Monday, November 16, 2020

Saboteur (1942)--with very best (though belated) happy birthday wishes to Norman Lloyd!

Alfred Hitchcock's suspense film Saboteur suffers in comparison, I think, with the films which immediately preceded and followed it (Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion, even the oddball screwball Mr. and Mrs. Smith, on the one side and Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat, Spellbound and Notorious on the other); yet it's an entertaining film in its own right.  Its plot is animated by one of Hitch's most characteristic devices: the flight-and-pursuit "wrong man" plot, in which the hero--and it's always a hero as opposed to a heroine, I think--is wrongfully blamed for some form of wicked malfeasance and has to flee both the law and the lawless until he can find the real villain and establish his innocence.

Man (Bob Cummings) in trouble; Woman (Priscilla Lane) at the wheel

In this case it's sweet-faced Barry Kane (Robert Cummings), a wartime worker in an aircraft factory in Glendale, California.  (My grandmother used to live there and I stayed at her apartment there way back in 1974.)  Poor Barry gets blamed when a hellish fire ravages the plant, killing his best friend in the process, and he has to go on the run.  (But naturally!)  Then through a series of set pieces he evades the goodies and baddies, ending up in New York, where he has a climactic confrontation with the true saboteur, whose identity we have known since the beginning of the film (like most Hitchcock films this is a thriller, not a mystery): a mysterious malevolent individual named Fry, superbly played by Norman Lloyd, who just celebrated his birthday a week ago.  His 106th birthday!  He has been around a long time.  Amazingly, he is only two years younger than Hugh Wheeler of Patrick Quentin fame, whose biography I am writing, who died back in 1987.

Norman Lloyd drops out of the film

The climactic set piece takes place on the small deck around the torch of the Statue of Liberty and is one of the most memorable scene in the Hitchcock oeuvre to my mind.  The film itself, however, strikes me as thrilling only in fits and starts. It consists of a series of set pieces all across America, some more striking than others.  The film is something of a retread of Hitchcock's earlier, and more celebrated, English film The Thirty-Nine Steps, where actors Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll spend a good chunk of the film handcuffed to each other and bickering as Donat drags the attractive but aggrieved Carroll along with him.  In Saboteur Cummings ends up forcing an attractive but aggrieved young woman (Priscilla Lane) to come along with him as well (after he gets out of a pair of handcuffs).  My favorite scene in this section of the film takes place when Cummings and Lane encounter a group of circus "freaks" on a train--and a most engaging and philosophical group of individuals they are!

Otto Kruger makes a reliable silky villain, but I was more interested in Alan Baxter's blond and bespectacled and vaguely pervy baddie Freeman.  There's a scene he shares with Cummings, where apropos of nothing he starts talking about how he wishes his young sons were little girls and how he himself had the most beautiful golden locks as a lad and how everyone admired him.  It's such a weird scene but certainly made me wonder about this character!  Author Dorothy Parker was involved in punching up the script and I am curious just what bits she might have contributed.

Freeman (Alan Baxter) creeping out Barry Kane (Bob Cummings)

People are of mixed opinion about the leads, Cummings and Lane, and while I found Lane pretty bland I thought light comedy star Cummings' "aw shucks" Americanism was well-suited to the role.  It must be this quality that gets so many people, like the majority of the circus freaks and ultimately the "girl" herself, to believe in him, when, really, they have no logical reason to do so!

Still the stand-out presence in the film is villain Norman Lloyd, who after the first ten minutes disappears from the film--but when he finally shows up again, things really take off!  Not only do we have the death battle atop the Statue of Liberty, but there's also a boffo shooting sequence at Radio City Music Hall.  Lloyd doesn't have a lot of dialogue, but he makes an excellent cruelly sneering blond villain, presumably a native German or American Nazi sympathizer, the irony of which must have been appreciated by the then twenty-six year old actor, who was born Norman Perlmutter.  This fine villain is rewarded with an exquisite film demise, which, if you're a vintage film fan, you have probably already seen before, even if you haven't seen the film in its entirety.  

Surprisingly to me Saboteur received no Oscar nominations, in contrast with Hitch's earlier espionage thriller Foreign Correspondent (1940), which was nominated for six Oscars, including best picture.  (Hitch actually had two films nominated for best picture that year, this and Rebecca, the latter of which won.)  I would have thought Saboteur would at least have been nominated for best visual effects for the impressively designed arson and Statue of Liberty sequences.  (Ten films were nominated that year, including Mrs. Miniver.)  Ah, well, posterity remembers.  

Norman and Hitch on the set of Sabotage

As for birthday boy Norman Lloyd, this was the start of a fruitful artistic relationship between him and the Master.  Saboteur was his first full feature film.  In genre work he went on to co-star in The Unseen (1945), an adaptation of an Ethel Lina White thriller, and Hitchcock's own Spellbound (1945), as well as the American remake of the classic German serial murderer film M and the noir crime drama He Ran all the Way, both from 1951.  However, his career stalled after his role in Charlie Chaplin's Limelight (1952), when he became yet another victim of the Hollywood blacklist.  I think Limelight was his last film until the supernatural thriller Audrey Rose with Anthony Hopkins and Marsha Mason, which came out in 1977!  He was also in the Oscar-nominated films Dead Poets Society and The Age of Innocence and had a major role in the acclaimed Eighties hospital drama St. Elsewhere, which is how I originally knew him.  

Back in the Fifties it was Hitchcock who came to Lloyd's aid by hiring him as an associate producer on his popular television suspense anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  (He was later the executive producer of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.)  Lloyd acted in a few of the episodes as well, performing memorably in my mind as the title character in "The Little Man Who Was There" (1960).  It's not exactly a mystery per se, but it should appeal to all lovers of good tale telling. 

A dozen years later Lloyd appeared in "A Feast of Blood," an episode of the Rod Serling horror anthology series Night Gallery that scared the bejesus out of me when I was a kid.  It looks cheesy to the adult me, I must admit, but if not the special effects then Lloyd's performance holds up, as does Sondra Locke's as the beautiful blonde recipient of Lloyd's unusual gift.  His last work as a producer seems to have been on the suspense series Tales of the Unexpected, an Eighties anthology based on the work of Roald Dahl.  All in all, a fine legacy in film and television (not to get into stage)--and to think it all began with a fatal fall from the Statue of Liberty!


  1. I can vouch for "The Little Man That Was There", oddly worded title and all. I've been watching a lot of old AHP episodes this year, and that's one that makes an impression. It is a mystery in a way, in that what initially seems to be happening isn't quite what is happening.

  2. I can vouch for "The Little Man That Was There", oddly worded title and all. I've been watching a lot of old AHP episodes this year, and that's one that makes an impression. It is a mystery in a way, in that what initially seems to be happening isn't quite what is happening.

    1. Yes, indeed, I had never heard of it before when I saw it, as it's not one of the famous episodes, but it was a pleasant (or unpleasant, hee hee) surprise. The title is from the poem popularly known as "The Little Man Who Wasn't There." (Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn't there....) It was recorded as a swing tune with the Glenn Miller Band and was a #7 in 1939. I hadn't realized "little" got popularly incorporated into the title. The actual title of the poem is Antigonish.

  3. I have some good words for Sabateur also,I like the American setting and the under the radar evil of the American fascists which comes across as suitably creepy. I don't think Hitchcock had control over the casting of the leads. Robert Cummings does very well I think, and even though Priscilla Lane is somewhat lacking, she's pretty good and sharp as the aggrieved captive. I like her more than Laraine Day in Foreign Correspondent.

  4. I first watched Saboteur as a teen, and found it fascinatingly creepy. I don't think it had been shown here on TV up to that point. Otto Kruger, he actually scared me with as you say his silken villainy as he sits poolside with his infant grandson!

  5. As for Dorothy Parker, I remember reading, maybe in the abundant capsule movie reviews that The New Yorker once had, that Parker worked on the scenes with the traveling circus people. I'll have to watch it again. Birthday greetings to Norman Lloyd; his villainy comes across very well.