I don’t know about you, but something that always made me feel a bit iffy about Casablanca (1942) was the fact that it is so blatantly WW2 propaganda. Everytime I watch it, I feel just a little bit used; almost as though the entire film is just one of those pamphlets recruiting soldiers. That’s not to say I dislike Casablanca, I don’t, it’s actually a decent film but I can never shake the awareness of its agenda. The reason why I bring this up is because Saboteur (1942) also has elements of propaganda in it. The film was released after the attack on Pearl Harbour and America’s entry into WW2 and boy does it show.
Aircraft factory worker Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) goes on the run across the United States when he is wrongly accused of starting a fire that killed his best friend. Along the way he meets multiple interesting characters, teams up with/kidnaps Patricia Martin (Priscilla Lane) the niece of a kindly blind man, and attempts to clear his name but clashes with a SPECTRE like organisation which seeks to destroy the America.
In some ways, I actually prefer Saboteur to Casablanca. While both are essentially propaganda, Saboteur has interesting and memorable characters and a story that, personally at least, I find more entertaining. The characters are plentiful and most of them are memorable, special mention goes to the blind man who gives Kane shelter and the diverse and highly likable freak show. I’ve always liked films that show the main character travelling around and meeting different characters; I think it’s a fun way to produce some memorable and interesting characters and I’ve always admired and enjoyed movies that do that. The villains are also pretty interesting, aside from the obvious meaning behind the casting of the wealthy as terrorists; there was a real feeling at the time that the upper-classes would turn on the country for profit. This is just one example of Saboteur‘s propaganda status; another being Kane’s speech towards the end of the film about how America is filled with strong, good-hearted and moral individuals. That really is the only issue with the film, the fact that it was clearly only made because of the need for WW2 propaganda. While this doesn’t irk me as much as it does with Casablanca (mainly because the propaganda isn’t as obvious) I still have difficulty liking the film as much as it truly deserves. It isn’t even that the propaganda is layered on that thickly or that the plot is entirely centred around it like it is in Casablanca. Instead, Saboteur delivers a plot that works well regardless of the propaganda element to the point where someone with basic knowledge of WW2 wouldn’t even notice it. One of Saboteur‘s greatest strength is the direction, Hitchcock trademark suspense is clearly evident in several key parts of the film and, while it isn’t as strong as it was in something like Psycho (1960) or Rear Window (1954), it’s certainly effective. Some of the shots in Saboteur are really interesting, the first shot of the fire engulfing the weapons factory, the final shot at the Statue of Liberty; Saboteur is a film with many typical Hitchcockian shots. There isn’t really a great deal more to say about Saboteur, the acting is fine, the story is good, the characters are wonderfully diverse and memorable and the direction is great. The only real issue is the propaganda element and in no way is it damaging enough to ruin my, or anyone else’s, enjoyment of the film.
A great start to my Hitchcock series, a strong plot with interesting characters and some great directorial shots. Regardless of the fact that I’m find the whole propaganda element a tad annoying and distracting; I’m certain it won’t affect the majority of people’s viewing. definitely one of those obscure Hitchcock films that more people ought to see.