“It’s my duty as an American citizen to believe a man innocent until he is proven guilty.”
I stand corrected. Maybe Foreign Correspondent (1940) is not Alfred Hitchcock’s most patriotic movie. Maybe it’s Saboteur, made two years later. Or maybe they are both made by the fact that they are more than mere propaganda and that’s what makes them still worthwhile today. This is, above all, another thriller by the same man who continually tinkered with the genre in the subsequent years.
The narrative starts with wartime industry which has hit its boon since there are Nazis and Japanese to fight. Defense Plants have become a crucial part of the war and also part of everyday life for the average American. Robert Cummings is the epitome of one, a fresh-faced lad who all of the sudden finds himself wanted for the murder of his best friend which happened after a ruthless act of sabotage. In this respect, Saboteur is a more elegant version of Hitchcock’s predecessor Sabotage (1936).
There’s a wonderful sequence where our protagonist has hitched a ride with a gabby truck driver who consequently looks a bit like James Cagney. Every subsequent thread of conversation and even the passing billboard, all points back to everything that’s gone down so far. The man’s trying to run away but he can’t. Fugitives never have been able to as far back as Jonah. They always have to face the music.
Barry Kane follows the one wild lead he has involving a man played by Norman Lloyd (a future Hitchcock partner in Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and it lands him at a stately ranch that feels like quintessential Americana — it’s a luscious slice of West Coast leisure. But it’s another delicious instance where Hitchcock allows villains to live lives not unlike our own with families, babies toddling around, and swimming pools. Except these people also happen to be involved with conspiracies threatening national security in the wake of WWII.
After, a harrowing escape from the police with a swan dive off a bridge, Kane continues his journey. Saboteur quickly becomes another entry in Hitchcock’s innocent man-on-the-run canon and while not the tip of the spear, it’s thoroughly entertaining for the very fact that it remains on the move as it jumps from place to place. In fact, there are obvious shades of 39 Steps (1935) and North by Northwest (1959) in place as it goes literally from coast (California) to coast (New York).
And in each location, we meet a row of interesting side characters whether a trucker or the sagely blind man and a band of eclectic circus vagabonds. But the most important is the stalwart Patricia Martin (Priscilla Lane), initially looking to turn in this traitorous criminal with his hands cuffed together until she realizes that’s not who he is.
The director and his writers use the whole film to tell tiny parables about America where the circus can function like our democracy or a decision to not turn in a man can merely be an exercise in basic human rights. In these moments the film evokes the kind of patriotic messages that feel unconvincing when viewed now. Even Cummings brief stint on the soapbox facing off against his sophisticated foe is an obvious call-to-action.
But for 1942 it makes complete sense and that hardly takes away from the thriller that Hitchcock still manages to spin because though war might be afoot and Film serves different purposes on the Homefront, it can still function as entertainment. Hitchcock was one of the greats in that capacity. A murderer is set loose in a movie theater during a crime picture and the action leads us most iconically atop the standard bearer of American freedom and equality, Lady Liberty herself. Once again, it’s the perfect Hitchcock ending even if that’s more in going with the style of the entire picture thus far rather than pure execution.