BY ED CHURCH (January 2022)
William Boyd’s excellent novel “Restless” touches upon an interesting period of World War 2 – the time before the United States entered the fray when Britain was doing all it could to sway public opinion on the other side of the Atlantic. Whether it was talk of enemy spies infiltrating American society, or secret Axis invasion plans via South America, the aim of every Brit with a voice in the US was the same – make a distant conflict feel as if it were right on America’s doorstep.
Away from the novel and back in the real world, a young Alfred Hitchcock was two movies into his Hollywood career at the time. As British voices in the US went, few were in such a position to influence public opinion, and, as his homeland endured the Blitz, Hitchcock began pushing a film called “Saboteur”. With the idea rejected by his regular producer, David O. Selznick, the project was eventually accepted by Universal.
Filmed in a tight window between November 1941 and February 1942, Saboteur tells the story of an undercover Nazi agent who burns down an aircraft production plant in California, simultaneously framing a co-worker for the arson. The film’s everyman hero must then go on the run to escape the authorities, expose the real perpetrator and prevent the next attack on a Brooklyn shipyard – helped along the way by a number of warm-hearted strangers.
Of course, none of this is the “hidden message” of this blog’s title. For almost all of its 109 minutes, Saboteur is unashamedly overt in its messaging of an existential threat facing all Americans that can only be defeated by decent people coming together (right down to the patriotic symbolism of the final showdown at the top of the Statue of Liberty). And, I should add, it’s a very good film. But what interests me most is about seven seconds of it…
The sequence occurs in the latter stages when the net is closing on the villainous “Fry” (played by Norman Loyd). Our hero Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) has already fought Fry once – managing to delay his detonation of a slipway bomb just long enough for the USS Alaska to be safely launched – and the Nazi is now fleeing in a taxi across New York harbour. Out of the cab’s window, the viewer is shown a lingering shot of a huge ship lying stricken on its side that causes Fry to smirk. The scene takes place in silence and no other reference is made to the mystery vessel.
To the modern day viewer, the whole thing comes across as a confusing speed bump in the narrative. (“Huh? Is that the ship he was trying to blow up? So he did succeed? But how did it sink so quick? And why is there no activity around it?”). It is, to say the least, a surprisingly clunky moment from such a perfectionist filmmaker. So what is Hitchcock up to here?
The answer, in part, is that those seven seconds were never aimed at an audience watching the film in the future. Or, indeed, in any other time and place than the America of early 1942. And what that audience would have instantly recognised, from newspapers and newsreels, is the recent wreck of the SS Normandie. Requisitioned by the US government for conversion from a trans-Atlantic cruise liner to a troopship (and renamed the USS Lafayette) the boat sank on 9th February 1942, officially after a bungled rescue response to an accidental fire, though rumours of sabotage abounded.
Some film critics claim the scene does fit seamlessly into the narrative – that the villain is simply smiling at what things might have looked like had his plan come off. But this is to ignore both the confusion for non-native audiences and the fact the Normandie went down just days before the end of filming, so can only have been a late add-on to the original script.
Other critics are wise to at least one off-screen aspect of what Hitchcock is trying to do here: mix fiction and reality to fan the flames of suspicion that enemy agents were operating in America. No doubt this was a big part of the director’s thinking, but the hint is fairly self-evident – still not the hidden message. You see, no-one understood the power of suggestion better than Hitchcock or, indeed, could tap into the ultimate fear: that which comes when one’s own brain is left to fill in the gaps.
With that in mind, it is worth noting that while Saboteur was being filmed, American movie theatre audiences had been glued to a different type of drama – endless images of the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7th 1941). Bent and broken US warships, listing, smoking, semi-submerged. Washington may have declared war on Japan, followed by Hitler declaring war on America, yet the battle for US public opinion was far from over. Polls still showed that support for war in the Pacific was consistently higher than the appetite for the “other” conflict – a return to the grim battlefields of Europe barely two decades since the Great War. And, as far as Alfred Hitchcock and his fellow Brits in the US were concerned, this second part was rather crucial.
In those seven seconds of the stricken SS Normandie, I believe Hitchcock was very knowingly tying the two conflicts together in the psyche of the American public. Not only that, he appears to have done so without anyone ever noticing. While the viewer’s conscious mind was watching a film about Nazis on US soil, their subconscious was experiencing Pearl Harbor flashbacks, this new big-screen nexus of the two creating a constant loop of thoughts:
Sunken warships… The Japanese… Sunken warships… The Nazis… Attacked over there… Attacked over here… Japan… Germany… The enemies… The ENEMY.
That’s the thing with Hitchcock at his best. It’s always in what isn’t said rather than what is. And, personally, I am convinced this is what that eerie, lingering camera shot was all about.
With appropriate wartime urgency, “Saboteur” premiered on April 22nd 1942, just two months after the sinking of the SS Normandie, and grossed $1.25 million at the US box office. As an interesting – and totally unrelated – aside, Norman Loyd, who played the Nazi agent, was still making films in 2015. He died recently aged 106.
(Addendum: I have just noticed that Wikipedia still erroneously states the sunken ship in the film was the one being targeted by Fry and that his mission was a success. Consider that Hitchcock once said: “If it is a good movie, the sound could go off, and the audience would still have a perfectly good idea of what is going on”. I do not believe he would have thrown his principles out of the window without a very good reason).