Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942) displays many of the stylistic flourishes of the director’s later films. There is the flair for unusual and eccentric minor characters. My favorite scene comes when the two main characters, a factory worker named Barry Kane and a young woman named Pat Martin, catch a ride in a circus car full of sideshow attractions—a skeleton man, bearded woman, fat lady, Siamese twins, and a midget. There are moments of witty dialogue, especially involving the lead actor Robert Cummings. There are iconic American sites—the Hoover Dam, New York City, western landscapes. The final scene takes place in the crown of the Statue of Liberty, with Cummings attempting to prevent the villain from falling to his death. And there is the expected beautiful blonde, played in this film by Priscilla Lane, who takes an active role in pursuing the villains.
What most interested me about this film was its wartime character. It makes numerous references to America and democracy and patriotism. Those who first set a munitions plant on fire in California and then plot to blow up a new battleship in New York City are clearly allied with totalitarianism. There is no mention of the Nazis, but the evildoers enjoy singing a popular song written to the tune of Strauss’ “The Blue Danube,” which I guess shows their love of German culture (who wouldn’t love that tune?). One of the conspirators speaks with contempt of Americans: “I hate to use the word stupid, but it seems to be the only one that applies. The great masses, the moron millions.”
The film is full of plot holes and non-sequiturs, of instances that I would call poor writing. For example, although Cummings’ character is suspected of causing the munitions plant fire and is a wanted criminal, he enjoys considerable freedom of movement while in custody. At another point, Pat Martin is being held by the saboteurs, but she orders a sandwich and pays the man who brings it to her. Having never been a hostage, perhaps I’m unfamiliar with the protocol, but the idea of ordering a sandwich for delivery while in the grips of the enemy seemed odd. Three writers are credited for the script—one of them is Dorothy Parker, who may be responsible for the witty dialogue Hitchcock was apparently an uncredited writer as well. Such a plenitude of writers suggests there were problems with the script.
Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil is aptly represented here. Villains and saboteurs are for the most part difficult to distinguish from normal people—there’s a socialite, a rich businessman, an agent who speaks lovingly of his children. They speak without accents. The point may be that although these people come from all walks of life and look like the rest of us, we’d better watch out, because any of our friends and neighbors might among them. (A decade later, a similar argument focused specifically on suspected Communists, the Red Menace). However, to make clear that the bad guys in Saboteur are evil doers, they are supported by a cast of goon-like henchmen who seem more like reptiles than mammals.