Saboteur (1942)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

I should admit upfront that I was hesitant to give this movie a fair chance. I missed Can You Ever Forgive Me? in its initial run because I was unsure that it was anything more than Oscar Bait. An Oscar Season actor’s showcase for a once-goofy-now-serious comedian in a tonally muted biopic will never be the kind of thing I rush out to see. The talent on-hand in this particular case was too substantial to fully ignore, however, as the comedian in question is the consistently compelling Melissa McCarthy and the director behind her Marielle Heller, whose previous feature The Diary of a Teenage Girl might just be one of the best dramas of the decade. I don’t believe my initial misgivings about Can You Ever Forgive Me? were entirely inaccurate. The film’s subdued real-life subject, its predilection for montage & voiceover narration, and its relentless mood-setting jazzy score all feel like they belong to the exact kind of well-behaved, awards-seeking picture that I actively avoid. I also only got a second chance to see it in a proper theater because of those awards; after being nominated for two acting-category Oscars (and a third for Best Screenplay) it returned for a second theatrical run in New Orleans to profit off the buzz. Make no mistake: Can You Ever Forgive Me? carries the exact look, feel, and prestige you’d expect from an Oscar Season biopic featuring a comic performer acting against type. What’s wonderful, then, is how Heller & McCarthy (along with fellow subversives Richard E. Grant & Nicole Holofcener) use that structure to deliver something much more tonally & thematically challenging than it initially appears.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is dressed up like a prestige biopic, but only in the way that a mean drunk can temporarily disguise themselves as a functional, friendly human being in short social bursts before their true colors start to show. McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, a once-successful literary biographer who turns to a life of petty crime once she finds herself near-homeless, unable to successfully pitch any new projects to her publisher. Her particular talent of getting into the heads (and voices) of her literary biography subjects comes in handy when she begins to forge personal letters in their name to sell to collectors – faking correspondence with important historical artists like Dorothy Parker, Fanny Brice, and Noel Coward for minor sums of cash. The payoffs are relatively small for a grift that lands her under investigation by the FBI, but Israel seemingly has no other means to survive, as she lives precariously without a social safety net. In a lesser film, that sense of isolation & financial doom would be blamed on some social ill or systemic pitfall that failed her. Here, it’s because Lee Israel is an asshole. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is most impressive as a balancing act of admiring & sympathizing with a character while not letting them off the hook for being a drunk & an obstinate dick. Lee Israel and her only partner in crime (a fellow poverty-line drunkard played by Richard E. Grant) live by a strict “Fuck ‘em” policy when dealing with the rest of the world, an attitude that isolates them in ways that are both dangerous to their well-being & difficult for wide-audience sensibilities. It also makes for a much more relatable, satisfying picture than what was sold in its earliest ads.

The secret success of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is that it passes itself off as a well-behaved biopic, but it’s not a biopic at all. While the film does follow a somewhat notable historical figure around a long-gone 1990s NYC, it’s less a biography of Israel’s life than it is a dual character study of two very particular, very difficult people. Crude, drunk, queer, mean, proudly unemployable, and living in squalor, Israel and her sole co-conspirator have a hostile relationship with their fellow New Yorkers (and the universe at large). McCarthy plays Israel with aggressive skepticism & a permanent scowl, deathly afraid of showing a single glimpse of emotional vulnerability or sincerity. For his part, Grant goes full Quentin Crisp as her cohort, ruthlessly squeezing every cheap hedonistic thrill out of life as he can, treating his limited time on Earth as a frivolous lark. Even if you don’t see you own personal flaws & hurt reflected in these characters, it’s easy to recognize them as kindred spirits; the shithole world we live in doesn’t deserve any more sympathy or respect than they’re already giving it. Marielle Heller’s greatest achievement in this film is in inhabiting Israel’s voice & POV, the same way the infamous forger inhabited the voices of the literary figures whose graves she robbed. No matter how prickly or destructive Israel can be in the film, we never lose sight of the fact that the world let her down first, that life is a bum deal that doesn’t deserve a single ounce of effort whether or not she’s willing to give it. Whether she’s furiously railing against the fragile egos & unearned confidence of straight white men or enjoying a brief glimmer of peace in an upscale drag bar, we feel her anger, her pain, and her displacement in a world that does not want her. You cannot fake that kind of authenticity in spiritual kinship, even if Heller, McCarthy, and Holofcener are speaking for Israel, even if the vessel that contains her forged voice carries the inauthenticity of an Awards Season melodrama.

-Brandon Ledet