Sunday, November 16, 2008

Just as good as Foreign Correspondent

Tomorrow at 9:15 AM, TCM is airing another Alfred Hitchcock thriller that is just as good -- and just as underrated -- as Foreign Corresponden: 1942's Saboteur.

Robert Cummings stars as Barry Kane, a worker at an aircraft factory in Los Angeles at the outset of World War II. There's a fire at the plant, and Kane and his best friend rush to the scene. Kane gives his best friend the fire extinguisher, but it does no good, as his friend dies in the fire. Worse for Kane, it turns out that the fire extinguisher was filled with gasoline. The police obviously suspect him, but Kane remembers seeing a certain Mr. Fry handing the extinguisher to him, to give to his friend.

And so begins a cross-country search for the elusive Mr. Fry (played by Norman Lloyd), with Kane also having to stay one step ahead of the police. Along the way, Kane meets a series of interesting characters, including the trucker who wants to help him against "the man", not knowing that Kane is wanted for sabotage; the blind man who recognizes without seeing him, that Kane is innocent, and the blind man's model niece Patricia Martin, played by Priscilla Lane. She doesn't agree with her uncle, and when he wants her to take Barry to a blacksmith to remove the handcuffs, Pat tries to take him to the police instead. Of course, Barry is too smart for Pat, and is able to waylay her. Eventually, he is able to convince her of his innocence, in part because she sees what the real saboteurs are out to do. Pat then follows Barry to New York City, where we reach our climax, atop the Statue of Liberty. But I won't give that part of the story away....

Saboteur is vintage Hitchcock, with themes that he would explore over and over throughout his career. There's the monument for the climax, the blonde, one great sequence after another (notably a scene in the Radio City Music Hall theater), and Hitch's trademark dark humor. Not long after meeting Pat, we learn that she's deathly afraid of snakes; shortly thereafter, Barry and Pat hop aboard a circus caravan. The sideshow characters themselves are enjoyable (Pat comments to Barry later that she felt bad for the "human mountain" because her figure had gone so much), but even better is what happens when the police stop the caravan looking for Barry and Pat. The leader of the troupe has hidden Barry, but when the policeman asks about Pat, the leader tells him, that Pat is actually their snake-charmer!

In many ways, Saboteur is the same story as the earlier The 39 Steps, as well as the later North by Northwest, in that a man falsely accused of a crime has to stay ahead of the police, while trying to find the real guilty party. It may actually be the best of the three. Saboteur has better production values than The 39 Steps, while the two have stories that are about the same quality. The big thing Saboteur has over North by Northwest is the lack of Cary Grant. This is a movie that should be story-driven, and putting a major star like Cary Grant into it, with all the baggage that he brings, really changes the story. (Not that Grant is a bad actor; just that the movie works better with a lesser actor as the lead.) Also, in North by Northwest, there's a bit of a deus ex machina in that we know the police are really on Grant's side the whole time; in Saboteur, Cummings and Lane actually have to convince him. Also, Lane actually gets to be a bit stronger of a woman than a lot of the blondes Hitchcock used. Although she's been kidnapped, she doesn't need Barry to come and save her; she cleverly engineers her own escape by using her lipstick to write a note that she throws out the window. She also takes part in the climax, tailing Fry, and detaining him at the Statue of Liberty until the police arrive.

Saboteur is also available on DVD, should you miss tomorrow morning's showing.

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