Fridays With Hitchcock:
The middle child between THE 39 STEPS and NORTH BY NORTHWEST, this is a man-on-the-run-through-landmarks story. It’s strange - when we think of Hitchcock movies, after we get past PSYCHO, we tend to think of them all as man-on-the-run films, when there are really only five where the guy is running. Though there are a lot of falsely accused people, very few of them *run*. In SPELLBOUND he escapes the institution and then *hides*. In THE WRONG MAN he’s stuck in jail! But these three films use the “double chase” method with the man on the run pretty much the whole time. Like in NORTH BY NORTHWEST where our hero Roger O. Thornhill is chasing spy George Kaplan as well as *being chased* by the police, in SABOTEUR our hero is chasing the real saboteur as well as being chased by the police.
Nutshell: During World War 2, Glendale, California factory worker Barry Kane (Bob Cummings) ends up prime suspect in a fire that takes down his plant and kills his best friend and ends up on the run. He believes a new employee named Fry (Norman Lloyd) was behind it, but there is no employee with that name at the plant. So, Barry goes in search of Fry - while evading a nationwide manhunt - and discovers a vast terrorist cell operating in the United States composed of US citizens who think we’d be better off under German rule. As he chases Fry across the country, he encounters all sorts of Americans with opinions on what makes America a great country (a bit of wartime propaganda) and ends up kidnaping cute advertizement model Patricia (who is on billboards for a mortuary!) (played by Priscilla Lane). She starts out thinking he’s guilty, ends up learning he’s innocent and helping him... and they stop the terrorists from blowing up a brand new battleship and take down the terrorist cell lead by important members of high society Charles Tobin (suave Otto Kruger) and Mrs. Van Sutton (elegant Alma Kruger - no relation) ... which ends in a fight on the Statue Of Liberty!
Experiment: Though no story experiment, the film is filled with great technical experiments, many you probably never noticed. I’m going to talk direction here and writing in the Great Scenes section, so we will be jumping back and forth in the narrative a bit.
In the first few minutes of the film we get a great shot that may have inspired some of the suspense techniques used in THE PARALLAX VIEW and THE INTERNATIONAL - a very still shot of a factory wall... the stillness broken by a cloud of thick black smoke that drifts slowly into frame... and eventually takes over the frame, turning everything black with smoke. The idea of using the *lack of motion* to highlight the smoke is a great exercise in contrast that was used again and again by Alan J. Pakula in PARALLAX and seems to pop up almost accidentally in THE INTERNATIONAL (which leads me to believe it may have been in the script but didn’t make it to screen, along with some of the other suspense elements in that film). The smoke looks even more sinister because ity is the only thing moving in the shot.
There’s a trick shot in the Carnival Caravan sequence - when the police stop the caravan and wee see all of those vehicles stretched out into the distance with policemen searching them, that’s a forced perspective shot with miniature vehicles... and miniature *people* - the policemen farthest from the camera are little people!
There’s an interesting shot in the Soda City sequence when Patricia is hiding in the next room and the two terrorists are talking with Barry. They hear a noise from the room she is hiding in and go to investigate. That’s done in a fairly long take, which makes us feel as if she vanishes before our eyes - she’s in that other room, makes a noise, they go to investigate and the room is empty. No actual vanishing occurred, because we just heard the *sound* in the next room, but it makes us feel as if we have seen the impossible.
There are some other great shots and sequences, but let’s get right to the good stuff: the dress rehearsal for VERTIGO where we *actually see* an actor fall off the Statue Of Liberty’s torch, screaming all the way down to the ground. If there was ever an impossible shot - this is it. But today we know exactly how it was done - a composite shot with actor Norman Lloyd on a platform that could rotate, and the camera yanked from a medium shot - hundreds of feet at high speed - to an extreme long shot where he’s little more than a spec. Marry that shot to the shot from the Statue Of Liberty’s torch, and we see an actual human falling - so much better than some bland shot of a dummy falling, and we can have a great POV shot of our hero as the only one who can prove him innocent falls out of his grip and splats.
Hitch Appearance: Outside a Rexall Drugstore, looking through the window.
Great Scenes: Because this film is the brother to NORTH BY NORTHWEST, I’m going to find different aspects of the story to highlight than the ones I used in NbNW... and that started out a challenge but I think I’ve pulled a couple of interesting lessons from SABOTEUR...
Clues To Locations: One of the most important things in a screenplay is what I call the “A-B-C of the plot” - the logical way that one thing leads to another in a story so that none of it seems forced or contrived. Many screenplays have problems with this - including a couple of movies I’ve recently seen. Usually you have an antagonist that is driving the story - and we have what I call “tennis plotting” - when the protagonist reacts to what the antagonist has done, and the antagonist then reacts to the protagonist, and then the protagonist reacts to what the antagonist did. It goes back and forth like a game of tennis. But some stories, especially mysteries and some thrillers, have a trail of clues that are followed. That’s how SABOTEUR works, so let’s take a look at how stories like that are plotted.
In SABOTEUR our hero starts out knowing nothing - not even who the villain is - and one piece of evidence leads to the next which leads to the next and he learns more along the way. The key to plotting a story like this is to have our hero find information that logically leads to the next piece of information, without any of it seeming obvious. We don’t want the audience to get ahead of the hero, we want them to be along for the ride.
SABOTEUR opens with Barry and his buddy going on a lunch break at the defense plant. They are distracted by a pretty gal doing Rosie The Riveter work and bump into new guy at the plant, Fry... causing some stuff to fall out of his jacket pocket. Barry and his buddy apologize and pick up Fry’s things, one of which is an envelope. After the sabotage, Barry tells the police about Fry - but there is no employee named Fry! Barry goes on the run - and realizes he must find Fry (a goal) to clear himself...
And we get a great memory flash of picking up that envelope. The envelope goes from out of focus, into focus, and we can read the address - a ranch. But other parts of the envelope remain blurry - just like a real memory. That’s great, because later in the film he will have to remember the same envelope and concentrate on that blurry area - giving us two clues from one envelope. The ranch address clue leads Barry to the ranch, where the ranch owner Charles Tobin says he’s never heard of Fry. We get the memory flash again - the envelope comes into focus - and this time we can clearly read the name of the ranch and know that Tobin is lying. While Barry is acting as if he believes that he’s in the wrong place, Tobin leaves for a moment to take a phone call, and Tobin’s toddler granddaughter starts digging things out of Tobin’s coat pockets... and one thing is a telegram with the words “Soda City” on it. That leads Barry to Soda City... which is a ghost town.
Barry and Patricia search the ghost town and find a building with a ringing telephone! That building is being lived in by somebody. There is also a strange hole cut in a door. Barry and Patricia search the room and find a telescope and a tripod - and when they put one on the other the telescope is the perfect height to look out that hole in the door. They look through the telescope and see the Hoover Dam. Note how most of these clues are “some assembly required” - like that telescope. Instead of giving us something obvious, Barry must either remember or put the pieces together to figure out where he’s going. If at all possible, give your protagonist a bunch of pieces to the puzzle or a riddle of some sort, so that it doesn’t seem too easy.
In the Soda City shack they are discovered by the terrorists, and Barry uses a newspaper that calls him the prime suspect in the factory sabotage as his bona fides to prove he’s a terrorist, too... so one of the terrorists agrees takes him to safety in New York City... where he discovers their plan to blow up a new battleship. Each clue leads him to a location where he finds another clue that leads him to the next location. Because he has to *work* to find the next clue, it doesn’t seem as if the next step is just being handed to him. Even that toddler digging around and uncovering the telegram was done as a suspense scene where he could be killed if he doesn’t get that telegram back in Tobin’s pocket before he comes back.
There is no excitement in things going right, so when Barry tries to return the telegram to the coat pocket the toddler grabs it and runs right into Tobin’s arms. Busted! Okay, you are out west at the Deep Springs Ranch - how do you escape?
Hitchcock had this great theory of organic screenwriting that if your story takes place is Switzerland, you make a list of all of the things that Switzerland is famous for, all of the things you would naturally find in that country, and use those things in your story. The same things goes with characters - what is the character’s occupation, what tools is he or she familiar with... and those are the tools they will gravitate to in order to solve the problem. So when you are going to have a chase that begins at a ranch in the west, it’s going to be on horseback instead of in cars. And when Barry is trying to get to that ranch in the first place, he has to figure out some way to travel that can not be traced by the police... what moves across country that is fairly anonymous? Long haul truckers. The highways are full of trucks, and if he hitches a ride on one he will blend right in.
We have Hoover Dam and Ghost Towns and a great dive off a bridge that echos a similar scene in THE 39 STEPS. This seems obvious - but all of those cross country locations are landmarks or things that are interesting parts of the landscape, and once we get to New York City we have scenes in Radio City Music Hall and on the Statue Of Liberty and a major plot element deals with sky scrapers and taxi drivers! If the story takes place in New York City, these are the places and things you expect to see.
The other element in SABOTEUR is World War 2 and the war effort - and these elements also form the story. There is a war effort fund raiser, and the terrorists are blowing up a new battle ship... again, these things may seem obvious, but many screenplays don’t do this. They’d go to Switzerland and forget to show a chocolate maker or the Alps or people skiing. Or have Barry escape from the ranch in a car. Or have Barry be an executive instead of a factory worker in a defense plant.
Look at your story and where it takes place and make some lists of elements that are part of those things. You want the pieces to be part of the whole - connected.
Invisible Storytelling: There is some great “invisible storytelling” in this film - information delivered to the audience through a situation and actions rather than dialogue. Though some of the dialogue gets a little heavy handed, there’s a great bit lifted from FRANKENSTEIN where our man on the run ends up taking shelter from the storm at a remote cabin in the woods... owned by a Blind Man (Vaughan Glaser) who lives there with his dog. Barry is careful not to use his name and careful not to give the blind man any clues to his identity. Lots of suspense, as Barry is in handcuffs at this point and doesn’t want to rattle them - how do you explain that noise? He’s also been on the run for a while and is starving, and grabs an apple, taking a bite. The Blind Man hears this - and tells him to help himself, and if he would like a drink or some dinner, that’s fine. The Blind Man does not see Barry as a wanted man - doesn’t know that Barry’s face is planted all overt town on wanted posters, and when the radio gives a description of this wanted saboteur, has no idea what Barry looks like. Justice is blind.
But when the Blind Man’s niece Patricia arrives, she sees who Barry is, thinks he’s dangerous and wants to turn him over to the police, just based on the newspaper headlines and radio reports. She is judging a book by its cover - or its news reports in this case. But the Blind Man can see the truth - Barry has not acted violent or dangerous and in America a man is innocent until proven guilty. The Blind Man has known who Barry was all along - heard his handcuffs when he came through the door. But instead of judging Barry on the press reports, judges him on his actions. He’s a polite young man. The Blind Man tells Patricia to drive Barry down to the blacksmith’s shop to have the handcuffs removed...
But she double crosses him - and they become that couple from THE 39 STEPS... he takes her hostage and slowly proves that he isn’t a bad guy but a wrongly accused man.
Another get piece of “invisible storytelling” - when the fire breaks out at the factory, Fry hands Barry a big industrial fire extinguisher and tells him to go put it out. Barry’s best friend takes the fire extinguisher from Barry and runs into the burning factory... But Fry has filled the extinguisher with gasoline! And Barry’s friend catches fire and burns to death (on camera - gross!). When the long haul trucker picks up Barry, there is a fire extinguisher mounted inside the truck right next to where he’s sitting. Barry looks at the fire extinguisher and turns away from it in fear... And the trucker starts talking about how handy having a fire extinguisher can be - and all of the truck and car fires where people would have burned to death... and everything the trucker says about the fire extinguisher reminds *us* about Barry’s friend having that gasoline filled fire extinguisher blow up in his hands and turn him into a human fireball.
Just as this film is about World War 2, it is also about America - so another bit of “invisible storytelling” comes after Barry and Patricia’s car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and they end up jumping on a Carnival Caravan in the middle of the night. They knock on the back door, it opens... and there is nobody on the other side! Until Barry and Patricia look down and see The Major - a midget. This is a car full of Circus Freaks! There’s the Bearded Lady - her beard in curlers for the night. The Fat Woman (why was that a freak?). The Siamese Twins who are in the middle of a spat and not talking to each other, “Will someone tell her to do something about her insomnia? I keep tossing and turning all night!” The Strong Man. And the most eloquent of the group, the Human Skeleton - a tall very very thin man. All of these very different people - different than you and me and different than each other.
When the police stop the Caravan and begin searching the cars, The Major says they should throw Barry out. He’s going to get them all in trouble. As The Major tries to throw Barry and Patricia out of the Caravan Car, the Human Skeleton says they should put it to a vote. So, they vote. All of these very different people, setting aside their differences, voting to make a decision that the whole group will live by. Even the very vocal Major goes along with the outcome of the vote (which is to hide Barry and Patricia from the police). Okay - just as we’ve had blind justice, we now have a diverse group of people voting and then working together after they have voted. That’s America, folks! We may not like each other, but we’re family - and when we vote on something, the majority wins and even those who voted against pitch in. Once we as a country have agreed to something, we are *all* Americans and we *all* accept the decision. A great piece of patriotism disguised as a comedy scene with freak show members. At no time in this scene does anyone say, “We’re Americans!” but the scene *demonstrates* the concept of democracy. With a bearded lady. And Siamese Twins that aren’t talking to each other.
Nice Villains: One of the great things about this script are the villain characters - not a mustache twirler in the group! You don’t want cardboard cut out 2 dimensional villains in your screenplay - they just seem fake. You always want villains who are motivated and real - and SABOTEUR has some of the creepiest scenes of any Hitchcock film when the killers do normal, everyday things that make them just like someone you might know... and that’s more frightening than having villains who you can spot twirling their mustaches from a mile away. You can avoid the EVIL villains, and they are easily spotted by the police... but when the nice guy next door is a killer? You could be dead before you figure it out.
One of the things I like to do with my villains (and other characters) is “character shading” - you show an aspect of their character that isn’t plot related (except it really is - because you are making the villain more realistic, and that makes them more frightening). So when we first meet our master villain, Charles Tobin - the leader of a pro-Nazi terrorist cell made up of USA citizens - he’s playing with his cute little grand daughter at poolside in his backyard. If he owns a big rubber stamp that says “Find Him & Kill Him” it isn’t shown in this scene. He’s introduced as a fairly typical grandfather, and a kind and helpful person. The scene goes out of its way to show him as a normal person, not someone you should fear... And that is brilliant! Because he *is* someone you should fear - a terrorist leader! If Barry were to tell the police that this nice grandfather were the leader of a terrorist cell, the police would not believe him. So being a nice grandpa isn’t just a great cover for Tobin, it also makes him more powerful... and more realistic. He’s just like you and me... except he’s going to blow up Hoover Dam.
Later, after Barry convinces the two terrorists at Soda City that he is one of them, the soft spoken blond Freeman (Alan Baxter) offers to transport him cross country to New York where the terrorist cell is headquartered. In the car along the way, Freeman talks to Barry about his young son and his beautiful flowing blond hair... is he wrong not to have his son’s hair cut? Freeman talks about how when he was a boy (in Germany) he had long blond hair, and he wants his son to grow up to be like him. The great thing about this exchange is that it makes Freeman into a good father, worried about his son’s hair and yet trying to give his son a sense of values. Of course, those would be Nazi terrorist values! It is a creepy scene, because the exact same conversation might come from some 1950s family sitcom dad - nothing evil about anything Freeman says, but again we get “family values” that include world domination and killing a bunch of innocent people. To Freeman, blowing up Hoover Dam or sinking a new battleship is just another day at work, and he’ll go home to his wife and family like any other sitcom dad... and that is more frightening to me than any mustache twirler.
Once they get to New York City, we are introduced to the leader of the East Coast branch of this terrorist cell - society matron Mrs. Sutton (Alma Kruger) who lives in an impossibly luxurious Manhattan apartment and is involved in a number of charities... which are probably fronts for Nazi spy rings. She is that wealthy society woman who is more concerned with her jewelry than trifles like politics - a silly rich woman - except that is her cover. She is really a cut-throat terrorist disguised as Margaret Dumont. This is elegant high society, not the kind of people we think about when we think of terrorists. Mrs. Sutton is having a charity ball, and seems more concerned with the party than with twirling her mustache - and her conversation isn’t about pure evil and world domination, but about making sure her guests are served properly and her reputation as a pillar of the community.
Barry ends up busted, because Charles Tobin is there - and they have a nice little conversation about how much money can be made through intelligent investments if the Nazis conquer the United States. Tobin also mentions that after Patricia escaped she went right to the police... but it was one of Tobin’s policemen - there are many police officers who believe the United States might have more law and order under the Nazis. Tobin has Barry taken to where they are holding Patricia... and after a few moments of confusion where Patricia thinks Barry really is one of them, she finally realizes he is a prisoner, too... and the pair attempt an escape.
Trapped In A Crowd: Barry and Patricia end up in the grand ballroom, in the middle of Mrs. Sutton’s big charity event. When they head to the exit doors, a pair of tuxedo-clad men block the exit. There are a pair of men in tuxedos blocking every exit. They are trapped in a crowded charity ball - with a full orchestra and people dancing and sipping drinks and joking. Barry goes up to a guest and explains that he’s a prisoner and people are trying to kill him... and the guest just laughs. Gotta be a joke, right? The guys in tuxedos at the doors are just staff members there to open the door for you and keep out the party crashers. Barry tries another guest... and this one tells him that it will all be easier if he and the girl just give themselves up. You can not tell who the bad guys are! They look just like anybody else!
Barry and Patricia need to get deep enough into the crowd that the terrorists can’t really do anything to them... so they start *dancing* like many of the other guests - while they look for some way out of this. They are surrounded by people - almost all of them just regular folks who are here for the charity ball - but still trapped. It’s a great suspense scene... and just when you think maybe they can keep dancing until they find some way out of this, a guy comes and cuts in - dancing with Patricia. She’s been captured while *dancing*.
Barry comes up with a scheme that is the halfway point in the evolution of that scene from THE 39 STEPS where Robert Donat makes a speech at a political rally to avoid capture, and that scene in NORTH BY NORTHWEST where Cary Grant disrupts the auction to avoid capture... He grabs the microphone, has everyone applaud their host Mrs. Sutton, and then announces that Mrs. Sutton has graciously offered to auction off one of the famous Sutton Family Jewels tonight - and Mrs. Sutton is forced to take off an expensive bracelet and auction it off, which completely disrupts the villains plans to capture him because now Barry is the center of attention, and forces Mrs. Sutton and some of her henchmen to also be the center of attention - unable to do anything while Barry attempts to escape... and fails! The story does a great job of making you think he’s found a way to escape... only to have him captured again.
Biggest To Smallest: Eventually, after the use of a fire sprinkler and a paper airplane, both Barry and Patricia escape and try to stop Fry from blowing up a brand new battle ship... and Patricia follows Fry to the Statue Of Liberty, and Barry shows up to capture Fry - the only man who can prove that he’s not the saboteur who burned down the factory. Barry chases Fry up to the torch, where there’s a great illustration of Hitchcock’s “biggest to smallest” theory. This is an interesting theory because it is both a *story* theory and a *film/editing* theory, the way that a “scrod” is both a fish and a way of preparing a fish. The idea is that a large event can be caused by a small thing, or that in the middle of a large event there is a small drama that is important. Often these story elements are shot with a single shot that goes from extreme long shot to close up or by editing shots together from extreme long shot to close up.
In one of my favorite unknown Hitchcock films, YOUNG AND INNOCENT, they guy and gal on the run have and they discover the real killer has twitchy eyes and will be at a certain address at a certain time. They take the only witness who can identify the killer to the address - a packed night club! Hundreds of people dancing and a live band! The camera does an amazing overhead shot that begins with our heroes entering the night club, drifts over the packed nightclub and the hundreds of people to the opposite side of the room, then glides down to the band... ending on a close up of one band member’s eyes as they twitch uncontrollably.
Biggest to smallest.
In SABOTEUR, when Barry corners Fry on the torch, Fry takes a step back, loses balance, falls over the edge! The only one who can prove Barry is innocent! But when Barry looks over the edge, Fry is hanging on to Liberty’s palm! Barry climbs down to rescue him... and we get these great long shots of those two little humans on the HUGE Statue Of Liberty... and we edit from shot to shot getting closer until we have Barry holding Fry’s coat sleeve trying to pull him up... then even closer - to the stitching that connects the sleeve of the coat to the body of the coat as the stitches begin to unravel!
Look for Barry holding onto Fry under the torch in the upper left hand side of this picture:
Biggest to smallest.
This huge dramatic scene on the Statue Of Liberty all comes down to a thread!
The police arrive, hear enough from Fry to exonerate Barry, then the last stitch unravels and Fry falls...
And we get to see him fall all of the way down and splat in one shot.
Sound Track: Frank Skinner - an okay score, not up to Herrmann standards, but it’s not obtrusive.
Hitchcock always seemed to be getting in trouble with the government with his wartime movies - in NOTORIOUS his plot was about Germany building an atomic bomb when *we* were still working on it... and working on it in secret. When Hitchcock used something ultra top secret for his plot, the FBI wanted to know who told him about it. Hitchcock said atomic bombs were a theory, he just figured someone would be trying to use that theory to make a real bomb.
And in SABOTEUR he got into trouble for a shot of the capsized Normandie in New York Harbor. While filming SABOTEUR, the SS Normandie - an ocean liner - was being turned into a troop ship in New York Harbor when a fire broke out and the *huge* ship ended up capsizing. Universal Studios dispatched newsreel cameramen for some footage that would be used on the news - but Hitchcock gave them some special instructions on a couple of shots he wanted... and then cut those shots into the movie: Fry driving past the capsized Normandie sees the ship and smiles - as if he sunk it! Because this implied that there were real saboteurs working in New York City and that they actually got away with sinking the Normandie while it was under military guard, the FBI expressed their anger at the scene to Hitchcock.
The biggest problem with SABOTEUR are the two stars - Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane. It’s not easy to love that Bob - he overacts and gives the most obvious and on-the-nose line readings. He spends half of the film being angry - and the rest of the film being dull instead of charming. Priscilla Lane is cute and wholesome and plastic. When she tells him that she’s a model, you think - WTF? She’s about as far from a model as you can get (even in 1944).
And the two have zero chemistry - actually, they have *negative* chemistry. When they kiss while dancing, it’s a good kiss - but you don’t believe it for a second. No heat, no passion, not even any *fun*. The script said “kiss” and they kiss. These two are a poor substitute for either Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint or Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. As screenwriters we have no control over casting at all, and many film are sunk by bad casting. All of the other elements work well, but the casting kills it.
Just as THE PARADINE CASE was killed by casting Louis Jordan (and Gregory Peck), this film would have been a million times better with a different actor in the lead - someone who wouldn’t have yelled half of his lines. But, it’s still a fun movie with some great scenes and a great way to kill a couple of hours.
The other Fridays With Hitchcock.
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