As part of the massive "Alfred Hitchcock Collection," Universal Home Video brings to DVD the very first film of the little round director’s that the studio produced, "Saboteur." Made in 1942 and set during the Second World War, the film explores one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes: the man who is wrongly accused.
"Saboteur" begins in a Los Angeles aircraft factory, where a sudden fire engulfs the plant as the workers’ are on a break. Fearless and loyal, Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) along with best bud Ken Mason (actually the best boy on the crew!), head into the factory to try and fight the fire. Mason grabs an extinguisher from Kane and enters the blaze, only to have it rise and overtake him. Kane watches in horror, but there is nothing he can do. Kane attempts to comfort Mason’s mother, but when she is visited by the police, the news is broken that the extinguisher was actually filled with gasoline and that there is reason to believe that the fire was an act of sabotage.
Kane is quick to flee town and begins the search for the odd co-worker Fry (Norman Lloyd), whom he and Mason bumped into right before the fire broke out yet disappeared right after the tragedy. The search takes him out of California and to an acquaintance of Fry’s named Tobin (Otto Kruger), who has Kane arrested.
In a moment that no doubt influenced "The Fugitive," Kane escapes off a bridge and into the woods. Later through the help of a blind man, Kane is promised a ride with the man’s niece Patricia (Priscilla Lane) to a blacksmith who will remove his handcuffs. As it turns out, Patricia has other plans and tries to take him to the police. Through smart thinking, Kane is able to prevent this and even remove the handcuffs himself. His most impressive feat, however, is convincing Patricia to believe him. Together, the two find themselves on a train with circus freaks (including a guy who could pass for mini-Nathan Lane) and eventually in the hands of Tobin’s men who bring them to New York. When all hope for Kane seems loss, Patricia comes to his aide and ultimately Kane finds himself staring at the missing man, Fry. The final scene, a technological marvel at the time, takes place on the torch of the Statue of Liberty and features absolutely no X-Men. Will Kane find his justice? Or will the Saboteurs plot further destruction to the American defense? It’s all in Hitchcock’s hands.
"Saboteur" is an impressive film for various reasons. Considering that it was made during the War, which limited their use of real locations and props, the film nonetheless has a very large feel to it and features a slew of scenic locations. Add that to the fact that this is wartime movie about American traitors made by a British director and it’s impressive that the film was made at all. In a film where he is nearly every scene, Robert Cummings is pretty good as the ordinary Joe thrown into an extraordinary situation. In typical Hitchcock fashion, however, he is somewhat upstaged by the various secondary characters. The truck driver, the blind man, the circus freaks, and the various members of the group responsible for the factory fire are all given great lines and interesting motivations. There are some interesting plot twists in the film and the State of Liberty scene has become a classic. It’s not my favorite Hitchcock film, but an entertaining debut for Universal that would foreshadow some of the great work he would do for the studio in the coming years.
Presented in full frame (1.33:1) black and white, "Saboteur" is given a decent transfer for the DVD. There are some pretty obvious digital artifacts that show up as grain in the brighter spots of the frame, which can be annoying when that happens to be an actor’s face. As expected for a film that’s almost sixty-years-old, there are some noticeable blemishes and scratches on the print. The black level is fairly well-produced, but I couldn’t help but feel the transfer was missing the clarity and sharpness that many black and white DVD’s have been able to succeed at. While I don’t think this transfer is one that will infuriate you to the point that you won’t enjoy the film, you may indeed find yourself wishing it could have been redone and improved.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital mono and sounds just okay. Dialogue is fairly clear and easily understood, however there was a moment where Kane yells that sounded a bit distorted at the higher volume. The score is decent and does not overpower the mix or muddle the dialogue. Overall, I feel this is a slightly better audio track than what one can expect from most films this old.
On to the special features. Continuing the consistency of the "Alfred Hitchcock Collection," Universal has provided a good amount of bonuses. First and foremost is the featurette "Saboteur – A Closer Look" from the esteemed Laurent Bouzereau. Clocking in at about a half an hour, this making of offers an extensive interview with actor Norman Lloyd (who played Fry). Also featured are associate art director Robert Boyle and Hitchcock’s daughter Pat, though her contribution is quite minimal. The making of does a great job of explaining the details of how the film actually wound up being made at Universal and just exactly how they filmed that famous climax. They also cover the secondary characters and deal with the time period and situation of the world during which "Saboteur" was filmed. I found Lloyd to be a good speaker and this feature an excellent inclusion, though a little less revealing than some of the other ones for the Collection.
Also on board this DVD is a collection of storyboards from the hired storyboard artist as well as some of Hitchcock’s own sketches. I found these to be kind of a revealing part of his thought process and it’s impressive to see how something he drew could be so minimal on paper, yet become so grand on film. There are also a bevy of production photographs and numerous posters for the film. Finally, we have the usual trailer, cast and crew bios, and production notes to round out the disc.
"Saboteur" without a doubt is a must-have DVD for Hitchcock fanatics. It also proves an entertaining sit for those who enjoy the grand old days of cinema. Hitchcock showed the world with this film that he was ready for the studio system and would later produce masterpieces within it. Despite the less than stellar condition of the film, Universal has done a decent job in offering a nice package for such a work of cinema.