The Story of ‘Saboteur’, Hitchcock’s First Truly American Film


By Sven Mikulec

When Alfred Hitchcock came to the United States at the end of the 1930s, having been making films in England for twenty years, it took some time for his film production to fully adapt to his new American surroundings. Rebecca and Suspicion, for instance, were movies thematically set in England and employed mostly British actors and actresses. Foreign Correspondent really had a legit American protagonist, but the story was staged in the Netherlands and England. And then Saboteur came out in 1942: an exciting thriller that many still consider a step lower in quality when compared to the master’s most prestigious work, but a film that literally no one abstains from calling Hitchcock’s first truly American film. The assessments on the alleged inferior quality of Saboteur were respectfully disregarded here at C&B when we got our hands on the film’s screenplay as we, of course, felt delighted by the chance to turn back and shed some light on this film. Saboteur might not be perfect, but even a slightly flawed Hitchcock stands far above the great majority of American film production of that specific period. To all those who evaluate films based on the box office receipts, rest assured Saboteur was far from a flop: by earning twice as much as the three-quarters of a million invested, Hitchcock’s spy thriller was a real bingo for Universal and David O. Selznick, just as it was a nice asset in the filmmaker’s resume, reassuring his status of a profitable, bankable name that would allow him to work on his own creative terms in the years that followed. The critics might not have been all too thrilled when it came out on April 22, 1942, even though plenty appreciated the qualities still apparent in a 2018 viewing. People like the New York Times’ critic Bosley Crowther, for instance, to whom we’ll come back a bit later. The reasons why Saboteur is on C&B’s rather selective presenting list aren’t limited to the aforementioned trivia regarding the film’s status as Hichcock’s first all-American picture: it’s a technically masterful, beautifully staged, ceaselessly thrilling espionage ride across the United States, a film substantially influenced on by the Pearl Harbor attack both in terms of its screenplay and the overall sentimental impact on the audience, and a film that despite its occasionally shaky narrative manages to deliver several iconic sequences that show the filmmaker’s audacity, innovation and vision unparalleled in the works of his contemporaries.

As Hitchcock was under contract to David O. Selznick at the time, he approached the producer to pitch him his idea for an espionage thriller, upon which Selznick green-lighted the beginning of the scriptwriting process. John Houseman was instructed by Selznick to oversee the production, and Hitchcock initially turned to Joan Harrison, the screenwriter whom he worked with on Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent. The filmmaker’s collaborator since 1935, Harrison’s ambitions steadily grew, and she decided to take a producing job at Universal. Hitchcock was reportedly upset by her decision and tried to convince Selznick to give her a raise so she would stay, but the producer chose to calm the filmmaker down by lending him his junior writer called Peter Viertel, who had recently got great reviews for his debut novel, but still hadn’t written a single screenplay. However, Selznick’s story editor Val Lewton didn’t appreciate the script; the future of Saboteur had to be secured at some other studio. Not long after that Universal stepped in: the good news for Hitchcock was the fact he was given an opportunity to work far from Selznick’s meddling thumb, the not so good news was the rather limited budget that forced him to settle for a B-list cast. The budgetary limitations, however, didn’t stop Universal from bringing in a distinguished writer called Dorothy Parker to polish up the script.

Hitchcock’s first choice for the character of an honest American everyman wrongly accused of committing a crime and his reluctant, blonde-model-future-love-interest partner were Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, but Cooper wasn’t interested and Stanwyck was unavailable. According to some sources, the filmmaker then tried to get Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan, but finally had to concede and give the parts to Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane. Hitchcock thought highly of Cummings’ talent, but had a problem with his “amusing face” which, he said, failed to convey any anguish even in the most dire of situations. He believed Priscilla Lane wasn’t the right type for his film, and even had an issue with Otto Kruger playing the antagonist. The switch to Universal, however, offered some benefits other than simply getting Selznick out of the way: Hitchcock was teamed up with Universal’s cinematographer Joseph Valentine (The Wolf Man), whose work he appreciated.


Saboteur was an updated, Americanized version of Hitchcock’s earlier British film called The 39 Steps, his 1935 innocent-man-on-the-run espionage flick. Saboteur can be also seen as a bridge from The 39 Steps to his thematically similar and superior 1959 film North by Northwest. It’s a very ambitious film with frenetic pace, several spectacular sequences, such as the final confrontation on the Statue of Liberty and the genius Radio City Music Hall, where real gunshots go unnoticed thanks to a film being played at the theater—remember the cymbal—masked shots in The Man Who Knew Too Much, and a film that hopes to dazzle the audience to the degree of concealing some instances of plot clumsiness. A fair evaluation was given by Mr. Crowther a couple of weeks after the film’s premiere. “Mr. Hitchcock and his writers have really let themselves go. Melodramatic action is their forte, but the 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.” Upon seeing the film and its glorious ending scene, where the antagonist falls from the Statue of Liberty to his death when the fabric of his sleeve splits apart, the great screenwriter and frequent Hitchcock collaborator Ben Hecht simply commented that “he should have had a better tailor.” If Saboteur had a lesser tailor, it would have resulted in more chaos than class and we wouldn’t be here talking about it today.

Here’s a rarity: Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison & Dorothy Parker’s script for Saboteur [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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In the fall of 1962, whilst The Birds was in post-production, François Truffaut carried out extensive interviews with Alfred Hitchcock at his offices at Universal Studios. The interviews were recorded to audio tape and the content eventually edited down into the ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’ book. Buy ‘Hitchcock by François Truffaut’ from Amazon. Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary explores the art and influence of Hitchcock through his famed 1962 interview with François Truffaut.

Since Saboteur is often confused with Sabotage, which was made in Britain six years earlier, let’s point out that Saboteur was filmed in Hollywood and New York in 1942. A young worker in a munitions factory is wrongfully accused of sabotage. He runs away and meets a girl who at first wants to turn him over to the police but then decides to help him. The story, on the whole, is not too different from most of your manhunt yarns, so that the best way to recall this one is to mention the finale, on top of the Statue of Liberty.
In several respects Saboteur belongs to The Thirty-nine Steps, the Foreign Correspondent, and the North by Northwest kind of film. Here again, we have a MacGuffin, the handcuffs, and a story that covers lots of territory, a variety of locales. A major problem with this sort of film is getting an actor of stature to play the central figure. I’ve learned from experience that whenever the hero isn’t portrayed by a star, the whole picture suffers, you see, because audiences are far less concerned about the predicament of a character who’s played by someone they don’t know. Robert Cummings played the hero of Saboteur; he’s a competent performer, but he belongs to the light-comedy class of actors. Aside from that, he has an amusing face, so that even when he’s in desperate straits, his features don’t convey any anguish. I ran into another problem on this picture. I was on loan by Selznick to an independent producer releasing through Universal. Without consulting me, they imposed the leading lady on me as a fait accompli. She simply wasn’t the right type for a Hitchcock picture.

No doubt that Priscilla Lane is hardly a sophisticated woman. She’s too familiar, in fact.
I was double-crossed on that. The third frustration in connection with this picture was the casting of the villain. We were in 1941 and there were pro-German elements who called themselves America Firsters and who were, in fact, American Fascists. This was the group I had in mind while writing the scenario, and for the role of the heavy I had thought of a very popular actor, Harry Carey, who generally played the good guy in westerns. When I approached him his wife was very indignant. She said, “I am shocked that you should dare to offer my husband a part like this. After all, since Will Rogers’ death, the youth of America have looked up to my husband!” So, the loss of that counterpoint element was another disappointment. In the end we wound up with a conventional heavy.

The other villain, the man who falls from the Statue of Liberty, is quite good. I saw him again in Limelight.
Yes, he’s a very fine actor, Norman Lloyd.

I notice that the producers of the picture are J. Skirball and F. Lloyd. Is that the Frank Lloyd who used to be a film director?
Yes, that’s the man. The famous Dorothy Parker collaborated on the screenplay. Some of her touches, I’m afraid, were missed altogether; they were too subtle. There was the scene of the couple who boarded a train and landed in what turned out to be the car for circus freaks. A midget opens the door, and at first the couple can’t see anyone; it’s only when they look down that they see the midget. Then there was the bearded lady with her beard done up in curlers for the night. And the row between the thin man and the midget, who was known as “the Major.” The Siamese twins who weren’t on speaking terms with each other and communicated through a third person had a funny line. One of them says, “I wish you’d tell her to do something about her insomnia. I do nothing but toss and turn all night!”

Those things came across very well; I remember people roaring with laughter throughout that whole scene.
One interesting thing: Fry, the real saboteur, in a cab on his way to the Statue of Liberty, looks out of the window on the right and I cut to the hulk of the Normandie which was then lying on its side, following the fire in the harbor of New York. I cut back to a close-up of the saboteur, who, after staring at the wreck, turns around with a slightly smug smile on his face. The Navy raised hell with Universal about these three shots because I implied that the Normandie had been sabotaged, which was a reflection on their lack of vigilance in guarding it.

I noticed the wreckage but hadn’t realized it was the Normandie. Another interesting touch is the scene of the fight on top of the Statue of Liberty, when the villain is suspended in midair. You have a close-up there of his sleeve that’s coming apart at the shoulder seam, and what the scene is saying is that against the towering background of the Statue of Liberty, a life hangs by a mere thread. Here again, there is dramatic force in your way of going from the smallest to the greatest, from the trivial to the all-important.
Yes, I do like to work that into the texture. Still, there’s a serious error in this scene. If we’d had the hero instead of the villain hanging in mid-air, the audience’s anguish would have been much greater.

Probably, but the scene is so powerful that the public can’t help being terrified just the same. Besides, the hero is endangered later on, at the end of that scene, when Priscilla Lane grabs his arm to haul him back to the railing. That bit is the forerunner of one of the final shots of North by Northwest, but there the traction idea is enriched and completed by the jump cut of the hauling hands which go directly from the top of Mount Rushmore to the train compartment.
Yes, it was far better in North by Northwest. And the final shot, immediately following that scene in the sleeping-car, is probably one of the most impudent shots I ever made.


When the train goes into the tunnel?
Yes. The phallic symbol.

All the more important since North by Northwest, unlike Psycho, is a family-type picture, the kind one takes the kiddies to. In some respects, North by Northwest can be seen as a remake of Saboteur.
The approach to both pictures was a desire to cover various parts of America in the same way that The Thirty-nine Steps traveled across England and Scotland. But North by Northwest had a bigger leading man and I managed to embody Mount Rushmore in the action; I’d been wanting to do that for years.

In a sense, just as The Thirty-nine Steps is regarded as the synthesis of all of your British work, North by Northwest can be seen as the compendium of your American pictures.
That’s true. Anyway, to get back to Saboteur, I felt that it was cluttered with too many ideas; there’s the hero in handcuffs leaping down from a bridge; the scene of the elderly blind man in the house; the ghost town with the deserted workyards; and the long shot of Boul-der Dam. I think we covered too much ground.

I saw nothing wrong with that. In scenarios of this kind, involving a man who’s in danger, the major difficulty is how to deal with the girl, how to introduce her into a scene, then separate her from the hero, before bringing them back together again.
You’re quite right; it is a major headache.

Which accounts for a sort of parallel montage throughout the whole last part of Saboteur. The man and girl are locked up separately; each one makes a separate getaway and this alternation of sequences, shifting from the man to the girl, is rather bad for the dramatic curve of the picture. In fact, the strongest scenes are those in which the two are coupled in danger; for instance, the scene in the grand ballroom.
I remember asking myself how I could create an impression of a man and a girl being absolutely trapped in a public place. Anyone in that situation would go up to someone and say, “Look, I’m a prisoner here.” And the answer would be: “You must be crazy.” And yet, if they moved’ over to anyone of the doors or windows, the villains were there waiting for them. To the average person, that situation is so fantastic as to be unbelievable. It was very difficult to find a way of handling it.

Yet that concept of a man being more isolated in the middle of a crowd than in a deserted spot recurs in many of your films; your hero is often trapped in a movie house, in a music hall, at a political rally, at an auction sale, in a ballroom, or at a fund-raising event. It sets up a contrast within the scenario, especially when the hero starts out more or less on his own, or in isolated surroundings. Those crowdfilled scenes, I imagine, also are to dispose of the objection: “But the whole thing’s idiotic. Why doesn’t he call the police, or go up to someone on the street?”
Absolutely. You can see what happens in The Man Who Knew Too Much when James Stewart goes up to the policemen in the Albert Hall to warn them the ambassador is about to be shot. The policemen simply take him to be a crank. But looking back on Saboteur, I would say that the script lacks discipline. I don’t think I exercised a clear, sharp approach to the original construction of the screenplay. There was a mass of ideas, but they weren’t sorted out in proper order; they weren’t selected with sufficient care. I feel the whole thing should have been pruned and tightly edited long before the actual shooting. It goes to show that a mass of ideas, however good they are, is not sufficient to create a successful picture. They’ve got to be carefully presented with a constant awareness of the shape of the whole. And this raises a big problem in American filmmaking, the difficulty of finding a responsible writer who is competent at building and sustaining the fantasy of a story.


Alfred Hitchcock (interviewed by François Truffaut and translated by Helen Scott) explain the casting process for Saboteur. He discusses his disappointment in many of the actors he was given, and how he felt they ultimately hurt the final product. Also briefly mentioned are the film’s similarities to The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, and North by Northwest. This video essay was produced by Wesley Emblidge and edited by John Allegretti.


Production drawing by Carl Heilborn for Saboteur.


Production drawing by Dorothea Holt for Saboteur.


Storyboard sequence from Saboteur, drawn by Alfred Hitchcock.


Storyboard sketches from Saboteur.


Film frame from Saboteur showing Hitchcock’s cameo as the man talking to a woman outside the drugs store.


Norman Lloyd on Statue of Liberty scene in Hitchcock’s Saboteur, stunt work.



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Hitchcock: Shadow of a Genius aka Dial H for Hitchcock (1999) is a fascinating look at the cinematic genius of Alfred Hitchcock. Briefly covering much of his early British works, the film primarily focuses on his American classics, such as Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds. The documentary also covers his television years and neatly examines the Hitchcock signature touches, from his inevitable brief cameos to his famous “MacGuffin.” There are interviews with his delightful daughter Pat as well as such film directors as Brian De Palma, Jonathan Demme, Curtis Hanson, Robert Altman, Ronald Neame and Peter Bogdanovich, along with cast and crew members Tippi Hedren, Joseph Stefano, Norman Lloyd, Robert F. Boyle, Teresa Wright and Janet Leigh. This documentary has not been officially released on DVD.



The documentary takes the fight between director Hitchcock and producer Selznick over the control of the films they’re making and uses it as a symbol of the end of Hollywood, meaning that during their collaboration and after that, the power of the producer decreased on behalf of the director’s, and ‘great producing’ as Selznick did on Gone with the Wind was gone with the wind.


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur © Frank Lloyd Productions, Universal Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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