Sunday, December 7, 2014

South-west by North-east

Saboteur: written by Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, and Dorothy Parker; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Priscilla Lane (Pat), Robert Cummings (Barry), Otto Kruger (Tobin), and Norman Lloyd (Fry) (1942): From the first half-decade of Hitchcock's American phase comes this oddball thriller -- half-WWII-propaganda, half-thriller, half-loopy-road-comedy. That's three halves, and yes, it is that over-stuffed. 

Robert Cummings plays a worker at a California warplane-assembly plant who's framed for sabotage by a man he (literally) ran into only moments before a disastrous fire destroyed part of the plant and killed his best friend. With only an address on an envelope to go on, Cummings flees Los Angeles to track down the saboteur. Well, saboteurs and fifth-columnists. Lots of them, and lots of them rich, high-society types.

Moments of comedy and weirdness will bring to mind both Hitchcock's earlier foray into the 'Wrong-man Road-trip' sub-genre, The 39 Steps, and that later Cary Grant masterpiece, North by North-west. But this is the weirdest of those three -- so weird that it stands as a forerunner to film-makers like the Coen Brothers and David Lynch far more than it does to Hollywood's more traditional thrill-directors.

What will happen to Cummings' character? He'll be aided in his escape from the police by a philosophical blind musician (shades of Universal's Frankenstein!). That blind musician has a super-model niece who will be pulled into the drama. Billboards featuring that niece will comment comically on the action of the film at regular intervals. Will she come to believe and then fall in love with Cummings? What do you think?

So off their road-trip goes. Patriotic members of a traveling circus's freak show will aid them, with the Human Skeleton delivering the film's best line, about the failings of normal people ("The normal are normally cold-hearted."). Cummings will break his handcuffs with the fan blade of a car. They'll visit a place called Soda City. They'll mingle with high society. And in the film's famous climax, Cummings will finally face the saboteur... on top of the Statue of Liberty.

Saboteur is very odd and unconventional. One can see why it was a box-office failure at the time. But it's also a sign of Things to Come. Though you might want to brace yourself for one of the most abrupt endings I've seen from the Golden Age of Hollywood Abrupt Endings. It's like Hitchcock was late for an appointment. Recommended.

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