In his May 8, 1942 review of the film for The New York Times, Bosley Crowther provided the following commentary:
"The ardor of Alfred Hitchcock for tales about fifth columnists and spies has already been productive of so many fascinating films that his further commerce with such characters, in this time when they are cluttering up the world, was virtually a social obligation. Mr. Hitchcock is the expert on that tribe. And so his auspicious production of Universal's "Saboteur," which arrived yesterday at the Music Hall, is in the nature of an official report, clearly and keenly appreciative of what is expected from it. 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 Hitckcock 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. As usual, the hero meets with difficulties, which are complicated considerably by the fact that he himself is a fugitive suspected of the deed. He runs afoul of an American fifth columnist, he is almost turned in by a subsequently loyal girl, he has a close brush with the law in the freak-car of a small—time circus, he is cornered in the New York mansion of a second fifth-columnist socialite and he narrowly nips a sabotage plot to blow up a battleship in a Navy Yard. And...he chases the saboteur through a howling movie audience, with pistols barking on screen and off, and finishes this wild and fantastic hue-and-cry atop—but hold! That's a secret we won't tell!
"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.
The Bearded Lady
The Siamese Twins
"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. Mr. Hitchcock has actually exacted a credible performance from Robert Cummings as the hero; Priscilla Lane is passing fair as the incidental girl in the case and Norman Lloyd both looks and acts a villain as the ubiquitous saboteur...."In his lengthy and fine essay on the film at tcm.com, Rob Nixon provides the following commentary:
"While traveling from Southern California to the remote
desert to the streets and docks of New
York, Hitchcock's beleaguered hero also encountered a
number of distinct and quirky American types along the way: factory workers,
truck drivers, cowboys, circus sideshow performers, cab drivers, billboard
models, society matrons, 'jitterbugs,' and more. Intended as both a
satire of his newly adopted land and a valentine to it, the movie became
something more in its journey to the screen. The script, started before the U.S. entered World War II, was quickly adjusted
as production began shortly after the bombing of Pearl
Harbor. It then became Hitchcock's war propaganda effort, full of
statements about loyalty to country and cautions about homegrown fascists in
our midst who could appear to be ordinary and respectable people but with
secret subversive intent. Foreign Correspondent had similar themes, but produced
and released more than a year earlier, it was more of a drumbeat for American
involvement in the European conflict. It also put Hitchcock under the scrutiny
of authorities on the lookout for films that tried to undermine our supposed
"While effectively signaling the director's transition from his native country to the one where he would have his longest career and greatest successes, Saboteur also represented a stylistic link between the old and new, incorporating and extending the picaresque structure of The 39 Steps (1935) that would come to its finest fruition in Hollywood in North by Northwest (1959). Here, too, are a number of elements that would be refined and repeated in future films: the 'wrong man' theme; the innocent hero in pursuit of the real villain with the law closely on his tail;
Otto Krueger as the "cultured, attractive villain" with "outward respectability"
attractive villain whose outward respectability masks evil;
Priscilla Lane, left, as the "reluctant" blonde heroine with Bob Cummings, right
the reluctant or
hostile blonde heroine who finally capitulates to the hero's quest; the mystery
story as journey toward self-discovery and romantic/sexual fulfillment; the use
of important monuments and sites for spectacular set pieces; and, of course,
the sardonic humor. With a plot so full of holes you could drive a train
through it, Saboteur is also a perfect illustration of Hitchcock's notion
that if you keep things moving fast enough and give audiences something more
interesting to follow than just the basic mystery (aka the Macguffin), you can
get them to go with you anywhere...and enjoy the ride.
"Saboteur is often seen as a forerunner to Hitchcock's North
by Northwest (1959) with its story of an innocent man on the run from the law
and in pursuit of the real criminals, taking him out of his element and across
vast stretches of the country. The final Mount Rushmore
sequence in the latter movie is closely related to the Statue of Liberty
sequence in the earlier one, and may be seen as Hitchcock's chance to correct
his 'mistake' in Saboteur, i.e., having the villain, not the hero, in
danger of falling from a great height. The director always believed dangling
the bad guy was a miscalculation that lessened the suspense because the
audience didn't care if he fell....
"Hitchcock himself has acknowledged similarities between Saboteur and some of his earlier British work, particularly The 39 Steps (1935), in which Robert Donat goes on the run to prove his innocence and stop a spy ring, with an initially unwilling blonde (Madeleine Carroll) in tow.
The Charity Ball
"The charity ball sequence, with its danger in the midst of
gaiety and the audience's awareness that these upstanding society people are in
fact fascists, is reminiscent of the big party sequence in the Nazi mansion in
the director's later film Notorious (1946). On a broader level, the scene is
also much like other Hitchcock sequences in which the hero is trapped in a very
public place and unable to convince others of his situation, such as Royal
Albert Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and the auction sale in North
"The technique used by Hitchcock to depict the fall from the
Statue of Liberty (pulling the camera back from the subject, then matting in
the background) was also used for similar shots in Rear Window (1954) and
"The US Navy was not pleased that Hitchcock used footage of
the real-life liner Normandie lying in New York Harbor
after its destruction by a disastrous fire, because in Saboteur it is implied
that the ship's demise was due to sabotage. The shot was removed from the film
on its initial release but restored for the 1948 re-release. The ship was
actually a French liner considered one of the most beautiful and fastest afloat
when it was commissioned in 1935, the year it crossed the Atlantic
in a record time of just over four days. Docked in New
York when the U.S.
entered the war after Pearl Harbor, it was
commandeered as a troop ship and caught fire during refitting. Fire engines and
fireboats pumped so much water into the ship trying to put out the flames that
it capsized, the image that appears in the film....
"Some shots in the Radio City Music Hall shootout sequence were also cut on the film's first run because of objections that they too readily identified the theater, but they were restored for subsequent releases....
"Alfred Hitchcock and producer John Houseman became lifelong
friends after Houseman was assigned by David O. Selznick to supervise the
production of Saboteur when it was still a Selznick project. While the director
was making Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the FBI came to question him about
Houseman, whose strong anti-fascist sentiments had him under suspicion as a
communist. Hitchcock told them: "I know of three great Americans:
Washington, Lincoln, and Houseman."...
"Musical director Charles Previn...is the father of composer Andre Previn.
Frye's missing sleeve
"He should have had a better tailor." screenwriter
and frequent Hitchcock collaborator Ben Hecht's first remark after watching the
film, according to Norman Lloyd, regarding the torn sleeve that dooms the
villain to a fatal fall.
"I felt that it was cluttered with too many ideas.... I
think we covered too much ground. ... The script lacks discipline...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 as a whole." Alfred Hitchcock in an interview with
Francois Truffaut in 1962.
"Hitchcock loved Dorothy Parker's script touches for
Saboteur, particularly the scene with the circus freaks, but thought they were
too subtle and mostly overlooked by the audience....
"The Saboteur project began under David O. Selznick, who had
Hitchcock under contract. According to John Houseman, assigned by Selznick to
supervise the production, the director's first film under his new American
contract, Rebecca (1940), had not been a thoroughly pleasant experience, thanks
in part to constant meddling from the notoriously hands-on Selznick. Hitchcock
also wanted to do something far removed from the stately mansions of England and
came up with a sabotage thriller story. It was virtually a reworking of his
British film The 39 Steps (1935) that pitted a blue collar worker with various
societal misfits as allies against a cabal of wealthy Americans working for the
Nazis. Despite the success of Hitchcock's previous film, Foreign Correspondent
(1940), another political thriller with anti-fascist sentiments, Selznick did
not like the idea, and after making a few suggestions, sold the script and
Hitchcock's services to producer-director Frank Lloyd and Universal Studios.
Lloyd's partner, Jack Skirball, was assigned the day-to-day supervisory
"While the Universal deal was pending, Hitchcock initially
worked on the script with English writer Joan Harrison, with whom he had
collaborated since 1935, with the assistance, as usual, of his insightful and
capable wife, Alma Reville. A reporter visiting the Hitchcock home during this
phase of the work wrote about the three scripters rushing into different rooms
with typewriters and manuscripts, working feverishly without notice of anyone
else. He also observed Hitchcock gorging himself on 'huge goblets of Strawberries
Romanoff, a concoction of ice cream, fruit and liqueurs,' then dozing off
while the frenetic activity continued around him.
"Harrison made crucial contributions to the story, but she
was eager to get out and make it on her own in Hollywood and took a producing job at
Universal. Hitchcock had been expecting her to leave, in fact had given
interviews in which he predicted her eventual success apart from him, but at
this point in the process he panicked at losing her and tried to get Selznick
to come up with the money to entice her to stay. Instead, he got European-born
Peter Viertel, a junior writer under contract to Selznick with no screen work
to his credit but glowing reviews for his first novel. He also had a
commendable pedigree: son of film director Berthold Viertel and the
actress-writer Salka Viertel, who had been Greta Garbo's confidante and
"At their first meeting, Hitchcock referred to Viertel as 'Dear Boy' and said he would teach him in 20 minutes how to write a script, launching into an elaborate explanation of the difference between types of shots, using musical terms to contrast establishing long shots (overtures) with close-ups (cymbal crashes). He insisted Viertel avoid lengthy passages and too much dialogue ('no speeches, please') and to focus on getting a script together 'to get the whole project moving.' Even after the dynamics changed with Pearl Harbor, Hitchcock tried to stay away from creating a message picture with dialogue he considered 'too on the nose.' He did, however, keep one instance of Viertel's breaking the rules, a rather explicit fascist speech by the fifth-column leader in which he sneeringly refers to 'the great masses...the moron millions.'
"The character of the blonde billboard model who is dragged
along by the hero in his cross-country pursuit of the truth was reportedly
based on Hitchcock's friend, the model and beauty consultant Anita Colby.
"Early on in the process, Hitchcock came up with the idea of
setting the story's climax perilously atop the Statue of Liberty....
"Although the budget of Saboteur was restrictive, Skirball
decided to hire one of the country's top writers, Dorothy Parker, for
additional script work and to hone what had already been done. Parker tweaked
the scene with the truck driver, turning it into a mini-satire on the kind of
blue-collar melodramas turned out by Warner Brothers in the 1930s. She also
contributed the scenes with the billboard model's kindly, cultured blind uncle
and the rescue by the troupe of circus freaks, which became in her hands a
comic political debate between totalitarianism and democracy. Parker and
Hitchcock also added more shots of the model's billboards (a device initiated
by Viertel) for comic-ironic counterpoint.
"Some of Parker's script additions caught the eye of the
Production Code office, particularly her zingers aimed at the American upper
class and capitalism in general. 'There is a disturbing element which
appears from time to time throughout this script and that is the great number
of seemingly anti-social speeches and references,' the censor noted.
'It is essential that these speeches be rewritten to avoid giving this
flavor.' Some of the lines were filmed anyway, such as the blind uncle's
remark that the police think that 'frightening people is the first step
toward protecting them' (a line the famously police-phobic Hitchcock must
have relished), but it was cut from Saboteur before release. Another of
Parker's quips - the observation that the fire department arrived at the upper
class home much faster than it would for an ordinary dwelling-was also cut. A
couple of others flagged by the censor remained: the uncle's statement that his
duties as a citizen 'sometimes involve disregarding the law' and
Kane's warning to Pat not to trust the suspicious rich man Tobin 'just
because he's got a ranch and a lovely pool.'...
"Hitchcock wanted Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck for the
leads in Saboteur and also reportedly pursued Henry Fonda and Margaret
Sullivan, but he was unable to get them. The tight budget meant he would have
to consider a less stellar cast, although he did meet briefly with Joel McCrea,
star of Foreign Correspondent (1940), who would have been happy to do another
Hitchcock picture, even for less money, if he had been available for the
scheduled production time.
"Hitchcock finally had to settle for Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane. He
thought Cummings was "a competent performer" but found his
performance, and the picture, suffered because Cummings 'belongs to the
light-comedy class of actors' and had 'an amusing face, so that even
when he's in desperate straits, his features don't convey any anguish.' He
thought Lane 'simply wasn't the right type for a Hitchcock picture.'
"The director was particularly distressed about not getting
the villain he wanted. To convey the sense of these homegrown fascists being
regular people, the ones you would least likely suspect, he wanted the very
All-American former silent film actor and Western star Harry Carey. But Carey's
wife was very indignant about the suggestion. Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut
she said, 'I am shocked that you should dare to offer my husband a part
like this. After all, since Will Roger's death, the youth of America have
looked up to my husband!'...
"For the saboteur himself, Hitchcock wanted an unknown.
Houseman recommended stage actor Norman Lloyd, who he felt fit Hitchcock's
description of the character to a T....
"Universal was concerned with the 50+ sets Hitchcock ordered,
including a vast desert scene to be built on Stage 12 with a reconstruction of
part of a river and waterfall, as well as the set for the Park
Avenue mansion's grand ballroom. Hitchcock cut corners wherever he
could. The mansion set was built onto a staircase left over from a Deanna
Durbin musical; a back-lot storage building became the doomed aircraft plant....
"A couple of slightly different versions have been offered
about how Hitchcock got the shot of Frye falling from the Statue of Liberty in
Saboteur. One version claimed Norman Lloyd sat on a revolving, tottering chair,
making appropriate movements; another says he was suspended on a wire. What is
for certain is that he was shot against a black background while the camera
swiftly pulled up and away from him, and the Statue and ground below were
matted in later.
"The only actor Hitchcock gave much direction to was Otto
Kruger, who never pleased him as the head villain. Otherwise, he preferred to
let the actors work out their roles in rehearsal and gave them direction mostly
on timing in front of the camera. He believed he could solve any acting problem
with camera work, such as filming Kruger's lengthy fascist soliloquy from a
"Hitchcock's cameo appearance (a tradition) in Saboteur was
originally going to be shared with Dorothy Parker. In the scene where an older
couple drives by the hero struggling with the reluctant model on the side of
the road, the director drove the car and the writer, as the wife, delivered the
line, 'They must be terribly in love.' After watching the dailies,
however, Hitchcock thought their appearance was too distracting from the story,
so he re-shot it with professional actors. He then decided to cast himself in a
cameo as a man using sign language to convey an apparently bold comment to a
deaf woman (played by his secretary Carol Stevens), who promptly slaps him. But
the studio thought that would be offensive to people with hearing disabilities,
so Hitchcock decided to make his cameo extremely brief, appearing at the window
of a drugstore....
"Many critics then, as now, considered Saboteur minor
Hitchcock but it did receive particular notice as being the first of his movies
that looked and felt fully American."
The May 11, 1942 review in Time magazine noted that "A melodramatic journey from coast to coast shows Hitchcock at his best. It gives movement, distance and a terrifying casualness to his painful suspense. ... Artful touches serve another purpose which is only incidental to Saboteur's melodramatic intent. They warn Americans, as Hollywood has so far failed to do, that fifth columnists can be outwardly clean and patriotic citizens, just like themselves."
Variety provided the following commentary in 1942:
"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. Like all Hitchcock films, Saboteur is excellently acted. Norman Lloyd is genuinely plausible as the ferret-like culprit who sets the fatal airplane factory on fire. Robert Cummings lacks variation in his performance of the thick-headed, unjustly accused worker who crosses the continent to expose the plotters and clear himself; but his directness and vigor partly redeem that short-coming."
The Statue of Liberty and the skyline