A sinister young man named Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd) frames war-plant machinist Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) for a deadly act of sabotage and becomes the subject of a madcap cross-country manhunt. Dodging every lawman on his tail and avoiding murder attempts by the real traitors, Barry is almost turned in by young Patricia Martin (Priscilla Lane) who gives him a lift out of a tight spot. To clear himself Barry finally ends up in New York City to confront the suavely evil 5th-column kingpin Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger). Desperately trying to prevent a bombing planned for the christening of a new warship, Barry recognizes Fry at a critical moment and the chase is on.
A fairly straightforward patriotic version of The 39 Steps and not to be confused with Hitch's earlier English Sabotage, Saboteur is a mixed bag of great sequences alternating with some unusually clunky scenes. Hitchcock depended on starpower to give movies like this charm while he concentrated on the gimmicks, but what was available on the Universal lot wasn't up to the task. While never actually bad Robert Cummings never seems natural, and top-billed Priscilla Lane is something of a total loss. As this was actually an independent production using Universal's top talent Deanna Durbin was probably out of the question ... anyone wanting to see what she could do when not saddled with a dumb script should check out the excellent Lady on a Train. Otto Kruger's villain is a straight-out grinning lizard complete with effete manners and snide comebacks. As such he's the odd man out among Hitchcock bad guys and probably the least interesting. The best thing in the film is Norman Lloyd's Fry, who with only a few lines and moments on screen creates a very distinctive 'ordinary' young man who is also a remorseless killer.
Barry Kane's adventures are certainly fast-paced but they don't hang together as they should. America comes off as a nation of not-very-bright people who are either naive and virtuous or evil and unredeemable The episodes with the circus freaks and the Thoreau-like blind hermit in the woods seem to have drifted in from older Horror films. The key scenes at the traitor's ritzy party in New York fall flat mostly because the topical seriousness of the subject matter didn't allow for the breezy cynical attitude that had made 39 Steps a fun treat. Perhaps Hitchcock was just not yet familiar enough with America, or more likely, this was a fast programmer where perfection wasn't part of the plan. Not top-rank Hitchcock, Saboteur is still one of the better wartime budget productions and makes a lot more sense than most of its spy drama competition, where Ronald Reagan or somebody defeats stumblebum Nazi thugs while romancing a Hollywood starlet. It's just that as both entertainment and propaganda, it pales beside Hitch's earlier and utterly charming Foreign Correspondent.
Hitchcock gave all of his attention to a couple of special scenes, a wise commercial choice with a limited budget. The fiery beginning is unusually graphic for the times. But the buzz that made Saboteur a must-see movie was the Statue of Liberty ending which stands out as a finely crafted setpiece separate from the tone of the rest of the film. The struggle between Fry and Kane atop the very symbol of America is charged with patriotic sentiment on a mythical plane - and even resembles a political cartoon when one potent view shows complacent tourists enjoying the view out of Lady Liberty's crown, unaware of the desperate struggle taking place on the Torch arm a few feet away. The impact of this convincing, breathtaking finale is what stays in the memory, while the rest of Saboteur becomes a blur.
Universal's DVD of Saboteur is a nice presentation of this movie, with care taken in the packaging and the extras. The added value menu offers storyboards and Hitchcock sketches as well as a still and poster gallery. Like the rest of this batch of Hitchcock titles the Laurent Bouzereau documentary is shorter and less all-inclusive than for the earlier 'bigger' releases, but the quality is high and the subject carefully covered. One fun observation for genre fans is Art Director Robert Boyle admitting that this film was his big break and proudly stating that his previous assignment had been the (excellent) art direction for Universal's The Wolf Man! The disc is encoded with French and Spanish tracks and subtitles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Saboteur rates:
Movie: Very good
Sound: Very good
Supplements: Docu, Trailer, still and info archives
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 18, 2001