When you consider the obstacles filmmakers face, it’s a wonder movies get made at all.
Look at Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), a wartime thriller about a California munitions worker wrongly accused of domestic terrorism. He races across the United States in a desperate attempt to (A) prove his innocence, and (B) catch the Bad Guy.
We like to think filmmaking is purely a storytelling means, but it’s also a process of problem solving. Look at the limitations Hitchcock had to face while making Saboteur.
In the early 1940s, when he first came to Hollywood, Hitchcock signed a contract with independent producer, David O. Selznick. However, he managed to sneak over to Universal Studios to make two films, Saboteur (1942) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
Universal, at the time, was a thrifty studio, which meant Hitchcock would be afforded no Luxuries, and he immediately Got to Work. He and the Universal team completed the script and principal photography of Saboteur in 15 weeks.
About the script: Hitchcock lost his trusted scriptwriter/assistant, Joan Harrison, when she left for Greener Pastures. In order to keep costs down, he agreed to hire (and train) a young Universal contract writer. As a favour, Universal splurged and brought in The Dorothy Parker to Liven Up the script.
Ultimately, Hitchcock felt the script was flawed, but the proximity of World War II helped immensely. Because wartime America was worried about sabotage by foreign agents, the real-life anxiety created an extra layer of dread that current audiences may not feel when watching the film.
Hitchcock also “ripped” items from the headlines. For example, in the early 1940s, a French ocean liner, the SS Normandie, was appropriated by the US Navy to be retrofitted as a troop ship. Unfortunately, in 1942, the liner caught fire in a New York shipyard.¹ Hitchcock used this fire as a Plot Device, as in: The saboteurs are at it again!
Then there were casting Inconveniences. Hitchcock wanted Henry Fonda or Joel McCrea as the lead character. Alas, neither actor was available. Hitchcock reluctantly cast Robert Cummings, who, Hitch said, was more suited to romantic comedies, not a thriller. “[H]is features don’t convey anguish,” Hitchcock said.2
As for the female lead – the woman Roped into the manic cross-country chase – Hitchcock tried to woo Barbara Stanwyck and Margaret Sullavan, but was again unsuccessful. He was left with Priscilla Lane, who, he said later, was “imposed” on him because she was more “affordable.”3
Happily, he did hire the fabulous Norman Lloyd as a Nazi minion, and Lloyd delivers the oily creepiness you would expect from a fifth columnist.
But there was Otto Kruger, who was cast as the evil mastermind. Hitchcock biographer, Patrick McGilligan, says Hitchcock was uhhappy with Kruger’s performance because he wasn’t what was envisioned for the main villain.
“The director believed he could solve any acting problem with camera work,” McGilligan writes, “and his solutions were often ingenious – as when he filmed the villain’s lengthy soliloquy with Kruger seated on a sofa and the camera fixed an eerie distance from the actor across the room.”4
Saboteur is not at all bad film, and Cummings and Lane have wonderful chemistry. Hitchcock playfully introduces elements of paranoia in the cross-country trip, and, in true Hitchcockian fashion, we’re not really sure who, at first, we can trust.
There are also amusing lines. For example, when Priscilla Lane arrives at her uncle’s home, she’s frantic with news of a dangerous saboteur Loose in the Area. Her uncle dismisses her concern.
Lane: “But [the police] said this man is really dangerous.”
Uncle: “I’m sure they did, my dear. How could they be heroes if he were harmless?”
There’s also a terrific scene, the best in the film, in our opinion, that takes place on the Statue of Liberty. Hitchcock, who famously recycled his own ideas, used a similar situation in North by Northwest (1957):
Some critics were lukewarm towards Saboteur, although it did Brisk Business at the box office. The London Sunday Times noted, “This is Hitchcock at his most Hitchcock, which doesn’t necessarily mean at his best.”5
Bosley Crowther, of the New York Times, had mixed feelings: “[S]o abundant [are] the breathless events that one might forget, in the hubbub, that there is no logic in this wild-goose chase.”6
Saboteur is regarded as a “lesser” Hitchcock film, which is a shame because it has interesting characters and a story that doesn’t appear to have a thin budget. You’d never know the headaches it caused the director.
It also proves Hitchcock was a master at reducing, reusing, and recycling.
¹Wikipedia. (Retrieved January 21, 2023.) SS Normandie.
2Patrick McGilligan. (2003) Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. New York, NY: Regan Books, p. 301.
3Ibid, p. 301.
4Ibid, p. 305.
5Luff, Leonard J. (1987) Hitchcock & Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood. New York, NY: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
6Wikipedia. (Retrieved January 25, 2023.) Saboteur (film).
Saboteur: starring Priscilla Lane, Robert Cummings, Otto Kruger. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Written by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, Dorothy Parker. Universal Pictures, B&W, 1942, 109 mins.