Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Saboteur (Hitchcock, 1942)

Alfred Hitchcock’s wartime thriller, Saboteur, starts with a bang in Los Angeles and ends in New York City in a scene that seems intentionally geared towards one-upping the finale of King Kong. Our central character is Barry Kane, a man who has been framed for the sabotage of an airplane plant, a fiery disaster that claimed the life of his close friend. We follow his journey across the country as he attempts to clear his name and discover more information about the shady forces responsible for undermining the nation’s security. Along the way, he meets a curious collection of characters including a chatty truck driver, a benevolent blind man and a caboose full of circus freaks. His enemies are not tied to any specific nation. They do not speak with a detectable accent, although they do seem more likely to sport a wispy moustache. They are, the film suggests, all around us – so indistinguishable from you and me that they could be swarming at a fancy dinner party and no one would believe you if you tried to point them out. Their purpose is vague; however, when one key villain explains his motivation, it sounds remarkably like what the current American President might suspect: they hate us for our freedom.

The film’s politics are not terribly sophisticated. In an impassioned moment, Barry Kane, caught in a tense predicament, nonetheless finds the composure to deliver a patriotic speech about the heart of America. Drawing from the memory of those who have assisted him, he asserts that there numerous people across the country who will always be willing to stand up for what is right and resist those who wish to undermine American prosperity. The film’s climax emphasizes this idea with a symbol of liberty that is almost comically overt. The events that lead our primary villain to a location where escape is extremely difficult are not terribly logical; however, they do allow Hitchcock to stage another of his famous tension-filled setpieces, a sequence that is rather admirable, albeit primarily on a technical level.

More problematic than the simplistic picture of good and evil or the lapses in logic (which, to be honest, are present in most Hitchcock films) is the way in which Barry’s unlikely accomplices determine that he is on the right side. After all, based on the information these characters have, Barry is a wanted man, responsible for a despicable crime. So how do these good Samaritans make a decision about whether or not Barry is trustworthy? Blind hunches. Just because they happen to be right in this particular case does not make their actions advisable. Even a woman determined to bring Kane in to the police cozies up to him as soon as it gets a little chilly out in the desert. What are audiences to take away from this? That it is OK to place your trust in a stranger as long as he is a clean-cut American boy and gives you a warm feeling inside? Lest we give Hitchcock’s film a pass for being a product of simpler times, we only have to look at Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die, released one year later, to see a film that explores similar ideas with a firmer grasp on common sense and yet does not sacrifice thrills.

Taken purely as light entertainment, there are many things about Saboteur to enjoy, including supporting performances by Otto Kruger and Norman Lloyd, the aforementioned climax and one really impressive stunt. However, the film’s lead performances, typically a Hitchcock strength, never match the quality of the supporting cast. Robert Cummings, in particular, lends little finesse to his two-dimensional do-gooder and renders much his more important dialogue ineffective. Most of all though, it is the film’s muddled wartime message – spies are everywhere, so trust no one … unless you sense that it is OK – that keeps it from being a completely satisfactory experience.



Post a Comment

<< Home