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||| Seeing The World Thru The Lens Of Hitchcock's 'Saboteur'

Tuesday, October 2, 2001

Seeing The World Thru The Lens Of Hitchcock's 'Saboteur'

By Kevin John

At around four in the morning after the World Trade Center attack, a sense of absurdity settled in for my boyfriend and me as we entered the 15th or so hour of our vigil around the news coverage. We were stuck between those literally incredible images of the explosions, from ever-increasing vantage points, and the fact that no new news was forthcoming. Was it our moral duty to watch a movie now or to keep watching the coverage? Maybe if we kept watching, tomorrow would never come and neither would the new era of McCarthyism we were fearing, and best of all, it might come out that the whole thing was some hideous CGI nightmare. After much hand-wringing and teetering back and forth, the movie won out. But unlike every other decision that day, the choice of what to watch came to me as an impulse — "Saboteur."

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, "Saboteur" is a medley of dissenting voices. Unflappably patriotic one moment, it dares to redefine patriotism by questioning democracy, the police and the averageness of the average American citizen the next. And this is 1942, the year after that day which lived on in Michael Bay's dream-theatre, if not in infamy. Although "Saboteur" never specifically references Pearl Harbor, every scene reminds us that America's response to it was built upon a far more conflicted moral foundation than Bay would have us believe today. I could think of no film to better parallel the current emptying of what right and wrong meant before Sept. 11th.

"Saboteur" is accorded a lower rung on the Hitchcock totem pole, usually for two reasons Hitch himself voiced in the landmark interview book "Hitchcock-Truffaut": indifferent casting and the confusing sabotage story. But had Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart played Barry Kane, a munitions worker wrongly accused of setting an aircraft plant ablaze, their myths would have washed over the central conceit of the film — that international politics can strike down the average Joe at any time. So common-as-muck Robert Cummings provides the gawky, deer-in-the-headlights iconography the role requires. And what better way to signal his bewilderment than to not flesh out the fascist plot to blow up the Normandie. The jarring ellipses and fuzzy motivations pull us into the vortex right along with our hero-by-necessity.

In an effort to clear his name, Kane traverses a lot of ground, physically and philosophically. There's a tier of secondary characters who offer him a chaotic discourse on what right and wrong look like and the American duty to act upon it. Otto Kruger plays Mr. Tobin, the mastermind behind the fascist plot (another casting coup to my eyes — I know Kruger from his warm, sacrificing roles in the 1934 Joan Crawford vehicle "Chained" and Douglas Sirk's "Magnificent Obsession," the paternal homoeroticism of the latter marvelously recontextualized by Mark Rappaport in "Rock Hudson's Home Movies"). "A prominent citizen, widely respected," Mr. Tobin, with his ever-reclining, chain-smoking band of dandies (including the elusive Mr. Freeman, who makes an equation of fascism with long hair), has been able to maintain his covert operation so effectively because no one would suspect an upper-cruster of being involved with such evil.

The same preconceptions befall a caravan of circus performers. Under the guidance of Bones, The Human Skeleton, they vote on whether or not to hand Kane and the reluctant heroine Patricia Martin (played by the equally blah Priscilla Lane) over to the police. It's a turning point for Patricia, who has been trying to turn Kane in. "They made me feel so ashamed; they're so nice and trusting," ignorant of her own prejudice. And then there's Patricia's blind father who can "see" Kane's innocence (not to mention the "alarmist" paranoia of the police) in a way that Patricia cannot.

Not all these voices are given equal play, or sometimes even a chance to utter. Tobin and his "family" get their eerie reverse shot as Kane is hauled away for the first time, but the circus performers do not as Kane and Patricia make their way to the next bend of the story. Once they've served their humbling purpose, Hitch makes them disappear. But even before that, certain voices never get heard. Titania, "our little human mountain," doesn't get to vote on Kane's fate because Bones claims her weight puts her on both sides of the fence (as Patricia notes later, "I don't suppose you can blame the fat lady, though, when a woman has lost her figure like that").

Nevertheless, Hitchcock succeeds in creating a universe where nothing is rock-solid anymore, not even the Statue of Liberty, the cold, pitiless witness to the final showdown between Kane and Frank Fry, the real saboteur. Fry falls from the Lady's torch to his death, but the compulsory heterosexual ending, more involuntary than usual, does nothing to convince us that all moral categories have been straightened out. No silent monument is going to shed its grace on them. Nor on us. The least we can do for ourselves is to not merely listen to but actively solicit secondary voices, as the inbred incoherence of "Saboteur" signals. And then perhaps the manageable loop of Sept. 11th will finally become Sept. 12th.


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