Ed Driscoll

Saboteurs, Then and Now

My wife wanted to see a movie this weekend, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had just opened, but it got middling reviews, so I started looking for alternatives. Fortunately, Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur and Dial M For Murder were playing in a double feature at the Stanford Theatre on University Avenue in Palo Alto.

Quick aside: Palo Alto is a beautiful jewel-like town in the middle of the Bay Area–it’s both HQ for most of Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists, and for Stanford University (where Chelsea Clinton attended in the mid to late 1990s–for a time, whenever her parents came to visit, Air Force One was a somewhat regular fixture at nearby Moffitt Field).

Unfortunately, Palo Alto’s handsome architecture, enormous collective net worth and exclusive storefronts are combined with David Dinkins-style laissez faire big city liberalism, which means that walking amongst lots of college kids in their Tommy Bahama khakis and T-shirts past the shops on University Ave. are lots–and lots–of feral Night of the Living Dead homeless people. Which is all the more ironic, considering that Rudy Giuliani’s Broken Window urban crime fighting techniques–which involve taking the homeless problem seriously–have their roots in a Stanford study from the late 1960s.

But I digress. Back to the movies.

Dial M For Murder belongs in the category of Hitchcock’s filmed plays, much like his earlier movie, Rope. Grace Kelly looks lovely and is framed for a murder she didn’t commit by Ray Miland, looking suavely handsome but with malice aforethought.
But 1942’s Saboteur, starring Robert Cummings, was a much more interesting film for several reasons, not the least of which was that Hitchcock himself once told Francois Truffaut that in many ways, the film was the prototype for his masterwork, 1959’s North By Northwest. Of course, Bob Cummings was no Cary Grant, which is why Saboteur is somewhat of a footnote in the Hitchcock cannon. In a way, that’s a shame, as its ending, involving Cummings and the film’s real baddie hanging off the Statue of Liberty, is a classic piece of Hitchcock’s rhythmic, near-silent editing, and directly foreshadows North By Northwest’s Mount Rushmore climax. But it’s Saboteur’s middle act that drags the film into B-picture land. It involves an extremely unbelievable sympathetic elderly blind man living alone who can hear the clink of the handcuffs that Cummings is wearing, having escaped the cops after being framed for a crime he didn’t commit (paging Mr. Thornhill, Mr. Roger O. Thornhill to the white courtesy phone at Grand Central Station, please), but says that “all men are innocent until proven guilty”. After Cummings hits the road again (I kept expecting his venerable sightless host to utter Gene Hackman’s classic “Come back! I was going to make espresso!” line from Young Frankenstein) , he hitches a ride with a group of sympathetic circus freaks–including an angry mustachioed midget: very nice Hitler reference.

But while Saboteur fits comfortably amongst Hitchcock’s many other “framed man on the run” movies, it was also a reminder to World War II audiences that while we need to be careful not to be paranoid of our friends, or scared of our own shadow, there were plenty of real saboteurs who were more than willing to damage the machinery that powered America’s war effort. A significant percentage of the audience at the Stanford Theatre no doubt saw one or the other film on its first run. But I can’t help but think that there were also a few people in the audience who were likely to believe that modern saboteurs, such as Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar, who fragged his fellow American soldiers during the early days of the Iraq war in 2003, or that the Earth Liberation Front eco-terrorists are just nice, misunderstood guys–who happen to commit murder and arson, respectively. And it’s a very safe bet that well over half the audience happily voted for a man who did a little sabotage of America’s war effort himself back in 1971.

Of course, at least Hollywood was making war movies back in the 1940s. Contrast that with today’s films, as James Lileks notes in his latest syndicated Newhouse column:

As for how “The Interpreter” treats the United Nations: Your correspondent has not seen it, but assumes that any movie that had Kofi Annan’s blessing to be the first filmed at U.N. headquarters may pull its punches somewhat. If “Oil for Food” is mentioned, it’s probably in the context of a dressing for the salad.

Then we have an upcoming NBC miniseries on 9/11. The producer said he hoped to do for Muslims what “Das Boot” did for Germans.

“Every approach prior to that was, the Germans were horrible,” Brian Glazer told The New York Times. Das Boot “humanized them, because they are human. That’s what I’m hoping we do, that we don’t demonize, that we humanize all the different sides, and so we see the seeds, and we get an understanding from each culture’s point of view as to how they got to such a horrible place.”

You want to know how they got to a horrible place? On a hijacked plane.

So what if Mohammad Atta liked to sing in the shower, enjoyed sitting in seedy Florida strip clubs staring jaggy hate-beams at the writhing hussies? Who cares if he liked his orange juice with lots of pulp? If anyone dehumanized themselves, it was the hijackers. It takes a dead rotten heart to board a plane, see a little girl, and know you’re going to kill her before the morning’s out — if all goes well, that is.

But no one has suggested that the evildoers, to use the president’s Old Testament locution, are inhuman. The ability to do evil is not exactly a trait with which humans are unacquainted.

This isn’t to suggest that the cineplexes should be stuffed with two-fisted jingoist anti-Muslim hatefests instead of sensitive necessary comedies about slackers who tour the wine country. But this disinclination to face hard facts is mystifying.

Another producer of another upcoming 9/11 drama says they won’t show planes hitting the towers because, “We’re not ready for it yet.” We’re babies. Please take the scary pictures away. Tell me the fairy story about Maboto again, Daddy.

Just what you expect from the Grating Generation, perhaps. It makes you nostalgic for the ’80s, when Michael J. Fox fled in terror from pursuing Libyans in “Back to the Future.” When that movie looks braver than modern post-9/11 drama, you know something’s missing. Guts, for starters.

Back to the Future was back twenty years ago. Saboteur is over 60 years old. Mark Steyn noted in his recent review about a new book on MGM’s Louis B. Meyer by Scott Eyman:

It’s pointless to mourn for Louis B. Mayer’s lost empire. The best thing about Mr. Eyman’s book is that by bringing LB back to life he gets you thinking about all the assumptions in today’s movie business. The worst aspect is that, in dealing with Mayer’s “notorious” (i.e., perfectly unexceptional) conservatism, he can’t put aside his own assumption that somehow the creative industries ought to be politically “liberal.” The best take on that comes from Arthur Laurents, a quintessential limousine liberal and the co-author of Gypsy and West Side Story: “LB was a terrible reactionary. Very corny. He was against anything progressive…” And those terrible reactionaries made better pictures than the liberals who run Hollywood now.

For more on Hollywood and propaganda, check out this recent James Bowman essay, in which he writes that the more propaganda tinsel town produces, the more entrenched the formulas behind them become.

Update: More from Steyn, in a similar vein to Lileks’ essay:

Popular culture has pretty much skipped the Vera Lynn phase and cut straight to Basil Fawlty: don’t mention the war. They’d rather talk about anything other than Islamic terrorism. The Sean Penn thriller, “The Interpreter”, was originally about Muslim terrorists blowing up a bus in New York. So, naturally, Hollywood called rewrite. Now the bus gets blown up by African terrorists from the little-known republic of Matobo. “We didn’t want to encumber the film in politics in any way,” said Kevin Misher, the producer.

But being so perversely “non-political” is itself a political act. If there were a dozen movies in which Tom Cruise kicked al-Qa’eda butt across the Hindu Kush, it would be reasonable to say, “Hey, we’d rather deal with Matoban terrorism for a change.”

As Steyn adds, “when every movie goes out of its way to avoid being ‘encumbered’, it starts to look like a pathology.”

Indeed, as the Blogfather would say.