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American Cinematographer (1993) - Saboteur: Hitchcock Set Free




The "ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances" ends up on the Statue of Liberty, making for quintessential Hitchcock.

In 1939 Alfred Hitchcock, England's most celebrated director, came to the United States under contract to David O. Selznick, Inc. The rotund "Master of Suspense" had built his reputation on a string of thrillers, most notably The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent and The Lady Vanishes, These were among the very few British pictures that had won favor in the United States. The first Selznick/Hitchcock picture was Rebecca, which won the Academy Award as Best Picture of the year. Selznick next loaned Hitchcock (at a substantial profit) to Walter Wanger for the superb Foreign Correspondent, then to RKO Radio for Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Suspicion.

Selznick, the quintessential star producer, took an interest in every detail of every picture. In the past Hitchcock had chafed under the domination of tough production executives such as Walter C. Mycroft and Erich Pommer, but he found Selznick's perpetual nosiness even harder to take. Hoping to gain greater control over his work, he obtained permission to write the story for his next picture. Story editor Val Lewton warned Selznick that Hitchcock would make another of his "oldfashioned chase pictures" if "left to his own devices," but Selznick warily consented.

On August 20, Hitchcock delivered a 134‑page manuscript labeled "Untitled Original Treatment by Alfred Hitchcock and Joan Harrison." Harrison had been his assistant in England and Hitchcock had persuaded Selznick to put her on the payroll. It was indeed one of those "old‑fashioned chase pictures," essentially an American version of The Thirty‑Nine Steps, which Hitchcock made in England in 1935, and itself a harbinger of his 1959 success, North by Northwest. The treatment opens with Barry and his foster‑brother, Ken, as sevenyear‑old pals in an East Coast military academy. Ken's widowed mother moves to California, where the boys grow up and work together in an aircraft factory. A saboteur torches the plant, Ken is killed and Barry is falsely accused. He escapes, pursued by the law in a cross‑country chase while he searches for the real saboteur. A big set piece of the scenario has the saboteurs blowing up a new dam while it is being dedicated by the President of the United States. The climax is inspired Hitchcock: the saboteur falls to his death from the upraised torch of the Statue of Liberty!

Selznick reported that his "main objection to the proposed story is that it lacks heart and emotional relationships. This should be started at the very first sequence." His suggested changes were quite valid: drop the military academy business and go straight to the aircraft factory; have the murdered pal's mother be the only person who believes Barry; don't blow up the dam ("not very new for a picture catastrophe"); leave the president out of it; have the girl stick with the boy even though he tries to drop her; and reveal the head of the gang to be a society woman.

Selznick assigned John Houseman to oversee the writing of the shooting script and 21‑year‑old Peter Viertel to write it. The son of two celebrated writers, Berthold and Salka Viertel, Peter had only recently joined the Selznick staff as a messenger. Both Houseman and Veirtel were so in awe of Hitchcock, who worked with them in a large house belonging to Carole Lombard and kept them stuffed with gourmet foods, that they gave in on every point in the script. Selznick, meanwhile, was infuriated that Hitchcock wasn't clocking in at the studio and was further chagrined when the screenplay emerged as exactly what Hitchcock had wanted, Lewton had foreseen and Selznick had feared.

A Hitchcock villain isn't necessarily a heavy. Enemy espionage chief Otto Kruger with his granddaughter (Margaret Ann McLaughlin), daughter (Kathryn Adams) and housekeeper (Belle Mitchelll at his desert ranch (a set at Universal).

Saboteur begins at an aircraft plant in Glendale where Barry Kane is falsely accused of starting a fire that kills his best friend. He knows that the real saboteur is Fry. Eluding the police, Barry follows a clue to Deep Springs Ranch, near Lone Pine, where he meets Tobin, a gentle grandfather who is also a leader of Nazi saboteurs. Arrested, Barry escapes by jumping from a high bridge into a river. In a secluded cabin he meets Martin, a blind pianist who bel...

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Some of Robert Boyle's comments are taken from numerous conversations with the writer. Others are quoted from interviews with Mr. Boyle conducted by the writer for the Oral History program of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, supervised by Barbara Hall. Valuable assistance was given by Sam Gill of the Special Collections division of the Academy.