One of Alfred Hitchcock’s more peculiar efforts, Saboteur (1942) is an awkwardly plotted but energetic adventure full of offbeat characters and odd symbolism. Robert Cummings stars as Barry Kane, a factory worker who, in a case of mistaken identity, becomes the FBI’s prime suspect when the aircraft plant where he works goes up in flames. Kane’s flight from the authorities thrusts him together with billboard model Patricia Martin (Priscilla Lane), who becomes Kane’s reluctant companion in his quest to clear himself. Their adventure pits them against a pro-German fifth column spearheaded by the devious Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger), and sends them across country from California to New York in search of the real saboteur, a man named Fry (Norman Lloyd).
Saboteur can be viewed as an oddball, reverse-direction predecessor to North By Northwest, full of strange encounters and unpredictable, often inelegant twists and turns. Produced and released during World War II, the film is politically charged in a loose, scattershot way, an odd mix of muddy messages. The wealthy and normal are villified, while the weird working class is championed – perhaps a liberal writers’ room reaction to the jackbooted fascism looming over the era. Cummings and Lane are atypical Hitchcock leads, but the casting seems appropriate in light of the film’s offbeat nature; both overdo it at times (especially Cummings), but generally get the job done and bring great energy to their roles. Kruger, meanwhile, practically drips with oily evil as the sinister villain.
Does Saboteur hold up to Hitchcock’s major classics? Not quite, but even so the master’s artistry is ever on display in carefully composed shots and setpieces. This one feels a bit overrated at #41, but it’s no surprise to see it on the list, a fun romp bringing something quirky and different to the table.