SABOTEUR (1942). Director: Alfred Hitchcock.
It's just possible that this wonderful movie might have become a classic if Hitchcock had gotten the two leads he really wanted – Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck – instead of Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane. While some might feel the dynamic Stanwyck would have been wasted in this movie, she would have added far more bite and intensity than the competent but mediocre Lane. Bob Cummings was certainly a skilled comedic actor (some think Cummings could also turn in fine dramatic performances in such films as Kings Row), but he's all wrong for Saboteur. Michael Curtiz once said “some men squeeze a line to death” and Cummings not only does that but rushes mush-mouthed through his readings to such a degree that the effect is not stirring or powerful as he might have intended but ludicrous. Apparently Hitch just threw up his hands and bristled at having to use these two utter lightweights in a movie that deserved so much better. Cummings is falsely accused of sabotage at a defense plant and also of incinerating his best friend by putting gasoline inside a fire extinguisher. [Cummings carries little of the resonance of this throughout the rest of the movie.] The real culprit is Norman Lloyd (who is excellent), whom Cummings – with an initially unwilling Lane in tow – pursues across the country. There are scenes which give one pause – how can a man in handcuffs manage to swim, for instance – but also some fine moments and interesting settings, such as the dusty, deserted Soda City where they encounter some of the nest of spies in an eerie moment or two. Hitch works up a lot of suspense for the scene in which Cummings gets rid of said handcuffs with a car's fan belt, and the Statue of Liberty finale is superb. Giant close ups of Norman Lloyd's jacket sleeve – held by Cummings, who wants to save the man so that he can clear him -- beginning to tear are contrasted with stunning long shots of the two men clinging horrifically to the outside of the statue. Hitchcock always said that it should have been Cummings dangling (or falling?) from the statue, not the villain, but the sequence is breath-taking all the same. An inspired touch is having the saboteurs operating in the midst of a respectable charity ball, and they are presented as being for the most part quite ordinary and mundane, with the exception of the flamboyant Mrs. Sutton and the sinister fifth columnist leader, very well-played by, respectively, Alma Kruger and Otto Kruger (no relation). Frank Skinner's opening credits music is very effective and right on the money. The strangest moment: Priscilla Lane actually pays for a milkshake brought to her by one of her captors. Talk about adding insult to injury!
Verdict: Not what it could have been but still some knock-out sequences. ***.