Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) was a factory worker in Los Angeles, and it was his lunch break when he and his best friend were walking to the canteen and someone tripped over them as they turned to observe an attractive blonde. They apologised, but the man was pretty gruff about it and after picking up his papers he went on his way, not realising he had left behind a banknote. Barry had noticed his name was Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd), and tracked him down where he was eating, but he acted suspiciously - no time to ponder that, as there was a major fire! The three men were first on the scene, but to Barry's horror his friend was caught in the flames - yet what if it were no accident?
As the title suggests, of course it was no accident as for the purposes of propaganda to alert the Americans to the need to fight the Second World War, they had to be made to feel paranoid that the forces of darkness were struggling to gain hold over all that was decent in their land. To that end, Barry is their stand in, a man who is innocent but gets accused of starting the fire and worse, killing his pal with a fire extinguisher filled with gasoline when that Mr Fry turns out not to have been an employee, leading the authorities to believe that he does not exist at all. And so, as with so many Alfred Hitchcock heroes, he has to clear his name.
Hitchcock was not pleased at the way Saboteur turned out due in part to the casting of the two leads. It's true that Cummings fit the bill as a light leading man, but there have been quite a few reservations over the years that he was not up to the task of portraying a wronged fugitive, yet he does portray an innocent quality that suits his role very well, and he didn't embarrass himself by any means. As for his screen partner Priscilla Lane, playing model Pat who Barry meets during his flight, nobody would mistake her for a heavyweight, but she does put across a sense of trustworthiness and loyalty (once she's clear about who is doing what) that is appealing, and it didn't hurt that she was so easy on the eye either.
For half of Saboteur the film resembles a road movie, with Barry encountering a selection of the good and the bad on his travels. First he tracks the address he saw on one of the envelopes Fry dropped for want of any other leads (Fry has predictably disappeared) and ends up at a ranch in the middle of nowhere run by the seemingly benevolent Tobin (Otto Kruger). This looks like a dead end until Tobin's toddler granddaughter picks some papers out of his jacket pocket and Barry notices not only the name of Fry, but the name of a town on a telegram: Soda City. Now he must find out where that is and its significance, but oh dear, Tobin catches on and Barry is arrested (and handcuffed, just like Robert Donat in The 39 Steps).
Barry does get to Soda City, but only after he has picked up Pat on the way, much to her initial reluctance then when she sees his true colours thanks to a meeting with some circus freaks who give them a lift, she sees the error of her ways. Perhaps this is better as a selection of linked setpieces, as when Hitchcock and his writers (who included famed wit Dorothy Parker) dreamed up a sticky situation for their protagonist to get into, the individual results are better than the whole. Watch for Barry trying to reveal all at a social gathering the Fifth Columnists have arranged, only to bluff an auction when he notices a pistol pointed at him, or the celebrated grand finale at the Statue of Liberty: these highlights are among the director's best work. There's a little speech that Tobin gives that encapsulates Hitchcock's approach to these thrillers, where he points out that the pure in heart are forever cursed to have their motives doubted, summing up the dread that such scenarios represented, but also how imperative it was for these characters to win out and prove themselves worthy: far more durable than mere propaganda. Music by Frank Skinner.
The sixties started strongly with groundbreaking horror Psycho, and The Birds was just as successful, but then Hitchcock went into decline with uninspired thrillers like Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz. The seventies saw a return to form with Frenzy, but his last film Family Plot was disappointing. Still, a great career, and his mixture of romance, black comedy, thrills and elaborate set pieces will always entertain. Watch out for his cameo appearances in most of his films.