Best known for its Statue of Liberty finale, Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942) reflects the director’s strong disdain for authority. Several reviews at the time note this in a pejorative way. The recurring motif in the first half of the film is that no one seems to believe that Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is as bad as he’s been made out to be. He’s accused of sabotaging an aircraft factory and little he does makes the authorities believe differently. However, nearly every character Barry runs into believes him innocent.
In the scenario, most of the police around the California settings outside Los Angeles are on the payroll of fifth columnists, led by Mr Tobin (Otto Kruger). Tobin owns a large ranch and is a pillar of the community. A second motif emerges: many of the elite are quick to sell out their country. Tobin orchestrates much of the enemy activity in the western United States. Besides burning down an aircraft factory, he plans (unsuccessfully) to blow up dam that supplies to Los Angeles and its many Defense plants. He is aided by a socialite (Alma Krugar) who owns the New York mansion where she holds a gala as a front for her subversive activities
The one person most attached to Barry during his flight from the police believes in him the least. Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) visits her blind father at a cabin the woods. Barry had arrived earlier and she can’t believe her father is harboring a fugitive. He asks her to take Barry to a blacksmith to hack off the handcuffs, but she tries to contact the police instead. Later, she accompanies him on a circus train and then to Soda City, a ghost town, where Tobin had planned to destroy the dam. She remains skeptical about Barry until they’re both held captive in New York City.
The film could be called “East by Northeast” because it moves from Los Angeles to New York City. Like North by Northwest, the film ends atop a national monument with some hanging by his fingernails. In Saboteur, it’s a villain, played by Norman Lloyd. It is said that screenwriter Ben Hecht (Scarface) remarked about Lloyd’s death: “He should have had a better tailor.” Barry had been holding onto him by his sleeve.
Saboteur is a very watchable film despite the leading stars, Cummings and Lane. Though they aren’t meant to be serious characters – he’s a working stiff and she’s an advertising model –they lack the gravitas of, say, Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint. Even the main enemy agent, Otto Kruger, comes off strangely. Again, it begs comparison to North by Northwest’s suave spy, James Mason.
Norman Lloyd’s role underscores the film’s use of interesting non-lead characters. The freaks on the circus train, stand out, but also Clem Bevins in the Soda City scene, and, lastly, one of the butlers at the mansion, Ian Wolfe, who has 303 acting credits, a worthy rival to Whit Bissell.