If there’s anything I’ve learned from regularly attending the Classic Movies series at the historic Prytania Theatre on Sundays, it’s that even the “lesser” Hitchcock titles are not to be missed. After falling in love with the Marlene Dietrich sultriness of Stage Fright & the gorgeous Technicolor sex humor of To Catch a Thief, any & all Hitchcock titles have become appointment viewing — whether or not they match the iconic prestige of films like Psycho, Rear Window, or Strangers on a Train. The Prytania’s latest Hitchcock selection, Saboteur, was no exception to the rule. At first glance, Saboteur appears to be a noir thriller B-picture that’s only distinguishing detail is a co-writing credit from Dorothy Parker (who did a punch-up treatment on its dialogue). Only Alfred Hitchcock’s name in the “directed by” credit vouches for the film being anything more than that, but his is a name that consistently delivers. Even as much credit as Hitchcock gets for elevating genre filmmaking to the level of fine art, I’m beginning to question whether I’ve still been taking him for granted as one of the greatest directors of all time. He’s starting to cross the line from widely-praised cinematic icon to beloved personal favorite; the only question is why it took me so many years & just a few screenings of his “lesser” titles for me to get there.
In Saboteur, a couple of Air Force do-gooders attempt to put out a fire started by a foreign subversive at their base, and are punished for their heroism. One soldier dies in the fire, while the other is framed for the act of terror that killed his best friend & put national security at risk. What follows is a twisty, suspenseful mystery of grimy noir aesthetics & deep political intrigue as the surviving soldier travels the country in an attempt to thwart the terrorist syndicate who framed him and to clear his own name. At least that’s what’s promised on the tin. Instead, Hitchcock mostly delivers a weirdly patriotic road trip comedy about a hitch-hiker on the lam and the various weirdos who shelter him until he’s free of police scrutiny. Saboteur operates with a peculiar, admirable form of patriotism that loves America, but hates cops (as is right & proper). As our hero in peril finds comrades in billboard advertisement models, the disabled, working class truck drivers, and circus freaks while traveling by thumb across the country, Saboteur establishes a beautifully, radically inclusive definition of who & what is America. The enemies of that vision, by contrast, are wealthy pontificators who would sell the country to literal Nazis just to make another buck and ineffectual, brutish police officers who can’t determine the rightful target when enforcing the law. The crime thriller element promised in Saboteur‘s advertising is mostly just an excuse for this off-kilter version of war-time patriotism, one that course-corrects patriotism’s usual nastiness with a sense of humor & empathy the audience is not at all primed to expect.
Of course, Saboteur‘s surprises in tonal & narrative trajectory can only carry the film so far; they would amount to very little if it weren’t for Hitchcock’s visual craft & prankish spirit, both of which are on full display here despite this film’s modest budget & bevy of screenwriters. When crafting a noir thriller in the earliest stretch, the director casts sharply defined shadows of dangerous figures against stark white walls. When the inciting fire breaks out it’s announced with a thick black smoke projected against the same stark background, creeping into the frame with menacing intent. Incredible stunts & sound stage set pieces give the illusion of men crumbling in fires, jumping from bridges into wild rivers, and hanging from the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Although the accused’s hitch-hiking trip across the country is broadly informed with cheeky humor & outlandish character work, Hitchcock builds genuine tension in the feeling that he is trapped and will be caught at any second. Saboteur starts in the contained, dingy menace of a Poverty Row noir, but expands to deliver everything you could want to see on the big screen: comedy, romance, adventure, visual spectacle, shocks of terror, etc. You can feel Hitchcock straining behind the camera to elevate the material to match his own meticulous standard. In that way, it’s almost easier to see his merits as a director in these “lesser” works than in his better-funded, better-respected masterworks where everything is arranged in its proper place & tone.
I’m not sure that I would call Saboteur “essential viewing” for everyone with a passing interest in Hitchcock. For all of its charmingly skewed patriotism & admirably crafted spectacle, the film is still somewhat hampered by a dull lead performer (Robert Cummings) and an unsatisfactorily abrupt ending that prevent it from being Great Cinema. However, the way the film gradually reveals itself to be a wild, playfully cruel road trip comedy & popcorn movie after initially coming across as just another cheap-o noir truly feels like watching Hitchocck getting away with something, like he’s pulling a fast one on his producers. The dangerous thing about Saboteur is that it suggests that all Hitchcock titles might be essential viewing, that even his least-respected, lowest-profile works are not to be missed – especially if you have convenient access to seeing them on the big screen.