While everyone is eating, there is an act of sabotage at the plant. Barry and Ken run towards the fire. Fry is ahead of them and hands Barry a fire extinguisher. But Ken wants to get in on the action and Barry hands the extinguisher to him, but it is full of gasoline, as we later learn, and the fire quickly gets worse and engulfs and kills Ken.

Ken tries to fight flames with a fire extinguisher filled with gasoline.
After being questioned by the authorities, Barry goes to see Ken’s mother (Dorothy Peterson) and tries to comfort her. While he is next door getting brandy for her from a neighbor (Margaret Moffat), the police arrive looking for Barry. They tell her and she repeats to Barry, that they couldn’t find anyone named Fry working at the plant. While she lies about Barry being there, she does tell him to leave. He has to escape out the back door when the police return, based on the neighbor’s telling them she had just talked to him.

Barry gets a ride out of town with a truck driver (Murray Alper).
Barry escapes and next we see him, he is riding with a truck driver (Murray Alper). The trucker is happy for the company and seems to like Barry, driving him to an address he remembered seeing on an envelope he’d seen with Fry: Deep Springs Ranch in Springfield, California. But the ranch’s owner, Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger), says he doesn’t know anyone named Fry. He tells Barry that he’ll go call his neighbor to see if he knows Fry, but in reality, Tobin is calling the police. Barry is asked to watch Tobin’s granddaughter. They play catch with a ball before she hands Barry letters from Tobin’s pocket. Included is a telegram from Fry telling him he’s on his way to Soda City.

Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger) has Barry arrested when he comes to the Deep Springs Ranch looking for Fry.
While Tobin is the bad guy, Barry is the one who gets arrested. On his way to jail, the detectives’ car gets caught up in a traffic jam behind the truck driver Barry knows, who is changing a tire in the middle of a bridge. Seeing his opportunity, Barry leaps from the bridge into the river below. The police search for him, but with a little luck and the truck driver providing a diversion, Barry manages to escape.

Barry manages to escape police custody with a little help from his truck driver friend.
Barry gets caught in a rainstorm and seeks refuge in the home of blind composer Philip Martin (Vaughan Glaser). Philip may be blind, but he knows Barry is wearing handcuffs. He offers to feed him and let him stay through the storm. However, Barry’s sanctuary is invaded by the arrival of Martin's niece, New York billboard model Patricia Martin (Priscilla Lane). While Philip senses Barry's innocence, Pat does not.

Vaughan Glaser plays Philip Martin, a blind composer who lives alone in the forest.
Although her uncle asks her to take Barry to the local blacksmith shop to have his handcuffs removed, she attempts to turn him over to the police. Barry is then forced to kidnap Pat all the time protesting his innocence to her. In the middle of the California desert, Pat stops the car and gets out and threatens to flag down the first car that comes by. Barry uses the fan belt pulley of her car's generator to cut off his handcuffs. He grabs Pat and drives off but the fan belt breaks, causing the car to overheat.

Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) tries to take Barry to the police rather than the blacksmith.
After night falls, the pair catches a ride from a passing circus troupe. On board are Bones (Pedro de Cordoba), the human skeleton; Major (Billy Curtis), a midget with a nasty demeanor; Tatiana (Marie Le Deux), the fat lady; Lorelei (Anita Bolster), the bearded lady; and Siamese twins (Jeanne and Lynn Romer). And while the performers recognize Barry as a fugitive from the law, they decide, in a split vote, to shield them from the police. Their belief in Barry also convinces Pat to trust him as well.

The circus freaks who hide Barry and Pat when they're on the run from the police.
The next morning, Barry and Pat are dropped off two miles from Soda City. What seems like an abandoned building in the ghost town turns out to be a staging area for an attack on the Hoover Dam. While they are there, two saboteurs, Freeman (Alan Baxter) and Neilson (Clem Bevans), arrive. Barry conceals Pat, but he is discovered by the saboteurs and convinces Freeman and Neilson that he is one of them. Freeman offers him safe passage to New York City. Barry also learns of their plans to sabotage the launching of a new U.S. Navy ship, the U.S.S. Alaska, at the Brooklyn shipyard, which Pat overhears.

All roads lead to Soda City.
But Barry is so convincing that Pat now believes he really is one of them. She escapes and goes to the authorities. However, the sheriff (Charles Halton) she talks to is sympathetic to Tobin’s cause.

When they arrive in New York, Freeman finds that the phone at their office has been disconnected, which is a signal that the police are on to them. Instead, he takes Barry to the mansion of society dowager Mrs. Henrietta Sutton (Alma Kruger). She is meeting with her co-conspirators while hosting a society ball downstairs. Barry finds Pat is already there. She had been betrayed by the corrupt sheriff, and had been held by the saboteurs as soon as she arrived back in New York. As Barry attempts to signal Pat to escape, Tobin then arrives and declares that his operation has been exposed by Pat's uncle and that Barry is not a part of their group.

As the conspirators decide what to do with the pair, a guest from the party interrupts and Barry and Pat sneak out. But the exits are blocked by their servants, including Robert (Ian Wolfe), who is definitely a part of the plans. Rather than leave, they enter Sutton’s ball trying to find sympathetic partygoers, but no one believes them. Even in plain sight, Pat gets snatched away when another dancer cuts in on them. In order to protect her, Barry is forced to turn himself over to Tobin.

Little do the attendees know that their hostess Mrs. Sutton (Alma Kruger) is really working for the other side.
Barry gives one of those patriotic speeches you hear in films made during the War. After his We’ll Win monologue, Tobin asks Robert if he can find a place for Barry to sleep and Robert saps Barry. He gets locked up in the cellar of the mansion, while Martin is kept in an office for a newsreel company at the Rockefeller Center. Pat manages to drop a note from her window, alerting cabbies on the street to her location. They notify the FBI, who rescue her off camera.

Pat gets ready to slip a note out the window in the room she's being kept.
Meanwhile, Barry sets off the fire alarm and automatic sprinklers at the Sutton mansion and manages to escape during the commotion. He hurries to the Brooklyn naval yard and uncovers the saboteurs, posing as newsreel photographers. In a really great scene, Barry recognizes Fry waiting in the back of the newsreel van to blow up the battleship. While Barry disrupts them, the ship does end up on its side in the water. The saboteurs then take Barry back to their skyscraper hideout, where the police, with Pat, await them.

In the confusion following the explosion, the saboteurs escape in the guise of a news van.
But Fry escapes into Radio City Music Hall where he shoots a spectator to create confusion, allowing him to escape. As he exits, Barry and Pat are leaving Rockefeller Center, Barry is in the FBI’s custody and cannot convince them to go after Fry. Seeing Fry getting into a taxi, Barry tells Pat to follow the spy. 

Fry uses a shootout on screen to help make his escape.
Fry boards a boat to Liberty Island and Pat does, too, even attracting his attention. When she sees him walk into the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, she calls the FBI office. Finally convinced Fry is a person of interest, they tell her to keep him occupied until they can get there. While they rush to the monument with Barry in tow, Pat climbs to the crown of the statue and strikes up a conversation with Fry, stalling him long enough for Barry and the Feds to arrive.

Pat tries to strike up a conversation with Frank Fry inside the Statue of Liberty.
The film culminates in what is one of the greatest scenes that Hitchcock ever put on celluloid. Fry flees to the statue's torch and Barry follows. The saboteur slips off the crown and ends up clinging desperately to Lady Liberty’s giant palm. Barry climbs down to try to save him and grabs a hold of Fry’s coat sleeve while the Feds scramble to get a rope. But the stitching of Fry’s jacket sleeve starts to give way. One stitch at a time, then all at once. Fry is promising to clear Barry just before his sleeve comes off and he is sent plunging to his death.

The final sequence takes place on the torch of the Statue of Libarty.
Barry tries to save Frank Fry by getting a good hold on his jacket.
But the seam gives way...
... and Fry falls to his death.
Barry climbs back down the torch and embraces Pat.

Originally, Hitchcock envisioned Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in the title roles. But Cooper was unavailable and the new producers signed Priscilla Lane without any input from the director. Even though he was left with Universal contract players as his leads, he gets the most out of them. It’s hard to imagine Cooper doing a better job than Cummings did. While it’s a little hard to believe Lane as a model, especially how we think of models these days, she does a fine job as Pat Martin.

At the time the film was made, Lane was a bigger star than Cummings and even though her role is in support, she received top billing. In 1931 at 16 years old, Lane received a screen test at MGM along with then unknowns Katherine Hepburn and Margaret Sullivan. None of the three were offered contracts at the studio.

In 1932, Priscilla, along with her older sister Rosemary, began performing on the radio with orchestra leader Fred Waring. The two would sing and Priscilla became known as the comedienne of the two. In 1937, Warner Bros. bought out the sisters’ contract from Waring after they appeared with him in the film Varsity Show (1937).
Along with her sisters Rosemary and Lola, Priscilla appeared in Four Daughters (1938). Also in the cast was Claude Rains, Gale Hart and newcomer John Garfield. After that, she appeared in Brother Rat (1938), co-starring with Wayne Morris, but with a cast that included such newcomers as Ronald Reagan, Jane Wyman and Eddie Albert.

Priscilla Lane was not Hitchcock's first choice for the role of Pat Martin.
In 1939, she appeared opposite James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in Roaring Twenties. That same year she appeared in a sequel to Four Daughters called Four Wives. In 1940, she appeared in another sequel, this to Brother Rat called Brother Rat and a Baby.

Even though her filming of Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace, opposite Cary Grant, caused her to join Saboteur after production had already began, the Capra film was held up until 1944, due to a contractual agreement not to distribute the film while the play it was based on was still running on Broadway. Lane retired from films in 1943 after completing The Meanest Man In the World. She did come back for only two more films, Fun on a Week-End (1947) and the film noir Bodyguard (1948) opposite Lawrence Tierney.

Her co-star, Robert Cummings, made his feature film debut in The Virginia Judge (1935) after having appeared on stage in The Ziegfeld Follies opposite Fanny Brice. Cummings didn’t achieve film stardom until Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939) opposite Deanna Durbin. He played the lead role in Kings Row (1942) alongside Ronald Reagan, Claude Rains and Ann Sheridan. After appearing in Saboteur, Cummings would work with Hitchcock once again in Dial M for Murder (1954) with Ray Milland and Grace Kelly.

Robert Cummings as he appears in Saboteur. Robert (Ian Wolfe)  is on the left
Cummings also worked extensively in television, appearing in the first televised performance of Twelve Angry Men as Juror Number Eight, for which he received the Prime Time Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor, in 1952. From 1955 until 1959 he starred in his own sitcom, The Bob Cummings Show (aka Love That Bob) as a former World War II pilot turned professional photographer. Ann B. Davis, who would go on to co-star in TV’s The Brady Bunch, appeared as Charmaine “Schultzy” Schultz, his assistant.

My admiration for Alfred Hitchcock goes without saying, though I have said it in other reviews. While we tend to lump all of his work under the label Hitchcock, his films may have certain characteristics, but are not all the same, nor tell the same story. Known for suspense, Hitchcock made films that defy that categorization like The Birds (1963) or even Psycho (1960). For every film that has a spectacular backdrop, like Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959), there will be one that takes place in the front parlor of a London flat, Dial M for Murder. For a film like Saboteur, in which Barry makes a 3,000 mile trek to prove his innocence, there is one in which the protagonist hardly moves at all, Rear Window (1954).

Alfred Hitchcock makes his cameo appearance in Saboteur.
What makes Barry’s journey so interesting is that feeling you don’t know who to trust. Even Pat gets burned when she tells the local sheriff what’s going on in Soda City. Since he’s one of the fifth columnists of Nazi spies and saboteurs, she gets kidnapped when she returns to New York. Symbolically, it is a monument of the nation’s freedom (and gravity) that bring about real justice. Frank Fry is finally dealt punishment, giving his life for the life of Ken Mason.

Another interesting aspect of the story is the depiction of the fifth columnists as regular guys and family men. What they’re doing is their job, misguided as it may be, but they have other interests. Charles Tobin is a rich and debonair man who likes the finer things in life. Freeman talks to Barry about his children, another man tells Freeman, as he’s darning his own sock, that he’s promised to take his sister to the Philharmonic. There is even a bit of humor when one of her captors, the same one we saw darning his sock, brings Pat a milkshake and demands payment of 15 cents and gives her change from a quarter. (Note: I could not determine the character’s name or the name of the actor. If someone knows, I’d love to update the review and include.) Even though they’re working for the wrong side, the saboteurs are still presented as three-dimensional people.

Would love to know the name of the guy seated darning his own socks.
And while this film ends big, dangling from the torch of the Statute of Liberty, it is really a personal struggle of one man trying against all odds to prove his innocence. The authorities, like the FBI, want to arrest him and the supposed upstanding citizens, the rancher and the dowager, are the ones he’s fighting against. His only friends are lonely truck drivers, blind composers living in solitude or sideshow freaks. Barry stands or falls depending on how strangers read him. And even while we read the film as proving Barry’s innocence, since Hitchcock ends the story before that’s resolved, we don’t know if anyone else on the torch heard Fry’s whispered promise that he would set the record about Barry’s involvement straight.

Modern audiences should not view Saboteur as simply a war film and a relic of the past. Obviously, it is told against the backdrop of World War II and the sabotage is aimed at U.S. military readiness, but there really is more going on here than that. Saboteur is the search for truth and justice. While it ends in a spectacular way, it is still a personal journey, of one everyman against the world, so to speak. Barry doesn’t lose sight of who he is, even though everyone else around him seems to.

Watch it for the ending, but enjoy Saboteur for the journey getting there.

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