Tuesday, May 17, 2011

At the Cinema: Hitch's SABOTEUR

This comes between two of his better-regarded films, SUSPICION and SHADOW OF A DOUBT, but SABOTEUR (1942) is worth checking out.

Defense-plant worker Robert Cummings has a run-in with a mysterious fellow employee named Fry (symbolism!), and shortly after that a bomb goes off setting fire to the factory. Cummings hands a fire extinguisher to his best pal...but it's been filled with gasoline, and the friend perishes in the blaze. Cummings is called in, but when nobody named Fry shows up on the employee list, and they start suspecting him of sabotage and murder, he has to go on the run to clear his name and find out who's really behind it all.

SABOTEUR is very clearly a rough draft of the romantic-comedy-chase-thriller that Hitch perfected with NORTH BY NORTHWEST, with the man falsely suspected, the icy blond girl, and the locations spanning most of the country, both ending with a dizzying climax on a major American landmark. (In NBNW it's Mount Rushmore; in SABOTEUR it's the Statue of Liberty.)

Look in the lower left-hand corner...yeah....
One interesting aspect is how Hitch shows different segments of American society reacting. The masterminds of the sabotage ring are wealthy American plutocrats, not sneering foreigners, who welcome a totalitarian government as a way of increasing their own wealth. Rank-and-file Americans automatically believe what they're told by authorities, make snap judgements based on appearances ("You look like a saboteur," sneers one character to Cummings), or are so complacent they refuse to believe the people they look up to are traitors. The only truly good people who believe in his innocence are society's outsiders, in the form of a gentle blind hermit and a troupe of circus freaks. It's tempting to see this as a jaundiced view of Americans, and also as a warning to us all that the real enemies of freedom aren't just foreigners, but the wealthy ruling class themselves, thinking only of their own wealth and power. It's almost Socialistic.

It's big and sprawling, and there's dangling plot threads, but when all's said and done it's good fun. And while NORTH BY NORTHWEST works on Cold War paranoia, SABOTEUR plays off wartime fears of spies and sabotage. See it and be thrilled.

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