Saturday, May 24, 2008

Man on the Run

Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur contains some grating dialogue and plot holes the size of, well, the whole country. Which is appropriate since that is where the movie takes place.

It starts in Los Angeles and makes its way, to Ellis Island, stopping along the way to admire the Hoover Dam and some ranch country. Like Humbert and Lolita, making their way through the motels of the United States, Hitchcock's framed man meets the working class guy, the intellectual, the high-fashion model and a band of circus freaks.

The protaganist drives, runs, swims, rides a horse, takes a boat and even waltzes his way through the dangerous trap that the country has become for him.

Hitchcock, of course, knows all of this is ridiculous, just watch some of his other films. But the major miscalculation he may have made in the film is the casting of the lead. Without the witty and charming resourcefulness of the hero of the 39 Steps, the movie all but collapses under the weight of its excesses. Robert Cummings is no Carey Grant either.

Many people will cite the famous Statue of Liberty climax as the notable sequence from the film. Or the tense scene where the hero and heroine hide out with a band of side show freaks and sit helpless as the oddities debate and vote as to whether or not to give the couple up to the police who are searching the stopped circus caravan. The shootout in Radio City Music Hall, while a movie shootout plays on the big screen, is another favorite.

But two scenes stand out for me, and they actually survive Robert Cummings', (the aforementioned lead,) performance fairly well. There is a long sequence in a society woman's fashionable home that ratchets up the tension little by little until you are so absorbed in what is going to happen next that you completely lose yourself. Like Hitchcock does so well, he has surrounded the young couple with witty, charming characters. In fact, the whole sequence if filled with actors, (like the great Otto Kruger,) who wouldn't be that out of place in an Oscar Wilde comedy on stage. However, underneath the charm, the stakes are incredibly sinister. The heroes are trying to escape a charity ball, filled with people, but at every turn, they find they are thwarted, and with every escape avenue that is shut down, we feel more dread.

My next favorite moment is memorable more so for its weirdness. Cummings, who is pretending to be on the side of the bad guys, has a short conversation with one of the lead conspirators with whom he is about to drive cross country. The villian asks Cummings if he has children. Cummings answers that he does not. The bad guy then talks about his own children and his own childhood. Most thrillers might have a long, overdramatic monologue to show the depths of weirdness and the off-beat dangerousness of certain character. Saboteur accomplishes this effect with only a few short lines, which I won't even ruin for you by quoting them here. (I actually ran back the DVD immediately to play it again to see that I heard it right.)

The Universal DVD has a nice documentary that is centered around an interview with Norman Lloyd, (we all know him as Doctor Auschlander on Saint Elsewhere.) Lloyd played the mysterious saboteur the hero treks the country trying to find. And he gives an excellent breakdown of the technical background behind some of the sequences in which he was involved.
As a side note, the title sequence, shown at the top of the post is echoed later when a suspicious fire starts at the plant.
In that title sequence the figure of the sinister character walks slowly toward us and starts to fill that right side of the screen. Later, when Hitchcock is showing us that a fire is starting in the airplane factory he uses the same set-up to establish the sabotage.

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