Saboteur is not top-shelf Hitchcock, and certainly not his best black and white spy movie, either, but even the master’s lesser efforts are preferable to almost anyone else’s attempts at the man-on-the-run subgenre. Robert Cummings plays Barry Kane, a worker at a Glendale, California airplane factory who finds himself wrongfully accused of starting the arson fire that killed his best friend. Only he can identify the true saboteur (played with excellent menace by Norman Lloyd), a man the police don’t even believe exists. Barry follows his only clue and embarks on a cross-country journey to prove his innocence and bust open a ring of Nazi spies.
Saboteur was made shortly after America’s entrance into WWII, and the British director lays on the propaganda thickly, packing in enough American patriotism to give Michael Bay a run for his money. In the course of his odyssey (and it is a literal Odyssey, adhering somewhat loosely to Homer’s epic), Barry learns valuable lessons about America and what makes it great. Essentially, why it’s worth fighting for at all costs. When he stumbles into the cabin of an old blind man after escaping police custody, still wearing handcuffs, the sightless seer takes him in, offers him food and warmth, and reiterates the Constitutional concept of "innocent until proven guilty," teaching the concept to his niece, Pat (Priscilla Lane), who was ready to condemn Barry and turn him in to the police. And when Barry and Pat (now dragged into Barry's plight against her will) are caught stowing away aboard a traveling circus caravan, the freaks educate them - and us, the audience -on the merits of democracy by voting on whether or not to allow them to stay aboard. (The primary dissenting voice in the matter is a midget with a none-too-subtle Hitler mustache.) And the wholesome Pat, an all-American model whose pretty face graces every billboard they pass, teaches Barry the value of patriotism itself.
It’s not just the characters who hammer home the patriotic message, but the locations as well. Barry’s journey takes him past majestic purple mountains and amber waves of grain, past the mighty Hoover Dam, presented as a spectacular example of American ingenuity (and endangered by the Fascist saboteurs), and finally to the Statue of Liberty herself. Yes, the symbolism is constant and heavy-handed, but it’s admirable how whole-heartedly Hitch threw himself into the war effort. And the story moves along at a brisk pace, too, with plenty of action scenes, including a desperate all-or-nothing leap from a bridge into churning rapids to escape the police, which I suppose Andrew Davis (who remade Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder as A Perfect Murder) must have been homaging in The Fugitive.
The movie’s two most memorable setpieces come towards the end. Barry follows the saboteur all the way to New York, to an upscale party thrown by the prominent, wealthy Nazi sympathizers behind the sabotage plot. Exposed, Barry and Pat find themselves trapped out in the open. In a lengthy, tour-de-force shot that prefigures the director’s "single take" movie Rope, the camera moves with the couple as they dance an entire song, discussing their escape options. The shot remains steady on them as the background (always fully in focus) swirls around. Again, not subtle, but highly effective. Barry tries first to escape by dramatically informing another guest that the party is "a hotbed of spies and Fifth Columnists!" but the guy thinks he’s drunk. Next he tries making a public spectacle of himself to ensure safe passage out, but the trick doesn’t serve him as well as it does Cary Grant a decade-and-a-half later in North By Northwest. The other memorable setpiece, and the film’s most famous sequence, comes in the final reel as Barry finally confronts the real saboteur atop the Statue of Liberty. Suffice it to say, one of them falls off, plunging to his doom in the shadow of Liberty.
Fortunately, there are enough thrills in Saboteur that it holds up as more than mere propaganda. And it’s aided by a sharp script co-written by Dorothy Parker that crackles with the pithy witticisms she’s known for. (The spy ring is composed primarily of wealthy New Yorkers, a circle with which Ms. Parker was imminently familiar!) For a top-notch example of propagandist, wartime Hitchcock, and an action movie decades ahead of the birth of the genre, watch Foreign Correspondent. But for an entertaining way to pass an hour and a half from an era when patriotism was pure and carried none of the stigmas it’s acquired since, you could do a lot worse than Saboteur.