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An enemy agent hangs from the outstretched arm of the Statue of Liberty. With remarkable prescience, Alfred Hitchcock created a succinct image of a nation rousing itself to war (the Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor) as the climax of his new movie Saboteur (1942). It was Hitchcock's fourth film since his arrival in America and his first in this country to originate in his own imagination. Originally conceived as "the sabotage picture - an American picaresque," Hitchcock pitched it to the producer that controlled his contract, David O. Selznick, but Selznick's story editor, the later producer Val Lewton, did not approve, saying Hitchcock should be discouraged from making "the old-fashioned chase pictures which he turns out when left to his own devices." Selznick did not turn the project down, instead assigning John Houseman (he just finished from overseeing Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, 1941), to keep an eye on Hitchcock's scripting. As an in-joke reference, Hitchcock's hero "citizen" was named "Kane".
Lewton ultimately passed on the script calling it, "the sort that every studio rejects after the most cursory reading," so Selznick forced Hitchcock to shop the property around to other studios, causing ill feelings between the producer and his director since it not only showed a lack of belief in Hitchcock's abilities, but also because the terms of Hitchcock's contract would net Selznick a three-hundred percent profit on the sale. Ultimately the project landed at Universal Studios, not the most financially bountiful studio in Hollywood, and the money they spent acquiring Hitchcock and his script left little money for casting and production. Hitchcock tried to get Gary Cooper to play his falsely accused defense plant worker and Barbara Stanwyck for the girl he meets while running from the law. Universal nixed such high-priced stars, assigning lightweights Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane after a movie in which they were to star was cancelled. Another casting blow came in choosing the actor to play the villain. As the leader of the Nazi fifth column, Hitchcock wanted an "all-American" type as a reference to the right-wing American Firsters that were supporting Hitler in the years before the war. He approached cowboy star Harry Carey for the role only to be rebuffed by his wife, "I am shocked that you should dare to offer my husband a part like this!" Ultimately, Otto Kruger, often typecast as a suave villain, was chosen.
Universal, however, did opt for a name to punch up the script. Algonquin wit Dorothy Parker came in to write a few scenes, mostly the patriotic speeches given by the hero. Supposedly Hitchcock shot a cameo in which he and Parker are riding in a car and spy the hero grappling with the heroine in an attempt to silence her cries for help. "My, they must be terribly in love," Parker said before their car pulled away. Ultimately, the scene was dropped, the line given to another actor and Hitchcock's cameo re-shot as a fleeting appearance as a deaf-mute on a New York sidewalk.
On December 7, 1941, Hitchcock and associate art director Robert Boyle were working on storyboards when a Universal security guard wearing a Civil Defense helmet burst in and announced that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. After he left, Hitchcock's only remark was, "Why was he wearing that funny hat?" Nevertheless, the attack and the U.S. entry into the war heightened the urgency of the film. Hitchcock shot it in January and February of 1942 and it was released not long thereafter. Trying to stay on top of the news events, Hitchcock sent a second unit to shoot film of the U.S.S. Normandie after it caught fire and sank in New York Harbor. He then cut it into a sequence in which the saboteur sees it and smirks. The U.S. Navy objected to the implication that their vigilance was to blame and Universal obliged by cutting the sequence, only restoring it after World War II.
Saboteur caught the mood of the moment, doing very well at the box office even with its B-list cast, and making a tidy profit for all involved. Not bad for another "old-fashioned chase picture."
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producer: Frank Lloyd
Screenplay: Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison and Dorothy Parker
Cinematography: Joseph Valentine
Art Direction: Jack Otterson
Music: Frank Skinner
Editing: Otto Ludwig
Cast: Priscilla Lane (Patricia Martin), Robert Cummings (Barry Kane), Otto Kruger (Charles Tobin), Alan Baxter (Mr. Freeman), Clem Bevans (Neilson), Norman Lloyd (Frank Fry).
BW-109m. Closed captioning.
by Brian Cady