It's 1942 and America is at war. When aircraft factory worker Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is wrongfully accused of an explosive act of sabotage that cripples the factory and kills his best friend, he finds himself on the run for his life. Naturally (this being, after all, a Hitchcock film) no one believes Barry's story that a mysterious stranger named Fry is the true culprit, so only he can track down the real saboteur and his traitorous organization before more lives (not to mention The American Way) suffer further calamity. Along the way, our handcuffed hero meets assorted colorful characters, hooks up with a good-looking dame (Priscilla Lane) who isn't always on his side, finds himself inside the bad guys' lair, and pursues the baddie to a rousing climax at the peak of a famous national monument. If this sounds familiar, just think of Saboteur as the American reprise of The Thirty-Nine Steps and a rehearsal for North By Northwest, Hitchcock's superior iterations of his signature Wrong Man formula. Saboteur is best known as "the one with the fight on top of the Statue of Liberty."
Cummings is boyishly winning as the square-john fall guy. Priscilla Lane, however, is no Grace Kelly (the studio forced her on Hitch, whose first choice was Barbara Stanwyck), and, like Cummings, she's ultimately too bland for the thriller theatrics. Fortunately Saboteur comes peppered with enjoyably cartoonish supporting characters, particularly a traveling circus "freak show" troupe representing stars-and-stripes Democracy in action. The weasely saboteur, Fry, is effectively played by Norman Lloyd, a popular character actor still working today and, during the '60s and '70s, a ubiquitous TV producer for Alfred Hitchcock Presents among other shows. Tobin, the wealthy head of a dastardly gang of fifth columnists known only as "The Firm," is played with oily chirpiness by Otto Kruger.
Of course Saboteur is well directed, though it's rather like visiting an art museum's "early works" exhibit of an artist before he became the Master of his form. The taut but trite script, with credits that include Dorothy Parker, contains elements that were old-hat before '42 yet they became hallmark Hitchcock over the next two decades, including climactic fisticuffs atop the Statue Of Liberty's torch. A scene with a compassionate blind man plays like an homage to the near-identical scene in Bride of Frankenstein. A product of and for wartime America, Saboteur's dialogue creaks with smash-the-Axis earnestness ("We'll fight people like you! Fight to the end! Fight! We'll fight until the cows come home!"), transparently thin black-and-white morality, and whiffs of drumbeat propaganda. It works well enough as a study in Hitchcock's development, but even the auteur himself didn't think highly of this outing forty years later.
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Universal's DVD edition supports a good transfer from a clean black-and-white source print in its original full-screen. Expect just a little speckling in the first reel. The Dolby 2.0 monaural audio doesn't pack much punch, of course, but it's clean and vivid.
Complementing other releases in Universal's "Hitchcock Collection," the supplements here include a Laurent Bouzereau documentary, "Saboteur: A Closer Look" (35 mins.). This breezy retrospective includes appearances by Norman Lloyd (who reveals secrets behind the Statue of Liberty sequence), associate art director Robert Boyle, plus Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell. Other extras are storyboards, Hitchcock's own sketches of the Statue of Liberty climax, a stills gallery, production notes, promotional poster art, cast and crew bios, and the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.