Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Menace Beneath the Ordinary: Hitchcock's Saboteur (Part One of Three)


Saboteur, arguably Hitchcock’s “first truly American film,” appraises the American physical, political, and cultural landscape at the onset of World War II. The unapologetic infusion of patriotism based on American egalitarian ideals, such as the presumption of innocence until proven guilty and the ability to attain justice via democratic vote, into Hitchcock’s tale of false accusation offers a perspicacious “snapshot of [America] wringing its hands over… entry into the war. ”The attendance of approximately 80 senators and 350 members of the House of Representatives at the film’s premiere and the film’s inclusion of footage of the recently capsized French liner Normandie corroborate the intensely political aura surrounding the film. Commenting on the ills wartime paranoia, Saboteur subtly links the way in which some Americans quelled their anxieties by impetuously responding to crises (like the burning of the munitions factory, which led to injustices like the allegations against Kane) to the tendency to scapegoat endemic to fascism. Amidst the unceasing action of this fast-paced propaganda film, Hitchcock directly, and often implicitly, criticizes fascists for disguising their true intentions and craving excessive power in three ways: extolling American democratic virtues, inverting stereotypes of loyal Americans and saboteurs, and dichotomizing American democracy as “good” and Axis fascism as “evil.”
           The first, and perhaps most palpable, albeit indirect, expression of aversion to fascism occurred by means of several characters’ trumpeting of the rights of an American citizen. When Kane stumbles upon an isolated cottage after escaping from police custody, he encounters Phillip Martin, a blind, old man, who soon declares “it is [his] duty as an American citizen to believe a man innocent until he is proven guilty” and resists being misled by alarmism. Mr. Martin’s statement provides a contrast the “round up the usual suspects” attitude attributed to fascism (and in this case, even some authorities in the US) and represents Hitchcock’s prescription against the ills of wartime paranoia. Moreover, Uncle Martin’s attitude demonstrates the ability of a democratic citizen to resist centralized power, which leads the audience to the conclusion that this could not happen under fascist rule. Similarly, the scene in which Barry Kane and Pat Martin board the circus troupe’s train allegorizes how the democratic process triumphs over malevolent fascist tendencies. The human skeleton calls for a vote on the basis that they are “a democracy,” and when the militaristic midget rejects his proposition and demands compliance with the authorities, he is consequently labeled a “fascist” by the skeleton. The film conveys that the only way to attain justice (in this case, aiding the innocent Kane) is through the democratic process. In another instance, Pat Martin justifies her decision to turn Kane in to the authorities by proclaiming that a saboteur’s crime is “worse than murder.” Pat’s rationale reveals her belief that American citizens have a unique responsibility to each other, particularly to the soldiers fighting for the freedoms that Americans enjoy; she implies that if Kane were a saboteur, he would be endangering not only lives, but also freedom itself. Kane’s admonition to Tobin, “even if don’t stop you, someone else will… you can’t last in a country like this,” exudes the essence of the concept of shared responsibility among citizens and faith in the commonality of American ideals. By portraying the righteousness and transparency of democratic principles and shared American beliefs, the film implies fascism’s ideological inferiority.