Blu-ray Review: Saboteur

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 Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 07, 2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 109 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.36:1

Notes: This title has had a number of DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. The artwork on the actual disc is the only thing different about this release.

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Saboteur was not successful to my mind, because I don’t think Cummings was right. He was too un-dramatic. He had what I call a ‘comedy face,’ and half the time you don’t believe the situations. Think of the difference between that and Robert Donat in The Thirty-Nine Steps… But what annoyed me most was the casting of the heavy, Otto Kruger. I had a concept: fascists in those days were middle-westerners, America-Firsters, and I wanted Harry Carey, western style, a rich rancher. His wife came to see me and she said, ‘I couldn’t let my husband play a role like that, when all the youth in America look up to him.’ So I couldn’t get him, and Kruger was all wrong. I also tried to get Barbara Stanwyck, but I had to take Priscilla Lane. I wanted Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper to lift the picture up.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

It is difficult not to agree with Hitchcock’s opinion that casting was one of the major faults with Saboteur. The same script shot with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck would have been an altogether different experience. The film is essentially an American re-imagining of The 39 Steps, but with more overt political undertones (or overtones).

According to Leonard J. Leff in Hitchcock & Selznick, story editor Val Lewton advised Selznick against making yet another “chase film.”

“…but while Selznick could have forced Hitchcock to choose a property from the studio hopper, he deferred to him on story selection. Hitchcock worked best when he enjoyed at least the illusion of control. Against Lewton’s advice and his own better judgment, Selznick gave Hitchcock permission to develop an original narrative about sabotage…

…Hitchcock, along with Joan Harrison and Michael Hogan, developed a treatment for the Selznick picture. Their tale about a California munitions worker falsely charged with sabotage resembled The 39 Steps; the hero’s search for the actual turncoat included a love interest, several humorous and suspenseful episodes, and the dynamiting of a new dam to be opened by the president of the United States.

Whether Hitchcock dazzle could camouflage routine mechanics seemed questionable. Selznick read the story, noted the brittle plot devices, then called the stenographers up to Santa Barbra. He advised Hitchcock to ‘try to get something instead of [a] dam being blown up. This is not very new for a picture catastrophe.’ He also impelled him to address the weak human dimension, the characters’ ‘heart and emotional relationships.’

The brevity and tone of the memoranda suggested that Selznick lacked the concentration for sustained work and perhaps intended to sell both director and treatment to the highest bidder…” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock & Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick In Hollywood)

While one cannot argue that there are flaws in the film’s construction, these flaws weren’t helped by the writers that Selznick chose to help Hitchcock fix these issues.

“…Selznick assigned John Houseman to supervise the development of the screenplay and young Peter Viertel to write it. Neither choice benefited Saboteur… One Selznick reader called [the script] synthetic and ‘loosely strung together,’ the work of ‘an inferior Hitchcock imitator.’ Never a Hitchcock fan, Val Lewton found it ‘the sort that every studio rejects after a cursory reading.’” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock & Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick In Hollywood)

Selznick was both unimpressed, and uninterested in making the film. However, he knew that he could make a nice profit by selling it to another studio. It was up to Alfred Hitchcock to sell the project if he wanted to make the film, and after being rejected by several studios (including Twentieth Century Fox and RKO), independent producer Frank Lloyd bought it. Hitchcock was glad to be away from Selznick, and Selznick was satisfied with his 300 percent profit. Apparently, it is quite lucrative to be a Hollywood talent-pimp.

“Hitchcock roared through the making of Saboteur. He exceeded the budget by only $3,000 and completed both script and principal photography in less than fifteen weeks, faster than any of his four American pictures to date…Yet to his chagrin; reviewers criticized Saboteur just as Selznick had months before… Harsh notices sent the director into a deep funk, his secretary recalled.” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock & Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick In Hollywood)

Leff paints a slightly more negative critical reception than the film actually received. Most critics found plenty of things to admire in Saboteur, but laced their compliments with negative reservations. One could best describe reception of the film as “mixed.” On April 29, 1942, Variety wrote a review of the film that set the tone for reviews to come.

“All the typical Alfred Hitchcock cinematic wrinkles are present in his newest picture, Saboteur, which he has made on a Selznick loan out for Universal release. It is violently typical Hitchcock. It has the same basic elements of chase melodrama, the romantic couple beset by sinister forces they only partly see and dimly understand, the complicated plot, fantastic situations, colorful minor characters, sardonic comedy touches and sudden, wild climax. It’s expert and enormously effective. It’ll get rave reviews, play holdover engagements and clean up at the box-office.

As Hitchcock continues to turn out pictures his methods become increasingly familiar and recognizable. For he is a vivid stylist whose stamp is unmistakably on every film he makes. It doesn’t matter at what studio or with whom he works. If Hitchcock directs it, it’s a Hitchcock picture.

In a way, that’s a supreme compliment, for nearly every film he’s made in recent years, whether in England or Hollywood, has been an outstanding critical and box office success. Nevertheless, it indicates a lack of versatility, since all his pictures tend to be similar, not only in type of story, but in the technical tricks by which he gets his effects, in the unvarying expression of his creative personality.

Saboteur is a little too self-consciously Hitchcock. Its succession of incredible climaxes, its mounting tautness and suspense, its mood of terror and impending doom could have been achieved by no one else. That is a great tribute to a brilliant director. But it would be a greater tribute to a finer director if he didn’t let the spectator see the wheels go ’round, didn’t let him spot the tricks — and thus shatter the illusion, however momentarily…” -Variety (April 29, 1942)

Of course a great deal of criticism came from the pretentious plausibility seekers that have no appreciation for Hitchcock’s special kind of fantasy. Bosley Crowther was always such a critic, and his review for The New York Times followed suit (even if it was veiled in condescending praise).

“…To put it mildly, Mr. Hitchcock and his writers have really let themselves go. Melodramatic action is their forte, but they scoff at speed limits this trip. All the old master’s experience at milking thrills has been called upon. As a consequence—and according to Hitchcock custom—Saboteur is a swift, high-tension film which throws itself forward so rapidly that it permits slight opportunity for looking back. And it hurtles the holes and bumps which plague it with a speed that forcefully tries to cover them up.

In the style of some of his earlier British pictures, Mr. Hitchcock has filmed one long, relentless ‘chase’ in which an aircraft worker from a California plant races all the way across the country in vague pursuit of a hatchet-faced rat who attempted to set fire to the factory…

…So fast, indeed, is the action and so abundant the breathless events that one might forget, in the hubbub, that there is no logic in this wild-goose chase. Actually, there is no reason for the hero undertaking his mad pursuit, since the obvious and sensible method would be to have it conducted by the FBI. Consequently, one wonders—if one stops to wonder at all—why the hero is in such a dither as to his personal relations with the police, why—at any juncture—he shouldn’t hand the job over to the cops.

This possible intrusion of one’s reason might therefore tend to drain some of the harrowing tension from many of the tricky episodes. Particularly in the one sequence, where the hero and heroine seem to be coerced to silence at a party of innocent folk, one wonders why a word to a near-by general or admiral wouldn’t do to put an end to their peril. And how was a bomb ever set in the navy yard.

As usual, Mr. Hitchcock and his writers have contrived excuses. But their casual presentation of the FBI as a bunch of bungling dolts, their general disregard of authorized agents and their slur on the navy yard police somewhat vitiates the patriotic implications which they have tried to emphasize in the film. One gathers that the nation’s safety depends entirely on civilian amateurs.

It goes almost without saying that some of the ‘Hitchcock touches’ are exceedingly clever, withal. The sequence with the circus freaks is a bit of capital satire, and the smashing, conclusive adventure should terrify a steeplejack… Apparently Mr. Hitchcock has endeavored to imitate his own The 39 Steps. But the going is not so even. He trips too often in his headlong ascent.” -Bosley Crowther (New York Times, May 8, 1942)

Readers might notice a pattern of reserved praise in the reviews of Saboteur. This pattern continues in a review published in The Times. Everything in the review expresses admiration, but this is only after announcing to the reader that Hitchcock is repeating himself.

“Mr. Alfred Hitchcock does not attempt anything startlingly original in Saboteur. He is content to take the old counters in the game of sabotage, flight and pursuit, and his interest, and that of the audience, lies in the cinematic pattern he makes of them.

Mr. Hitchcock has always been at his best in his suggestion of suspense. His silences are charged with meaning, with the feeling that menace is crouching in the corner ready to spring, and he is never afraid of keeping his camera immobile and working on the audience’s feelings by his prolonged concentration on one significant detail. Here the seconds the camera spends recording the gradual spread of a tear in a coat are the most effective in the film and other incidents, the sudden ringing of a telephone in a deserted shack, for instance, help to keep the adventure moving imaginatively as well as dramatically…” -The Times (May, 28 1942)

Today Saboteur is seen as “second-tier” Hitchcock, and this reviewer is very much in agreement with this opinion. However, the film is not inferior because it is another “chase film.” There were a number of unfortunate handicaps placed upon the production, as Donald Spoto relates in his essay about the film.

“It’s hard to deny that there’s a certain flatness to this film; there are moments when it looks so cheap you may think it was stitched together by an admirer of Hitchcock. This is at least partially explained by film budget restrictions in early 1942… that economy was invoked by a number of cheap background shots, painted backdrops, miniatures, and rear projections.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Since the government placed budget and set constraints upon the production, a number of cheaper B-movie alternatives were used to get Saboteur over this hurdle. It is also likely that Selznick’s apathy towards the project in the production’s earliest stages damaged the script’s development. In fact, final analysis finds this reviewer disagreeing with Hitchcock’s claim that “the picture was overloaded with too many ideas.” The real issue was that these ideas were not developed and executed as well as some of his other features.

Screenshot: Robert Cummings as Barry Kane

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

This disc is available as part of The Masterpiece Collection boxed set and as an individual disc.

Collection Page

The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches. There have even been reports of glue adhering to the actual disc, and rendering them unplayable.

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork.

The menu on the disc contains footage from the film accompanied by music in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.

Screenshot: Otto Kruger

Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Saboteur’s 1080p image transfer is one of the best offered in Universal’s Hitchcock catalog. One might be alarmed at a bit of noise and film damage during the opening credits, but these issues disappear after this sequence. The rest of the film is beautifully rendered, and Joseph Valentine’s photography shines with fine detail that was never seen in DVD transfers of the film. While brightness occasionally fluctuates, this is inherent in the aged film prints. The transfer is only as good as the source prints, and this fluctuation is never distracting. Blacks are deep and inky, and enhance an image that already contains excellent contrast without losing any detail. Mid-range grays are perfectly gorgeous, and balance the image nicely. A fine layer of grain betrays the film’s celluloid source and provides a cinematic atmosphere. This is the best that the film has looked on home video.

Screenshot: Priscilla Lane

Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

This two-channel DTS-HD Mono track should please the purist, and impress audiophiles that respect fidelity to a film’s original soundtrack. Saboteur has never sounded as clean and clear as it does here. Distractions such as hiss never become an issue on this transfer, and dialogue is always intelligible. One can hear sounds that weren’t quite clear in DVD issues of the film. It is nice to see that the audio was given the same amount of respect that was afforded to the image.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Saboteur: A Closer Look – (SD) – (35 min)

This excellent documentary short directed by Laurent Bouzereau was originally included on Saboteur’s first DVD release. This was back in the day when special features offered audiences more than short pieces of fluff that do not amount to anything more than a waste of the viewer’s time.

The documentary offers the viewer a glimpse at the film’s production, relying heavily on two interview participants. The first of these participants is Norman Lloyd (actor), and the second is Robert Boyle. Patricia Hitchcock is also here as a secondary source to fill in a few holes, and archive footage of John Houseman allows him to make an appearance. This program isn’t quite as comprehensive as Bouzereau’s excellent feature length documentaries about Psycho and The Birds, but it is a significant look at the film that renders additional supplements almost gratuitous. It would be very difficult to add anything significant to what is relayed in this piece.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2 min)

Saboteur’s trailer is actually rather interesting. While it is not as creative as those for Hitchcock’s later features, it is more than a mere series of clips from the film. Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) hosts the trailer in much the same manner that James Stewart hosts the trailer for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). It is very nice to have this included in the collection.

Storyboards – (SD) – (4 min)

Universal has also seen fit to provide viewers with a gallery of storyboard drawings for the Statue of Liberty sequence. This should delight fans and film students.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Sketches – (SD) – (1 min)

A selection of drawings and storyboards by Alfred Hitchcock were used to help Robert Boyle in the production design, and some of these are included on this disc. They make an excellent companion to the other storyboards included here.

Production Photographs – (SD) – (8 min)

This photo gallery includes movie posters, vintage ads, and production photos. These images are often a very interesting glimpse at the marketing of the film.

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Final Words:

Saboteur is “second-tier” Hitchcock, but it is also first-rate entertainment. While casual fans may not wish to add this film to their collection, it should certainly be worth a rental for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. Those who do wish to add this Hitchcock film to their collection can rest easy in the knowledge that the disc exhibits an excellent picture and sound transfer.

Review by: Devon Powell

Source Materials:

 Review (Variety, April 29, 1942)

Bosley Crowther Review (New York Times, May 8, 1942)

 Review (The Times, May, 28 1942)

Alfred Hitchcock Interview with Peter Bogdanovich (1963)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock & Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick In Hollywood)