In 1942 a worker in a factory (Robert Cummings) making planes for the war effort witnesses an act of sabotage. Being close by at the time, the authorities suspect him of being responsible, forcing him on the run to prove his innocence, proving that there really is no limit to the number of times Hitchcock will use this idea. Maybe he thought it sounded scary to do an idea to death.
While my frustration at the basic plot element of this film being repeated time and time again by Hitchcock is well known to anyone reading this blog, this is certainly one of his best interpretations of the idea. The World War II setting is dark and imposing, cramming the film with atmosphere from beginning to end. It opens with a the shadow of a man slowly approaching a wall, and from this moment you know it means business.
It also has very impressive set pieces including a scene involving a ship being launched and a tense sequence atop the Statue of Liberty. In this sense it’s like North By Northwest’s Mount Rushmore finale, and clearly has a budget to match. Made during the war, it’s an interesting critique of fascism and the behaviour of fascists, one of Hitchcock’s more openly political productions.
Cummings is good as the main character, Barry, and has an acting style very similar to William Shatner. I actually really like Shatner so that’s not an insult, and Cummings certainly plays it with similar enthusiasm. With his guilt come accompanying scenes where he’s eyed with suspicion and the sense of threat builds. Sometimes this is done in a slightly heavy handed way, but is nonetheless effective at building atmosphere and suspense into the film.
Not only Saboteur this benefit from the setting and performance to make it stand out from the rest of Hitchcock’s cinematic dead horse flogging, but also several added layers of intrigue and unexpected moments in the final act. Where I complained that The 39 Steps was fairly predictable and over reliant on coincidence, this has far better writing.
Saboteur is a fantastic wartime thriller from the master of suspense.