Sunday, November 9, 2014

Saboteur (Frank Lloyd Productions/Universal, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I began the day by watching Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 movie Saboteur, not one of his very best but an exciting chase film, and one in which his predilection for “German” camera angles and lighting effects (Joseph Valentine was the cinematographer) came out more strongly than almost anywhere else — also a movie with a lot of visual and scene quotes (the gun poking out of the curtain from Hitchcock’s own The Man Who Knew Too Much, the blind hermit from The Bride of Frankenstein, the long-shot of a dance party Hitch had used before in Young and Innocent and would use again in Notorious). Though Saboteur isn’t one of Hitchcock’s suspense-of-character films — it’s a comic-book chase in the mold of The 39 Steps and North by Northwest — and Robert Cummings, Priscilla Lane and Otto Kruger aren’t exactly the world’s greatest actors (Hitch’s original choices were Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard as the romantic leads, and Harry Carey as the villain — and Carey was actually available, but his wife wouldn’t let him take a part so totally against type), but it’s still a fun movie with some of Hitch’s most extraordinary scenes. The finale — in which the villain dangles from his sleeve on the crown of the Statue of Liberty — is quite incredibly staged, and Hitch mounts it beautifully, effectively having most of the scene take place in an unnatural but effective dead silence (elsewhere composer Frank Skinner overscored the film, making the absence of music at the end all the more convincing by contrast). Saboteur also benefits from some sharp, witty lines (by Dorothy Parker), especially in the train with the circus freaks, as well as suffering from some stupid, didactic lines about the war and the world situation (by Clifford Odets, uncredited). — 8/13/93


Earlier in the day I’d watched a movie on TV — Hitchcock’s Saboteur from 1942, a marvelous film even if not quite top-drawer Hitchcock. It was an American Movie Classics showing, and commentator Nick “Reflected Fame” Clooney didn’t fail to mention the story of how Hitchcock planned this film around a star cast of Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck as the leads and Harry Carey as the villain, only to lose them all because Universal wasn’t about to pay high star salaries when they had contract talent available, and Carey’s wife thought he was too much of an American icon to possibly play someone as dastardly as the sabotage mastermind in the film. (He also said Hitchcock originally wanted to call the film U.S., but Universal refused to let him use that title because it was too generic and didn’t indicate what sort of a film it was. Universal then suggested Sabotage, and Hitchcock had to inform them that they couldn’t use that title because he’d made a film called Sabotage in Britain six years earlier — and that’s when they compromised on Saboteur.) As things turned out, Robert Cummings was probably better in the lead role than Cooper would have been — Cooper was enough of an American icon by then (talk about American icons!) that nobody in the audience would have possibly believed that anyone could have thought he was a saboteur, whereas Cummings, though basically a comic actor, had a sinister streak to his appearance (well exploited in Joseph Valentine’s brilliant cinematography — he was an above-average Universal house man who obviously responded to the challenge of working with Hitchcock) — though Priscilla Lane is hopelessly amateurish in the female lead and significantly weakened the film. (Hitchcock never had a kind word to say about Cummings’ performance in Saboteur, but he must have liked the actor well enough to use him again 11 years later in Dial “M” for Murder.)

Saboteur also suffers from a musical score (by Frank Skinner, another Universal house man) of numbing silliness — the music in this film is so drearily clichéd it sounds more like the horrible stock music in films from studios like PRC and Monogram than an original score for a major production (significantly, the final confrontation between hero Cummings and villain Norman Lloyd on the Statue of Liberty is unscored) — and from bits of typical Universal tackiness (the broad expanses of the American Southwest are all too often studio backdrops and process-screen creations, though Valentine or whoever did the second-unit stuff for this film did trot out the red filters for some marvelously sinister background shots). Nonetheless, Saboteur is a good movie, exciting, suspenseful and full of dry-wit dialogue contributed by Dorothy Parker (she, Peter Viertel and Joan Harrison all receive script credit, though the clunky speeches in which Cummings gets to articulate the real meaning of democracy while villain Otto Kruger, all too predictable in the role for which Harry Carey would have been absolutely marvelous anti-type casting, were actually written by an uncredited Clifford Odets, and sound it), particularly in the scene in the circus truck where Cummings and Lane try to talk the freaks into not turning them over to the police. (One of the quirkier aspects of Saboteur is the presence of scenes that evoke memories of previous non-Hitchcock movies; the circus truck evokes memories of Freaks, particularly in the sensibility of a group of people whose very abnormality has given them a common ground of surprising humanity; while the earlier scene involving Cummings seeking shelter with Lane’s uncle, a reclusive blind man in a forest, is straight out of The Bride of Frankenstein.) — 12/3/97


The film was Saboteur, a 1942 Universal release produced by former director Frank Lloyd and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, his third film made in the U.S. and apparently his first with an all-American cast (the previous two, Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent, both had had important roles — including the two leads in Rebecca — played by actors from Hitchcock’s native Great Britain). It was being shown on TCM yesterday as part of a tribute to actor/producer Norman Lloyd, who was celebrating his 100th birthday and, unlike a lot of other people TCM has paid 100th-anniversary tributes to, is still alive. Saboteur — not to be confused with Sabotage, a film Hitchcock had made in Britain six years earlier based on Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent (and, to my mind, a considerably richer and more powerful movie than Saboteur) — is a chase film on the order of The 39 Steps and North by Northwest, featuring an innocent hero on the run both from the bad guys whose plans he’s (inadvertently) helped screw up and the police who want him for a murder he didn’t commit. Hitchcock had originally wanted an all-star cast for Saboteur — Gary Cooper as Barry Kane (that’s how the credits spell the last name, though it’s pronounced “Keene” throughout the film), who’s unjustly suspected of causing a fire in an aircraft factory that took the life of his best friend; and Carole Lombard as Pat Martin, who originally believes him guilty but is ultimately won over to his side as he travels throughout the U.S. looking for the real saboteur. Alas, however, Hitchcock’s contract was held by David O. Selznick, and he not only required Universal to put under Hitchcock’s director credit “By Courtesy of David O. Selznick Productions, Inc.,” he charged Universal such a high loan-out fee for Hitchcock’s services the studio decided they couldn’t afford the salaries of two “A”-list stars on top of what they were paying for the director. (Hitchcock had a similar problem with a different management at Universal 21 years later; he originally intended The Birds for Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, until someone from Universal’s budgeting department pointed out to him that keeping two such high-paid stars on salary for the year it would take to work out the elaborate special effects for that film would be way too expensive — and would cut into Hitchcock’s own income because he had a share-of-profits deal. So The Birds was recast with Rod Taylor and Hitchcock “discovery” Tippi Hedren, and Grant and Hepburn were moved to Stanley Donen’s very Hitchcockian thriller Charade.)

Instead Saboteur was made with Robert Cummings as the innocent man on the run and Priscilla Lane as his off-again, on-again girlfriend — and though Lane is a pretty empty nonentity in a role that just required a pretty face and a blonde hairdo (natural or otherwise), Cummings is arguably more believable in the role than Cooper would have been, especially in the scene in which, trapped with two real members of the sabotage ring, he has to pretend to be a genuine saboteur in order to win their confidence and find out what they’re planning to sabotage next. (Hitchcock liked Cummings well enough to use him again in Dial “M” for Murder 11 years later.) Hitchcock also had to compromise in the casting of the principal villain, Tobin, who runs a cattle ranch in Arizona that’s secretly a headquarters for the saboteurs and who moves about freely at the highest levels of society, turning up at war-relief fundraisers and other places while he’s secretly plotting sabotage behind closed doors. The actor Hitchcock, the inveterate anti-type caster, wanted for this role was the beloved Western character actor Harry Carey — obviously he was going after the same short of shock he’d got in Foreign Correspondent when he had peace activist Herbert Marshall turn out to be a Nazi agent, running a phony pacifist movement to sap the will of the democracies to resist Hitler — but before Carey could read the script, his wife intercepted it, read it and sent Hitchcock back a scorching letter asking how dare he ask a beloved American institution like her husband to play a fiendish mastermind and traitor. So Hitchcock ended up stuck with Otto Kruger, who had played slimy villains in movie after movie and was therefore all too believable, and not at all shocking to the audience, in the role. When I looked up Saboteur on I saw an item telling me something about the movie I hadn’t known before; he had originally wanted Elisha Cook, Jr. for a role in the film — presumably as Frank Fry, the real saboteur who burned down the plane factory (including disabling the sprinkler system and filling a fire extinguisher with gasoline, which was how Barry’s friend died) — and he called him in for an interview. The next day, when Cook showed up, Hitchcock said he was no longer interested in him: “I saw you in The Maltese Falcon last night and if I used you you’d be a dead giveaway for my plot.”

Instead Hitchcock decided to cast someone as Fry who had never made a film before and whose face would therefore be unknown to movie audiences (a gambit Edward Dmytryk used three years later in Cornered when he cast Luther Adler, who likewise hadn’t been filmed before, as the mysterious villain Dick Powell was tracking all movie, and one James Whale had used a decade earlier when he cast Claude Rains, who’d made a few obscure movies in England but was unknown to U.S. audiences, as the title character in The Invisible Man so audience members wouldn’t bring a mental image of what he looked like to the scenes in which he was invisible — which was the whole movie until the very end). He asked his friend John Houseman, former assistant to Orson Welles in the Mercury Theatre and on Citizen Kane, to recommend somebody, and Houseman sent him Norman Lloyd, who suited the role absolutely perfectly. And casting an unknown with an unfamiliar face in a key role wasn’t the only Whale gambit Hitchcock copied in Saboteur: the film’s most moving scene is one in which Barry, on the run from the cops, holes up in the home of blind recluse Mr. Martin (Vaughan Glazer) in a scene somebody on the writing committee (Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, Clifford Odets and Dorothy Parker) obviously copied from the meeting between the Monster and the blind hermit in The Bride of Frankenstein. When you consider that Whale used the famous Psycho casting gimmick 28 years before Psycho, in The Face Before the Mirror (he cast Gloria Stuart at the height of her fame and killed her off in the first reel), one gets the idea that Whale’s influence on Hitchcock is one of the great film research-paper subjects waiting to be written (ditto the influences of Josef von Sternberg and Graham Cutts, the obscure British director whom Hitchcock worked for as an assistant before becoming a director himself; when I saw Cutts’ marvelous 1932 adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four I wrote in my review, “Cutts usually gets dismissed patronizingly in biographies of Alfred Hitchcock … as a mediocre director who drank and womanized his way out of a major career. Judging by his work here, Hitchcock fans should probably be looking at Cutts as an influence on the Master; this film MOVES … , it’s clearly staged with a sense of pace, it makes good use of unusual camera angles (including a surprising number of overhead shots), and the final fight scene … is a genuinely exciting action highlight”).

Saboteur is one of Hitchcock’s “chase” films, clearly reminiscent of The 39 Steps and anticipatory of North by Northwest without being as good as either, though it’s got some great scenes: the chase Tobin’s men lead on horseback as Barry tries to flee the Tobin ranch (which I joked was as close as Hitchcock ever came to directing a Western); the scenes in the circus where Barry and Pat hide out (including Dorothy Parker’s famous line, spoken by one of a pair of Siamese twin to the other: “You’ll have to do something about your insomnia! I’ve tossed and turned all night!”); the scenes at the fancy-dress ball at which Tobin sends one of his agents to cut in on Barry while he’s dancing with Pat so the gang can kidnap her and hold her hostage; and the final chase scene that ends with Fry falling to his death from the Statue of Liberty — a scene Hitchcock said didn’t come off the way he wanted it to because it should have been the hero, not the villain, in mortal peril (a defect he corrected in the ending to North by Northwest). In general I like what I call the “suspense-of-character” Hitchcock films better — movies like Shadow of a Doubt (the immediate successor to Saboteur and, like it, a box-office disappointment; Hitchcock didn’t have a hit between Foreign Correspondent in 1941 and Spellbound in 1945), Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window and Vertigo in which he created genuinely intriguing, multidimensional characters and used his suspense technique to reveal them psychologically instead of just to excite the audience. Saboteur was no doubt good wartime propaganda — though the leaden, pretentious debates on the relative merits of democracy and fascism Odets (oddly not credited on even though he’s listed in the film — while Hitchcock’s production assistant, Joan Harrison, is listed on but is not credited) weighted down the film with just get in the way to a modern viewer — and it’s fun, but it’s not really top-drawer Hitchcock. At the same time, second-tier Hitchcock is still considerably more exciting than most of the attempted “thrillers” being made today! — 11/9/14