Skip to main content

I get it. Little Miss Liberty, carrying the torch.

Saboteur
(1942)

(SPOILERS) Hitch criticised the screenplay, which is fair enough. However, the biggest impediment to Saboteur’s effectiveness is – as Hitch also acknowledged – the leads. The movie is often painted as proto-North by Northwest, a dry run for bigger and more elaborate things with handpicked stars, and that’s fair to a degree; all the elements are there for Saboteur being great, but the only consistent one is its director’s technical prowess.

Certainly, he delivers a series of top-notch set pieces in this tale of aircraft factory worker Barry Kane (Robert Cummings, much better used more than a decade later as Ray Milland’s would-be patsy in Dial M for Murder) going on the run to prove his innocence – and bring the guilty parties to justice – after being falsely accused of sabotaging his place of work and killing his best pal. The setup is clean and economical, identifying true culprit Fry (Norman Lloyd, also Spellbound and Dead Poets Society, and bearing a passing resemblance to Harpo Marx) and showing the before and after of the incident that kills Kane’s friend Mason (Virgil Summers). A number of tense sequences follow, as Kane, embarking on a breadcrumb trail, eludes the police at Mason’s mother’s house, dodges traffic cops and uses villain Tobin’s toddler granddaughter as a human shield in order to escape. Later, he desperately attempts to rid himself of his handcuffs in a fan belt before Pat (Priscilla Lane) can wave down a passing car and so get rescued.

Hitch apparently didn’t want Otto Kruger as Tobin but was unable to secure Harry Carey. I found him very good in his early scenes, milking the charming villain guise that would later work wonders for James Mason; less effective later on, when his true steel needs to emerge. Alan Baxter, as an extra polite, bespectacled henchman, ironically named Freeman, is strong throughout, armed with sinister sexual undertones: waxing lyrical about not cutting his boy’s hair while commenting wistfully “When I was a child, I had long golden curls”.

But after the initial Tobin sequence (during which the director comes his closest to making a western in the form of a very brief horseback chase), Saboteur’s episodic structure begins to become a hindrance rather than a virtue. Hitch said “it was too cluttered with too many ideas… I think we covered too much ground” but the problem might be more that you start to notice the convenience and unpolished nature of the structure due to the shortcomings of the leads. It casts a shadow on them, rather than they on it.

Added to which, the suffocatingly patriotic preaching paraded at every possible interval becomes more and more off-putting as the picture progresses. Even with Dorothy Parker receiving a co-writer’s credit – with Peter Viertel and Joan Harrison (the latter Hitch’s former secretary, and the last of five features on which she gets a nod) – there’s little to alleviate the insufferable virtuousness being voiced. Told there’s no way a man like him can last in a country like the US, Tobin scoffs “Very pretty speech! Youthful, passionate. Idealistic”.

More frequently, there’s nothing to counterpoint the pretty speechifying, though. I actually rather like the scene with blind Uncle Phillip, an undisguised echo of Frankenstein, in which it’s revealed he was aware Barry is wearing handcuffs as soon as he walked in, and yet “It is my duty as an American citizen to believe a man innocent until he’s been proven guilty”, along with his own ideas about his duties as a citizen, which “sometimes involve breaking the law”. Unfortunately, once the very sub-Tod Browning circus freaks are called upon to offer another rousing rallying cry to democracy, my patience was beginning to wear thin (Hitch testified to some of Parker’s more amusing touches during this episode, but it fell a bit flat for me).

Also a problem is Lane’s Patricia Martin. Initially at loggerheads with Kane (Phillip is her uncle and she tries to turn Kane in), she never gets a chance to come into her own, the victim of plotting that casts her unsympathetically towards the hero or lacking resourcefulness. She has a decent scene at the top of the Statue of Liberty with Fry, preceding the grand climax, but it isn’t really enough.

Still, there’s a well-devised sequence at wealthy New York socialite Mrs Sutton’s (Alma Kruger) party, in which Kane and Pat are unable to escape and none of the guests will listen to their protests; with anyone else, the hero desperately improvising an auction of Mrs Sutton’s jewellery would be a classic, but it ends up merely adequate. A scene in a movie theatre gets all meta, with action also occurring on screen, just like its near namesake Sabotage (and includes another innocent victim; an audience member killed in the crossfire rather than a small boy). The near miss on the blowing up the launching ship is dramatically staged too. And the climax on top of the Statue of Liberty remains a prime example of the director’s visual and technical prowess (as well as being transparently influential on North by Northwest’s Mount Rushmore sequence). Barry attempts to save the villain, putting his own life in peril, as the seams on Fry’s sleeve slowly come apart.

But possibly Saboteur's best moment, and a sure illustration of Hitch’s sadistic streak, finds Barry surrendering to Tobin at the party (he yawns at Barry’s earnestness with a “I think we’ve discussed the Rights of Man stuff”). Butler Robert (Ian Wolfe) coshes Barry, then coshes him again. By that point, Barry has gone down, but the butler has his arm raised for another go: “That’s enough, Robert” instructs Tobin.





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see America coming out in droves to see you puke.

The Hard Way (1991) (SPOILERS) It would probably be fair to suggest that Michael J Fox’s comic talents never quite earned the respect they deserved. Sure, he was the lead in two incredibly popular TV shows, but aside from one phenomenally successful movie franchise, he never quite made himself a home on the big screen. Part of that might have been down to attempts in the late ’80s to carve himself out a niche in more serious roles – Light of Day , Bright Lights, Big City , Casualties of War – roles none of his fanbase had any interest in seeing him essaying. Which makes the part of Nick Lang, in which Fox is at his comic best, rather perfect. After all, as his character, movie star Nick Lang, opines, after smashing in his TV with his People’s Choice Award – the kind of award reserved for those who fail to garner serious critical adoration – “ I’m the only one who wants me to grow up! ”