Alfred Hitchcock‘s first film for Universal, Saboteur follows his favorite theme of the innocent man falsely accused and on the run. This time Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) a young worker at a wartime aircraft factory is suspected of setting the fire that killed a close friend of his. Fleeing the police, he sets off in pursuit of Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd), a surly character who gave Kane the gasoline-filled fire extinguisher that resulted in the man’s death.
Compared to later Hitchcock films, this is a fairly straight-forward wartime potboiler, although the director’s hand does help elevate Saboteur about the crowd. It reworks the basic plot of The 39 Steps, which would also be foundation of Hitchcock’s later classics like The Man Who Knew Too Much and North By Northwest. Many of the standard Hitchcock trademarks are here, most notably the blonde heroine. Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) is not, however, the frigid, distant, psychologically damaged figure that would dominate later Hitchcock films.
The first stop is an expansive ranch run by Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger), where Frank Fry had received his mail. However, Tobin is part of the same sabotage ring and turns Kane over the police. He escapes from the police by jumping off a bridge in a scene that might have borrowed for the 1993 film The Fugitive.
Kane reaches the cabin in the woods where a blind man named Phillip Martin (Vaughan Glaser) lives. Unable to see Kane’s handcuffs, Martin offers him food and shelter. His niece, Patricia Martin, recognizes Kane from the newspaper and wants to turn him in. Her uncle persuades her to take Kane’s word that he is innocent. She drives him to Soda City, the last known whereabouts of Frank Fry. It turns out to be an abandoned baking soda factory that isn’t quite so abandoned, but a base for the saboteurs’ next target, Boulder Dam.
Kane is discovered there by the head of the sabotage ring, Freeman (Alan Baxter) , but the fact that he is wanted for the sabotage at the aircraft factory enables him to convince Freeman he is part of the sabotage ring. With the police closing in, Freeman abandons the attack on the dam and brings Kane with him to their next target, the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York City.
Saboteur, of course, has little to do with the real activity of Axis agents in the United States. It’s ring of high-society Nazi sympathizers working as saboteurs is pure fantasy, even if some rich Americans, like Joseph Kennedy and Charles Lindbergh, did publicly support the policies of Nazi Germany before we were involved in the war.
An unrealistic plot, however, doesn’t stop Saboteur from being an entertaining film from a master director still developing the craft that would make him one of the greats.