“You have a saboteur’s disposition.”

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So says Priscilla Lane to Robert Cummings in SABOTEUR, another retread of the 39 STEPS idea, complete with handcuffs, disbelieving blonde, embarrassment versus peril at a social gathering, and adding in the climax on a monument idea which Hitchcock had first developed, aided by the young Michael Powell, in BLACKMAIL.

Digression: watching THE BEAST OF THE CITY, a great pre-code cops and gangsters drama with Walter Huston, we got fascinated by Huston’s family. This being an MGM movie, it dispenses somewhat with the hard-edged proletarian qualities of Warners gangster films, instead endorsing shady and brutal police methods with fascistic relish, and part of the strategy is to celebrate the police chief’s family and home life. First off, a foetal Mickey Rooney plays Huston’s youngest kid, which is distracting enough, but when his twin daughters enter, side by side and carrying a single platter between them, and talking in unison, we wondered for a moment if they weren’t the Hilton sisters, the conjoined twins who appeared in FREAKS (and one other movie, CHAINED BOUND FOR LIFE). But then they exited separately, which pretty much proved that they weren’t. No doubt we were influenced by the fact that it was an MGM movie, like FREAKS, and Huston’s younger brother was played by the guy who played Phroso the clown in that Tod Browning masterpiece.

0417Another thin man.

This pointless anecdote connects to the fact that SABOTEUR also features Siamese twins, but these are fake (real twins, though), and that it’s also the source of a similar case of mistaken identity. When I first saw SABOTEUR as a teenager, I formed the mistaken impression that the actor playing the living skeleton in the same freakshow scene was John Carradine. That mistake stayed in my memory, and I was surprised to find out I was wrong (it’s Pedro de Cordoba, who has a similar seedy elegance and Shakespearian delivery), just as I was about Mel Blanc being in MR AND MRS SMITH. De Cordoba is very good, but I’m still disappointed he’s not Carradine and he’s not a real living skeleton (what, was Miles Mander unavailable?)

Movie begins with the silhouette of the saboteur (Norman Lloyd, later Hitch’s TV producer) leaving the scene of his crime, an image echoed at the end with his tiny figure silhouetted against a movie screen at Radio City Music Hall, smoke from his gun mirroring the black cloud that issues earlier from his act of arson.

The opening scenes are fairly sombre, as Cummings’ pal (a crewmember recruited by Hitchcock for his blue-collar appearance) is killed in the fire. Cummings, a popular whipping-boy among classic film fans, is actually pretty good at the emotional scenes after the death (although it seems to me that it’s this film, and not FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, that’s undercast in its star roles — I’ll take McCrea over Cummings any day. According to Bill Krohn, Hitchcock originally envisaged Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck for this one, but was forced to accept Cummings and Priscilla Lane who had been paired for another project that collapsed). ¬†But the script (Peter Viertel and Joan Harrison and Dorothy Parker) surprisingly squanders a few opportunities for suspense as Cummings is suspected of the crime and forced to go on the run.

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They drive by night.

The film repeatedly pulls off a neat trick though, sending Cummings from one scrape or dead end to another, and always managing to provide some slight clue to motivate the next part of the chase. And through the episodic narrative, a romance is nurtured and several themes develop.

One theme connects to Cummings proletarian side: a factory worker, he often finds himself disadvantaged by his lowly social status, although he receives the help of a truck driver who recognises him as a brother, and a blind hermit who seems to have wandered in from THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, spouting philosophy like Rock Hudson’s pal in MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION. Cummings’ greatest enemies are the rancher Toban (a wonderfully oily Otto Kruger) and society lady Mrs Sutton (Alma Kruger, no relation).

Another motif is the presentation of the bad guys: Hitchcock gives Tobin a cute little granddaughter, has another speak of his long-haired baby son (a genuinely weird scene — what are they saying here?), while another talks about taking his kid sister out. And a whole coterie of thugs sings Tonight We Love while taking Cummings for a ride. All of which, perversely, doesn’t humanize them in any positive way, it makes their evil all the more chilling. Observing that the enemy love their families too does not mean we shouldn’t hate them: the ability to feel love for a child and then commit acts of murder against strangers is a particularly insidious kind of evil, Hitch seems to be saying.

Hitchcock’s reaction to an air raid warden’s announcement of the bombing of Pearl Harbor — “Why was he wearing that funny hat?” — does not suggest a man particularly attuned to world affairs, yet such was the script’s topicality that the declaration of war did not substantially alter it. Perhaps the freakshow scene, in which a bunch of typically atypical Americans have to decide whether to get involved, would have played out more urgently if America were still sitting on the fence, but it’s still an intriguing scene, even if the little fascist is the only guy in it who could have made a living in a real sideshow.

0892Film.

“What do they have in America?” seems to have been the question asked as Cummings and lane traverse the nation, taking in the Hoover Dam, deserts, a ghost town, Radio City and finally the Empire State Building, a fairly wide range of US signifiers. Krohn calls this the first American Hitchcock to take place in America, which is true if we discount MR AND MRS SMITH (but should we?) — so Hitch is busy trying to make the landscape his own. It’s essential preparation for SHADOW OF A DOUBT, a real masterpiece and possibly Hitchcock’s most American film of all.

Script: Joan Harrison turned Hitch’s ideas into a long outline, what we’d call a “scriptment” today, with Viertel (whose father¬†had collaborated with Alma Reville on THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK) filling that out into a first draft and Dorothy Parker providing dialogue sparkle. Parker’s work really enlivens the truck driver scenes, the blind philosopher, the sideshow artists scene and those colourful bad guys. Arguably the construction is even more artificial than usual, with Cummings escaping from a locked room simply by setting off a fire alarm. Panic ensues throughout the building — cut to Cummings outside, an all-too-typical smug look on his face. “How did he get out?” wondered Viertel. “They’ll never ask,” smiled Hitchcock.

That interlude within the swank Manhattan hotel is probably the weakest part. The explanation of why Cummings can’t simply walk out isn’t too compelling, and his attempts to enlist the help of party guests lack conviction too. the whole scene is a series of partial escapes from no clearly defined peril: simply exposing Cummings to the bad guys and cutting to him locked in the cupboard would have saved a lot of time (which might have been expended on a more interesting escape) and cost the film little in the way of real suspense. But I do like the way Lane keeps saying “This is like a nightmare!” and “It all seems so unreal!” She’s not wrong. And maybe this is another scene with a pre-war undercurrent, the serene society people waltzing away with the city about to explode around them.

There are two more problematic bits: the Radio City scene has an audience laughing uproariously at a film which doesn’t seem to be even trying to be funny. This can also be chalked up to the dreamlike atmosphere, I guess. Hitch also indulges in his propensity for killing innocent bystanders (see the unfortunate Dutch cyclist of FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT), which I always find a little upsetting.

Then, the grand finale atop Lady Liberty (and I like the synchronicity of the statue being reopened to the public this week to coincide with my posting this). Ben Hecht reportedly watched the scene where Norman Lloyd’s sleeve ripped off and he falls to his death and dryly remarked, “Should’ve gone to a better tailor.” I suspect this anecdote inspired the scene in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY where Paul Newman dangles from a skyscraper, his fate decided by a series of flashbacks exploring the strength of the stitching in his jacket. “My sleeve…”

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Of course, if Norman Lloyd had grabbed the cuff before his arm slid free, he’d have been fine. He seems to have had plenty of time to do so.

I also like the cops shouting “Get a rope!” I’d like to see a short about the cop who runs all the way downstairs and scours Liberty Island for a good length of hemp, finds it, desperately negotiates its purchase, then runs all the way back up to find everybody gone.

But the problem here, as Hitchcock described it, is that it’s the villain who’s in jeopardy, not the hero. Paul Schrader uses the same ending in AMERICAN GIGOLO, in a way, but boosts the drama by having the suspended bad guy be essential to clear the hero. Hitchcock makes a faint stab at this, but Cummings has effectively already been cleared, so it doesn’t really amp up the tension. However, the sequence is so brilliantly put together, including some of the best special effects of the period (by INVISIBLE MAN genius John P Fulton), that considerable suspense, and even terror, is created.

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Norman Lloyd’s death fall was photographed from above by a rising crane, with the actor spinning on a rotating saddle.

I always enjoy SABOTEUR, but I prefer FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, which has George Sanders and Herbert Marshall and a giant budget. But this later film shows tons of creativity, especially as it was achieved at much lower cost, necessitating many cost-saving devices. Here, Hitchcock’s meticulous preparation was essential, and assistant art director Robert Boyle, who storyboarded the movie, would become an important collaborator on future projects. Hitch was starting to build his team.

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18 Responses to ““You have a saboteur’s disposition.””

  1. Two moments that stick with me from “Saboteur”:

    1) Cummings dancing with Lane and telling her, essentially, “You’re in my arms and this is forever, nothing can tear us apart!” — only to have someone tap his shoulder. Cutting in, dontcha know.

    2) The look in Alma Kruger’s eyes when, it’s having been announced that she’s making a charity donation (a surprise to *her*), she must divest herself of one of her possessions.

  2. I’m in total agreement with you re. FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT as compared to SABOTEUR, while I enjoy both, the former’s the more satisfying of the two. And I’m also glad you spoke up in Cummings’ behalf, I was also aware that he’s not everyone’s favorite screen star of bygone days, but I do like him in Ripley’s THE CHASE and Anthony Mann’s THE BLACK BOOK. I’ve seen Norman Lloyd interviewed in numerous documentaries shown on TCM, he’s a class act, very smart, very likable. The whole dangling thing, I seem to recall a scene toward the end of LA CONFIDENTIAL where someone, maybe Russell Crowe’s character, dangles a sleazy lawyer by his ankles out the window. Doesn’t drop him, but I think the audience would have found it satisfying if he had. I had to think twice when I read of “Huston’s family”, my mind went straight to son John and granddaughter Anjelica, then realized it his onscreen family being referred to. I remember that “foetal” Mickey Rooney in BEAST OF THE CITY, he was quite the little tyke in that one. Looking forward very much to the arrival of SHADOW OF A DOUBT next time around.

  3. matt wand Says:

    ‘ Chained for Life ‘ …… apologies for my conjoined twin movie pedantry…

  4. Arthur S. Says:

    I think SABOTEUR is an excellent film by most standards except the very best Hitchcock films. But it’s amazingly well paced.

    What makes it an American film is that you sense a mix of genres…when Robert Cummings gets held up at that ranch, he escapes on a horse and that’s as close to a Hitchcock Western as we’ll ever get and some of the scenes like when they are at that shack is wonderfully done. Then although it is taken from THE 39 STEPS, the influence on the relationship between Priscilla Lane and Robert Cummings hearkens to screwball comedy films.

    SABOTEUR is also a unique Hitchcock film because with the sole exception of VERTIGO(maybe there are others), it’s one of the few films where the bad guy gets away with it. Otto Kruger’s fate is unknown at the end…and this too at wartime.

  5. Thanks Matt, I was meaning to check my recollection of that title, then forgot. I’ve never see the film, and imagine it’s fairly dull, but would still be happy to look at it sometime.

    I guess Otto Kruger’s escape could either be put down to happy-go-lucky plotting (“They’ll never ask,”) or a desire to leave a lurking threat to encourage wartime audiences to remain on guard. But I guess maybe we’re meant to assume he’ll be captured, since Cummings is going to blow the lid off the whole operation. Alma Kruger is certainly screwed. But we don’t have the perfect economy yet of the North By Northwest ending, where the MacGuffin is revealed and the arch-villain captured and the henchman killed and the heroine saved and married within about twenty seconds.

    Hitch’s chase thrillers always had a touch of screwball comedy — The Lady Vanishes certainly does. I guess here in the American context it becomes more identifiable. And you’re right about the cowboy moment, that’s delightful. Maybe it’s better that they have Cummings rather than McCrea, since the latter would have looked too natural on horseback, losing some of the incongruity of the cowboy movie crashing into the thriller (almost like the cowboy brawl invading the musical set in Blazing Saddles).

  6. The Dave Foley vehicle THE WRONG GUY had a wonderful parody of Hitch’s national monument perils.
    Dave Foley is being held hostage by professional killer Colm Feore atop a mini-golf Statue of Liberty. It’s a hilarious sequence, but the highlight has to be Feore falling to the ground in that traditional forced perspective. Cut to shot showing the Statue is only a story high, with Feore moaning in pain, “I landed on my keys”.

  7. Something Mel Brooks misses in High Anxiety, the monument-based climax.

    I love Brooks’ story about dining with Hitchcock. A starter, then a steak with trimmings. “That was lovely,” said Hitch, “Let’s do it again.” So they order ANOTHER starter and another steak apiece…

  8. One of my favourite Hitchcocks. Saw it on the big screen about ten years ago; before the film, Norman Lloyd appeared on stage with LA Times critic Kenneth Turan for a cosy chat about the film. Lloyd is the embodiment of the word ‘raconteur’, and happily still with us today. In addition to a great film and a marvelous guest appearance, Karl Malden was in the audience and waved to the crowd. A memorable night.

  9. David Boxwell Says:

    Another (crypto-)fascist MGM flick from the period: La Cava’s GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE. It’s almost as if J. Edgar had a plant in Metro’s script office . . .

  10. That sounds like a rare night, John. Would love to see Sabotage on the big screen. As a side-note, does anybody know what Lloyd is saying as he falls? It seems like a word and not just a scream, but I can’t quite make it out.

    My friend Comrade K refers to Gabriel Over the White House as “President Jesus Hitler,” which kind of sums up its confused stance. Actually, Beast of the City is more complex than just being a pro-cop movie, although that’s what it says it is. The Jacobean climax doesn’t really seem like a ringing endorsement of law enforcement though…

  11. Indeed it was. Tomorrow night: Creature From the Black Lagoon on the big screen, in 3-D!!! I can’t wait…

  12. Christopher Says:

    I’d forgotten that my favorite “girl next door..with SEX appeal”Priscilla Lane, appeared in a Hitchcock film!..will wonders ever cease?..but can she top the the Gillman!..that old turkey rustler,in 3D??

  13. Saw Creature in 3D as a teen, was very impressed with the opening explosion, the claw in the mud, and the through-a-fishtank scene. It sort of lost interest a bit after that, although the injured man cowering from the claw through the porthole was an unpleasant moment that stayed with me.

  14. I thought Lloyd was saying Cummings’ character’s name as he falls – “Kaaaaaane”

  15. I bet that’s it.

    The ominous echo of the voice reminds me of that Tom & Jerry cartoon where Tom has been warned not to attack a white mouse because it’s atomic, and then he does and there’s a huge explosion. And then the radio comes on and says the white mouse is actually harmless. And Tom, face blackened minstrel-fashion in the wreckage of the 40s dream-home, says, in this weird echoing voice, “Don’t – yoooouu – believe – it!”

    Terrifying!

  16. it suddenly occurred to me that I had somehow missed the entry on SABOTEUR… luckily, lots of time at work today to remedy that!

    very nice appraisal of one of my favourite Hitchcocks–I wonder if I’m the only one who would take it over North By Northwwest and 39 Steps? I’m always ready to stand up for Robert Cummings–the guy was in a ton of great films (Kings Row, this one, The Devil and Miss Jones, The Chase, The Lost Moment, Black Book, Dieterle’s The Accused and Paid In Full, among others)… I wouldn’t say he ignites the screen, but he gets the job done. Priscilla Lane I like even more–she’s at her absolute best in things like Daughters Courageous, but she never fails to appeal, and has a slier way with a comedy line reading than you’d expect from the “girl next door”…

    I think Gary Cooper’s great, and Barbara Stanwyck is my favourite performer of all–but I’m not sure I even see them in these roles… the casting seems perfect to me–a couple of workin’ actors takin’ on the fascistic rich! And Otto Kruger is just amazing (funny you should mention Rock Hudson’s pal in this review–that’s Otto too)

    and then are all of those oddball moments you refer to–Alan Baxter’s kid, Clem Bevans in a very atypical role, the carnival train, the weird weird weird old man in the woods, the old couple who mistake a kidnapping for “romance” and the scenes in Soda City (‘the heart of the bicarbonate belt”), the nod to “It Can’t Happen Here” (which I read because of this film, when I was a kid–it wasn’t very good)

    I really like the paranoid stuff in the hotel and the out of touch laughter in the theatre…. and the early scene with the mother is a lot more touching than you expect from the master in this mode… all of that plus the wild finale combine to make it my favourite of the chase-cocks

  17. A fine appreciation! It’s probably, I think, my least favourite of them, but I still like it lots, and it has all those suggestive weirdnesses. You’re right about Otto, funny I hadn’t fixed him in my head as the same guy…

  18. Otto Kruger is the grandnephew of Paul Kruger. Otto himself is part black due to Paul Kruger’s direct descendant of Eva (a woman of Khoikhoi origin) and Pieter Van Mierhof, a Danish-Dutchman.

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