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Saboteur (1942) March 22nd, 2020

Well this is a bit momentous (initiating self-aggrandizing mode). This is the first time I’ll be reviewing a movie on ‘The List’ in the correct order. Now you’ll get to experience the grind. How helpless it feels to be at the mercy of 80 year old genius. No control over how you spend your time, what you watch or why you’re watching it. Such is the vow of the Psychotronic Monk. The list is the covenant, the theater the seminary and Alfred Hitchcock a Saint. Welcome to Sunday school.

I’ve only recently started studying Hitchcock. My Father showed me The Birds when I was a kid but I don’t remember it well. I do remember thinking “Birds eating your eyes is really scary. Why isn’t that happening to the main characters?” Despite my gory wishes, I only remember Tippi Hedren getting scratched up. I’d have to wait till Roar to see her truly ravaged by dangerous animals. I was lucky enough to see both Vertigo and Rear Window in the cinema a couple of years ago but the study really began this January.

My fiancé gave me a beautiful Hitchcock box set for Christmas last year. I loved it… but it didn’t come with any of the Criterion Collection releases, and I couldn’t really start learning about Hitchcock if I started at Saboteur could I? Could I live with that? Knowing I wouldn’t start with a fledgling genius? No, the Christmas box set would have to wait until I completed an entirely different Hitchcock box set. The Criterion Collection’s 4 film set featuring Hitchcock’s first The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes and Foreign Correspondent. I was also lucky enough to catch Jamaica Inn on the Criterion Channel before they took it down. These films represent the prerequisite viewing before I felt like I could give the Christmas box set a fair shake.

Boy am I glad I did. As a young director, Alfred Hitchcock’s bag of tricks is repetitive and flashy. Each of the previous films follow the same basic dramatic structure. Innocent persons get involved with something sinister involving a MacGuffin, they run from the authorities who probably suspect them of a crime, the stakes get higher and the sets get more elaborate until the often under-justified climactic finish. I don’t know if or when this changes as I am still experiencing his body of work, but I felt a seismic shift with Saboteur.

Hitchcock makes all the films I’d seen up to that point feel like various rough drafts for Saboteur. Make no mistake, the formula is rigidly followed here too but it’s also perfected. The previous movies were like cinema soufflé’s. There’s one recipe and he gets better each time he doesn’t quite rise to perfection, until that sixth bake when everything just works. And boy Saboteur is delicious!

I feel like anything I scribble here about how great Hitchcock is would be like an ant telling me I’m tall. Sure buddy, it’s all relative I guess. And you’ve likely watched all his works or been aware enough to know that Psycho and North by Northwest are masterpieces. I’m not going to presume to break 80 year old ground here. What I’ll say is that after watching 5 movies by the same guy with the same structure and increasing technical prowess and capabilities, Saboteur is my favorite.

It’s brilliant. The cast is incredible. Robert Cummings is the quintessential all-American man. His performance here makes me want to devour every film he’s ever made. Priscilla Lane is a hard-nosed billboard model who’s not about to let some hunk in handcuffs destroy her country. If anyone ever makes a movie about the life of Norman Lloyd they better time travel back to 1996 and cast Jason Isaacs fresh off Dragonheart in the lead. His mastery of the subtle-sinister leaves an astounding impression especially considering his limited screen time. Lastly Otto Kruger is the scariest screen villain I’ve seen since Mads Mikklesen in… almost everything (Looking at you Mænd & høns). He drips with confident menace.

Saboteur truly feels like a leap ahead in Hitchcock’s visual ambitions. Sure Foreign Correspondent had those beautiful composite shots of windmills and the heart stopping sequence inside the windmill itself. Yes, The 39 Steps has that thrilling ending in the theater when the camera pans down to the lead’s hands. I’ll admit, The Man Who Knew Too Much sequence in The Royal Albert Hall is as tense as it is grand. Please stop asking me to mention the beautifully framed shots between floorboards and up cave holes in Jamaica Inn. I’m only too glad to bring up the suspenseful sequence in The Lady Vanishes where the rear projection shows the train leaving the station… just as a couple of threatening suits approach the train. But have you seen Saboteur?

Oh man, this movie kicks your ass from the start. Huge fires, haunting smoke, a man burning to death right before your eyes and all of it virtually painted on the frames. That saying completely applies to this film. Every frame is a painting. I don’t really want to get too much into the plot and specifics of the film but goodness it succeeds in every aspect where his previous films falter. Please watch it.

I’d like to take a break from Hitchcock after this. No disrespect to the patron saint of suspense but I’d give him up for Lent at this point. Who knows, maybe he really does improve after he started working in the United States? Maybe the next movie will blow my brain apart like the well placed charge that was Saboteur? Who knows? ‘The List’ knows.

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