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Saboteur (1942): An Essay on Alfred Hitchcock’s Classic

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By Aditi Mukund Prabhudesai

One of my favorite sequences in the action-comedy thriller Baadshah (1999) involves detective Baadshah (played by Shah Rukh Khan who was born to play this role) trapped in a terrible situation. He has been coerced into carrying out an assassination of a politician, Gayatri Bachchan (Rakhee Gulzar), at a hotel press conference. He attempts to warn several people inside the hotel but is thwarted at every turn. Almost every person he turns to for help, from a security officer to Gayatri’s husband, turns out to be involved in the conspiracy. The sequence masterfully builds up his mounting desperation and frustration. “Gun toh mere pass bhi hain lekin goli tumhe chalani hain” (I too have a gun, but it is you who has to fire), smirks the security officer knowingly when Baadshah informs him that he possesses a gun [1]. It’s a spine-chilling moment which drives home just how widely connected the plotters are.

To my delight, I felt similarly while watching a scene in Saboteur (1942) directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Saboteur tackles Hitchcock’s recurring plot: an innocent man on the run from the law. Like his earlier film, The 39 Steps, Saboteur features a road-trip, this time across America. The innocent man here is Barry Kane, an aircraft factory worker, played by Robert Cummings. Hitchcock wanted Gary Cooper for the lead role and felt he was settling for Cummings. But Robert Cummings brings a boyish charm, sincerity, and innocence to the role which serve him well. The pertinent scene takes place in the ballroom of a mansion. Kane and the leading lady Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) have just escaped from the clutches of a horde of fifth columnists on the top floor and find themselves in the ballroom where a party is in full swing (the hostess herself is party to the saboteurs’ activities). Footmen, doubling as henchmen, calmly block the front door.  Seeing that they are surrounded by the saboteurs, Barry decides to enlist an elderly gentleman guest’s help.  Naturally, his story comes off as ridiculous (“this whole house is a hotbed of spies and saboteurs”). He is dismissed as a drunk and derided for his apparently inappropriate clothes. Another guest reveals himself as one of the gang, displaying shades of the security officer in Baadshah. “It’s like a bad dream”, Pat exclaims.

Frustrated, Barry and Pat decide to give in to their surroundings and take advantage of their dire situation: they starting dancing together among the guests. The scene then segues into some breathless romantic declarations. This digression adds to the surrealism of an already bizarre scenario; here they are, hemmed in by saboteurs in a room full of potential witnesses and they are helpless to do anything but dance and declare their devotion to each other. Their sweet nothings go on for too long though and threaten to drain all the tension. 

Suddenly, Pat is whisked away by a stranger and out of desperation, Barry decides to publicly unmask the hostess. However, his attention is politely drawn to a revolver discreetly trained at him from far off and he abandons his plan. People, people everywhere and not a person to warn. The entire sequence supports the theme running throughout the movie: it is the common American, represented by a truck driver, members of a freak show circus and a blind man who all instantly sense Barry’s innocence and help him in various ways, who upholds the true values of America. The elites don’t come off well in the movie. This sequence is more effective in conveying this theme than a later conversation between Barry and a slimy ranch owner Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger). There, both spout extended monologues about patriotism and fascism which come off a bit heavy handed. Both are reduced to mouthpieces: their exchange doesn’t seem to arise organically.

Saboteur contains a striking example of artistic flourish in its title sequence. It starts off with giant corrugated sheets occupying the screen. Ominous music, scored by Frank Skinner, starts blaring. The screen remains static and charged with anticipation while we wait for the credits. Suddenly, a small shadow, dressed in a trench coat and a hat, creeps in from the right of the screen. The sudden appearance is quite unnerving. The shadow keeps growing as it shuffles across the screen. The slow, measured walk with the hint of a limp is loaded with menace. The use of a silhouette depicts the anonymity enjoyed by the spy. The sequence neatly expresses the idea of the sinister presence of the saboteur: hidden in plain sight and growing in strength. The ridges and furrows in the sheets at once suggest a veil-we learn later that the sheets are sidings in an aircraft factory which harbors the saboteur, and also prison bars, furthering the idea that criminals are afoot. At the end of the title sequence, even as the camera cuts to the next shot, the shadow continues to walk indicating the relentless machinations of the saboteurs.

Clockwise: Title Sequence 
As the film begins, we are introduced to Barry Kane amid the hubbub of a lunch break in the factory. A few scenes later, suddenly it gets quiet and we are treated to three establishing shots of the factory. All of them are static. The first gives us a glimpse of the hangar from afar.

We get an inside view of the hangar in the second still. A fleet of airplanes stands silently like the Terracotta Army. All this while, the sudden silence, in stark contrast with the earlier chatter, hangs heavily in the air like the calm before an oncoming storm. Each of the stills is held for around four seconds, adding to the unease. They are like leaves of a photo album, capturing memories of a place soon to be scarred.

The third shot contains a canvas of corrugated sheets similar to those in the title sequence. A pile of cans at the bottom far left lends weight and anchors the scene. It also acts as a frame corner of the image. It is complemented by the diagonally opposite lettering on the sheets. The third shot acts as the punch-line to the tension built up by the earlier two stills.

That it shares similarity with the background of the title sequence reinforces this: we can sense this is where the action is going to take place, having seen the shadow earlier. We are left staring at the wall, our nerves taut in anticipation, not knowing where to look, not knowing what is going to happen. Of course, the title sequence holds the key. A wisp of black smoke slithers in from the bottom left mirroring the shadow in the title sequence. The wisp turns into a black mass of malevolent smoke. Like the shadow, the smoke starts snowballing, engulfing everything in its way and overshadowing the screen. The smoke too is a stand-in for the saboteur. The sound here too contributes to the narrative. When the trail of smoke first enters the frame furtively, the audio track is still silent. Even as the smoke spreads its tentacles, the continued silence induces panic and certain menace. Only when the insidious smoke begins to blot out the lettering on the sheets, then does baleful music start roaring. The alarm has been raised too late: the saboteur (smoke) has done his work before being noticed. The workers present in the canteen get up row by row in tune with the siren lending a whimsical touch to the end of the sequence.

Clockwise: Fire at the Factory

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About Author

Aditi Mukund Prabhudesai is a film and literature enthusiast from Pune. Formerly a software engineer, she is currently doing an internship in a quizzing company. She blogs at https://neitherlessnormore.wordpress.com/



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