Saboteur is far from top-tier Alfred Hitchcock, but even below-par Hitch is entertaining. And this 1942 suspense yarn certainly holds your interest. It relies on a familiar storyline -- an innocent man wrongly accused of a crime embarks on a cross-country chase to clear his good name -- that the director had used in his 1935 British masterpiece, The 39 Steps, and would tap again in 1959's North by Northwest. In fact, Saboteur's imaginative set pieces and loopy humor can be seen as a sort of blueprint for North by Northwest, even down to the literal cliffhanger high atop a national monument.
Saboteur's Barry Kane (Bob Cummings) is an average Joe doing his part for the war effort by working at a Glendale, California, munitions plant. During a work break, he literally bumps into a prickly stranger, Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd), who drops a few envelopes and sneers when Barry and his pal, Ken, offer an apology.
Shortly afterwards, a fire spreads through the plant. Fry shows up to hand a fire extinguisher to Barry, who in turn gives it to his friend. Whoops. The extinguisher is filled with gasoline, and Barry watches helplessly as Ken is engulfed by flames.
Police pin Barry as the arsonist, and so begins our hero's odyssey to exonerate himself by tracking down the mysterious Fry. Remembering an address on one of Fry's letters, Barry hitchhikes to a place called Deep Springs Ranch, where he meets dastardly Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger), a rich geezer with a creepy laugh and a soft spot for his baby granddaughter.
Tobin, a ringleader of pro-fascist saboteurs out to thwart the Allies, turns Barry over to police. But our intrepid protagonist escapes, seeks refuge from a solicitous, effete blind man (think The Bride of Frankenstein meets Noel Coward) and winds up enlisting the help of the man's pretty niece, Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane).
As is typical with Hitchcock's shaggy-dog adventures, Saboteur's plotline is solely perfunctory, a loose-fitting suit to justify a succession of inventive set pieces. The movie reveals a dry wit, owed in part to the screenplay by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison and the great Dorothy Parker. Barry and Pat stumble across a train car of circus sideshow folks, complete with conjoined sisters who aren't speaking to one another and a bearded lady with her beard in curlers for the night. In a clever burst of post-modernism, Barry later finds himself at Radio City Music Hall during a movie, dodging bullets while a very similar scenario is unfolding at the same time on the big screen. Most impressive of all is the film's justly celebrated climax atop the Statue of Liberty.
Nevertheless, Hitchcock's moments of inspiration are hampered by some casting decision that he had foisted upon him. Bob Cummings is a serviceable hero, but he can't shake a lightweight, comedy-friendly persona. Priscilla Lane also fails to register much presence.
Moreover, Saboteur's ham-fisted jingoism is certainly understandable, but its flag-waving is more likely to leave you chortling instead of choked up. An over-the-top speech that Barry delivers toward the film's conclusion has everything but the rocket's red glare.
Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the black-and-white picture is of terrific quality -- sharp and crisp throughout. But so was the previous DVD incarnation of Saboteur, so Hitchcock devotees who already own the flick needn't think about upgrading.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is consistently good. While you won't be swept away by the audio, it gets the job done. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.
The 35-minute Laurent Bouzereau documentary, Saboteur: A Closer Look, is an interesting, albeit superficial, retrospective that includes interviews with Norman Lloyd, Pat Hitchcock O'Connell (the director's daughter) and Saboteur associate art director Robert Boyle. Lloyd's anecdotes are particularly amusing, especially his recollection of the how the effects were achieved in the Statue of Liberty sequence.
That climactic scene takes center stage in storyboards and Alfred Hitchcock sketches. While the drawings could have used a bit of context, they nevertheless illustrate the meticulous care by which the master of suspense prepared his set pieces.
Other bonus features include standard production photographs, production notes and a theatrical trailer.
Saboteur is a mixed bag. It boasts a handful of memorable scenes and images that are Hitchcock hallmarks, but such mastery is compromised by a lackluster casting and cheesy dialogue mired in wartime propaganda.