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Overall Rating

Awesome: 13.64%
Worth A Look45.45%
Average: 36.36%
Pretty Bad: 4.55%
Total Crap: 0%

2 reviews, 10 user ratings

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by Brett Gallman

"One of the greater 'lesser' Hitchcock films."
4 stars

While history hasn’t revealed “Saboteur” to be among Hitchcock’s most popular films, it’s certainly among his most populist offerings. Using one of the director’s most famous tropes--the wrong man, here also a clear stand-in for the Common Man--the film explores a wartime America on the verge of being sabotaged by an insidious cadre of its most affluent citizens. If nothing else, “Saboteur” shows that much hasn’t changed in 70 years on that front.

Unlike our current 1%, this group isn’t just banking on its wealth and influence to strong-arm their way into governmental legislature; instead, they aren’t opposed to relying on brute force terrorist attacks like the one that kicks off this “man on the run” drama. The man who will eventually be on the run is Barry Kane (Robert Cummings), a worker at an aircraft factory that goes up in flames when one of his co-workers sets off an explosion. He’s the one that gets blamed for it, though, and he’s thrust into an unexpected journey that takes him across the country as he attempts to clear his name.

Like many of Hitchcock’s other wrong men, Cummings eventually finds a pretty blonde (Priscilla Lane) by his side--that much is to be expected. However, he also encounters a series of other individuals that clearly bisect this world into good and evil; the former are represented by the kindly blind man who can see what no one else can (Kane’s innocence) and the troupe of circus freaks that conceal him from danger. All of these characters share a common dignity, with the blind man especially acting as a mouthpiece for the idyllic form of democracy that hangs in the balance. “Saboteur” is often marked by blazingly obvious passages of patriotic aggrandizing that seem a little sentimental now, but this was one of Hitchcock’s propaganda films, and it plays as such.

On the other side of the coin are the more sinister villains, headed up by Otto Kruger’s smarmy ranch-owner; acting as stuffy landed gentry when compared to the dusty masses, he noxiously lords over the proceedings, puffing away on a pipe and all but twirling his mustache as he dances around Kane. He’s scary precisely because he is so initially inviting during this poolside chat; there’s even a little granddaughter that he dotes upon to make him all the more disarming (the infant girl also proves to be his undoing when she unwittingly uncovers evidence of her grandfather’s treachery for Kane, perhaps indicating that goodness and innocence will always find a way). That he’s hiding in plain sight is obviously the unsettling point here, and it’s one that both reveals that age’s domestic paranoia and a universal distrust in these type of self-serving aristocrats.

“Saboteur” is a big, grand adventure, but it essentially boils down to one conversation between Cummings and Kruger that sketches this conflict in black and white. The latter chastises the former for keeping such an ideal, reductive view of the world, a moment that hints that the film is well-aware of its own heart-on-its-sleeve sentimentality. Kruger hints at the shades-of-grey that oil his motivations, but even he somewhat ironically and reductively admits that it’s all about power, so “Saboteur” doesn’t even presume any sort of nuance. It’s a wartime fable that pits actual, common nobility against presumptuous nobility, but at least this set of sneering, entitled nest of vipers can admit their own bullshit, so to speak. There’s nothing particularly weaselly about this group--if they want to make the government kowtow, they’ll blow up a dam or a navy ship.

In that respect, “Saboteur” is a rather sweeping thriller; this was Hitchcock’s first film with Universal, and they graced him with a wealth of set-pieces and special effects to help punctuate an otherwise tidy thriller that moves along well enough, and it lightly bounces along with streaks of humor. Abnormally pertinent messages tend to manifest in billboards and random books; one billboard gravely intones “you’re being followed” when Cummings is of course being tailed. Such inserts don’t undercut the film’s severity as much as they just reinforce that karma seems to be on the good guy’s side; if this is a propaganda film, then even the bombastic puffery within the film only serves to aid the heroes.

The cast adequately fills out their roles--this wasn’t Hitchcock’s most famous collection of names and faces, but the likes of Cummings and Lane seem to be intentionally subdued; their romance doesn’t have the crackling spark of many Hitchcockian couples, but both are rather down-to-earth. Cummings is especially dashing in his everyman flight jacket that clashes with the swanky suits and robes worn by the villains, who do prove to be a bit more rounded and memorable. Kruger is the obvious highlight, and his presence seems intentionally Germanic for obvious reasons.

Regarding “Saboteur” on the curve of similar Hitchcock films proves to also be rather tidy, with the two obvious reference points being 1936’s “Sabotage” and 1959’s “North by Northwest.” Its feet are planted in elements of both, even down to some odd coincidences: “Sabotage” was centered around a theater and “Saboteur” stops at one before it climaxes, plus auctions serve as a method of escape for both Cummings and Cary Grant in their respective films.

Though it’s only about 6 years removed from “Sabotage,” this film actually hews much closer to “North by Northwest”; both are epically scoped, albeit in different proportions. Whereas “North by Northwest” is wide, “Saboteur” is a towering film that often reduces its characters to miniature scale when set against colossal backdrops such as the airplane factory; even the aforementioned theater screen looms over that scene (ironically enough, the film playing here seems to be a thriller like “Saboteur”). There’s a sense that everyone here is enveloped by something bigger than themselves, a message that is literalized and passed on to an audience that would be encouraged to buy war bonds after the show.

A most obvious comparison can be made between both film’s climactic set-pieces since both feature vertigo-inducing sequences centered around national monuments; Cary Grant dangling from Mount Rushmore is the more famous of the two, but the harrowing chase that scales the Statue of Liberty is both technically impressive and thematically resonant. Liberty and freedom itself dangles from a monument that represents the “tired” and the “poor,” the “huddled masses yearning to breath free”; their fate is also at stake here.

“Saboteur” presents an America fighting two wars: one abroad, one domestic, with the latter being a shadowy conflict marked by class warfare. Hitchcock’s broadly stroked classism is a little quaint and on-the-nose, but it’s difficult to ignore how it invokes parallels with our current headlines that are similarly dominated by such reductions. We’re every bit as split along these lines, only it’s perhaps a bit scarier now since some of the sneering entitled purport to act on behalf of the 99%. It’s much more comforting to imagine that the bad guys can be snuffed out and thwarted by an average Joe in a flight jacket.

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originally posted: 03/16/12 18:47:29
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User Comments

10/31/15 Bents Some good moments and characters....but kind of a Scooby Doo plot 3 stars
3/22/12 Justin Venter AMAZING! LOVED IT 5 stars
9/02/05 Zack good movie 4 stars
4/12/05 ALBERT a very stupid film 2 stars
9/14/04 Ira Too much "suspension of disbelief" required. Lane is a vixen and Grace Kelly precursor. 3 stars
6/11/04 Sean Scanlan Alfred Hitchcock is the best director 5 stars
7/27/03 Marcos Almeida Robert Cummings did a pretty good job. The part with the blind senior is awsome. 5 stars
5/15/02 Michelle Gaskell at least its hitchcock weak leads good climax 4 stars
8/31/01 Hooker with a Penis a great movie for a lonely sattyday nite... ahahaha... insert joke here (_________________) 4 stars
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  DVD: 20-Jun-2006



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