BBC2: Saturday 5 December, 2.15pm
Falsely accused of sabotage during the early part of WWII, Robert Cummings is forced to go on the run. Howard Hawks directed numerous Hollywood classics: the original Scarface, His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, Red River, Rio Bravo. His contention was that three great scenes and no bad ones were the recipe for a good picture. Alfred Hitchcock was more rigid.
Asked what was required to make a successful film, he replied: “Three things. The script, the script, and the script.” Once that was sorted, he could let his camera tell the story. “It doesn’t matter what the movie is about,” Hitchcock told François Truffaut in a series of interviews that became a creed for aspiring film-makers. “The emotional response. That’s what matters.”
Throughout his career, Hitchcock made that emotional connection with pictures, not words. He assiduously supervised every script he shot (from storyboards he’d already created) but left the credit to the writers he hired. The three who worked on Saboteur were Hitchcock’s trusted associate Joan Harrison (she’d previously worked with him on Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent and Suspicion), novelist Peter Viertel (who wrote White Hunter Black Heart about his experiences working with John Huston on The African Queen and Beat the Devil) and Dorothy Parker, the diminutive feminist wit who wrote the original 1937 screenplay for A Star is Born.
In 1994, she was the subject of the Jennifer Jason Leigh film, Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle. No surprise, then, that Saboteur has at least three great scenes – the encounter with circus freaks, the discovery of the saboteurs’ den in an eerily clapped-out ghost town called Soda City, a society ball organised by fascist sympathisers in Manhattan.
And that’s before the jacket-shredding finale for which the film is most remembered, as Norman Lloyd dangles from atop the Statue of Liberty. Frank Skinner’s melodramatic music is suddenly absent as Cummings desperately reaches for Lloyd from Liberty’s torch; the suspense is played out to the sound of whispering winds and ship horns.
From the incendiary opening at the Glendale airplane factory, Hitchcock’s impeccable eye for telling detail and eccentic set design lends indelible impact to virtually every scene: the glance back at the catering hall blonde which causes Cummings’ colleague to trip into the furtive fifth columnist, the hint of a smirk on Lloyd’s face as he’s driven past a capsized ship at Brooklyn’s navy yard. Even the toddler at Otto Kruger’s Springville ranch is present not for one integral piece of the puzzle, but two.
Best of all is is the sequence aboard the circus caravan, where the stowaways are discovered by a contingent of carnival acts. It’s perhaps the most tender scene Hitchcock ever shot, not just because it’s the opposite of Tod Browning’s notorious Freaks in its depiction of abnormality. But also in Priscilla Lane’s tearful realisation that even outsiders are willing to give Cummings the benefit of the doubt: “They made me so ashamed.” Made inbetween Foreign Correspondent and Lifeboat, the other two films forming an unoffcial WWII trilogy, Saboteur is considered ‘lesser’ Hitchcock.
Sometimes less is more. Closely following the episodic adventures of John Buchan’s innocent fugitive Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps, one of Hitch’s greatest successes before he left England for Hollywood, it also serves as a virtual blueprint for his biggest American hit before Psycho, 1959’s North By Northwest.