1942; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; written by Joan Harrison, Dorothy Parker and Peter Viertel; 109 mins
[Mild spoilers again. Only mild ones, though]
There’s an interesting benefit-of-hindsight irony to the anti-American bad guys in Saboteur; everything they stand for seems to correspond with the so-called patriotic tenets being spouted by the current contestants for the 2016 Presidential election (“a few of us in America desire a more profitable type of government”). It’s interesting also in what is a very propagandist, ‘Join the Effort’ wartime movie. The all-American ideals espoused by classic Hitchcockian wronged man, Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) are those of accepting everybody in society, even the freaks, the poor and the losers who are about the only people who help him along the way.
Why does Kane need their help? He is framed for spreading a fire which destroys the aircraft factory where he works. In a bid to clear his name, he goes on the run to find the mysterious culprit, Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd) and in doing so discovers a network of saboteurs who threaten the nation’s security!
As mentioned before, it may be propaganda but like I am Cuba, it’s well made propaganda! There is subtext to forage for beneath the jingoism – for instance – image, status and acceptance: you realise that Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) who ends up with Kane in his flight, is a key thematic character aswell as being a stereotypically unreliable woman. As a billboard model, it’s a nice running gag to have her image pop up every now and again to signal symbolism and plot points but it’s also significant that she represents the midpoint between the fascist bad guys and the underclass goodies. As a symbol of ‘acceptable’ society’s notions of desirability, she is near the top of the heap (though why’s she modelling for so many brands? Was there Model rationing in 1942?). She is also dismissive and ready to turn Kane in at the drop of hat. However, in being dragged through the mud and having to mix with the dregs, she is privy to their kindness and their complexities and thus is changed by the experience. This is made all the more believable by her existing relationship with her benevolent, blind uncle and makes her a counterbalance to the deified Hitchcock blonde. The antagonists wouldn’t dare to fraternise with the riff-raff and so will never learn. The film also, in it’s later stages, brilliantly turns the polite society into not just a metaphorical trap but a physical one too at a tense society ball escape attempt (is that butler a pre-cursor to Delbert Grady?).
It’s not Hitchcock’s best but then his best is completely flawless. There are plot-holes (when you’ve watched the film, ask yourself: why were they allowed to leave the docks?) and Pat’s character arc is oddly patchy. Cummings is stoic and chisel-jawed enough for the period but he’s a bit bland. Nevertheless, the fast pace, murky dealings and nice twists more than see you through and it’s a testament to the quality of the storytelling that the obvious models and staging in a late suspense sequence aren’t even an issue.