Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Aircraft factory worker Barry Kane goes on the run across the United States when he is wrongly accused of starting a fire that killed his best friend.
North By Northwest (1959) is Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous movie about a man who travels a great distance to clear his name. It is often compared to The 39 Steps (1935), a British movie he made with the same idea. But in between these two movies, another named Saboteur (1942) was made. Its hero covers a longer distance than either Roger Thornhill or Richard Hannay.
In Saboteur, Barry Kane, played by Robert Cummings, is falsely accused of starting a fire in an aircraft factory that ended up killing his best friend. The title sequence and opening shot of the movie, which is of massive hanger doors opening, is a delight to watch. Throughout the movie there are some interesting shots and bits of dialogue, but for the most part the trip Barry makes from Los Angeles to New York is just too long for the movie to sustain enough continuity.
Barry leaves Los Angeles and on his way to New York he meets a host of characters. There is the blonde girl, as always present in Hitchcock movies, this time played by Priscilla Lane. Barry ends up at the Deep Springs Ranch in California where he meets the spies who committed the sabotage in the aircraft factory. This scene is similar to one in The 39 Steps where the hero meets the villain face-to-face and has to finagle his way out of danger.
Barry meets a sympathetic blind man, who refuses to turn Barry in, despite the best wishes of the Lane character, who happens to be handcuffed to Barry for some of the trip. This blind man is nice for the first few lines he speaks, but then propaganda takes over his character. Unfortunately, he isn’t the only character in this movie that has to express deep devotion to America and the war effort against the Nazis at every chance he gets. This is one of the reasons why this movie is so hard to watch at times. The audience’s sympathy is with Barry, but it is hard to maintain when every character he meets gives a speech like a politician running for office.
In a scene that could be straight out of Freaks (1932), the couple ends up hitching a ride with a traveling circus. The circus is stopped so the police can look for the two fugitives. After the circus performers had debated about whether or not they should give the couple up, complete with patriotic speeches, it is decided that the couple will not be turned over to the police.
In the course of their journey, a plot to blow up a dam that provides electrical power to all of California, remember this was made just a few years after the Hoover Dam was built, is thwarted by Barry.
There are few other highlights worth mentioning for the rest of the trip. Eventually ending up in New York, the couple finds out who the spy who sabotaged the plant is, his name is Fry. But they are unable to catch Fry as they get caught up in an upper-class affair held by a group of German sympathizers.
Barry manages to escape from his holdings, by putting a lighter to the sprinkler system of all things. He then makes his chase to get to Fry before Fry is able to blow up a ship docked in New York harbor. Barry is too late and the ship is blown up. Hitchcock actually used news reel footage in this scene as an actual ship was blown up in New York harbor around the time the movie was being shot.
Fry ends up in a movie theater, in a scene similar to that of Sabotage (1936). On-screen in Radio City Music Hall, a couple is having a domestic disturbance and a man walks into the room and begins shooting. Fry takes this opportunity to actually shoot the gun he has and it takes the audience a few minutes before they realize that real shots are actually being fired. Hysteria ensues and Fry escapes to the Statue of Liberty.
Here Barry chases Fry down and we have one of the best closing scenes in all of Hitchcock. Struggling to maintain his hold on the edge of Miss Liberty’s torch, Fry confesses to everything. Barry tries to pull him up, but Fry’s sleeve rips and he ends up falling into the water below. The shot was accomplished by having Norman Lloyd, the actor who played Fry, sit in a revolving, tottering chair and then pulling the camera up and away in a reverse crane shot.
The final traveling matte shot and the opening shot are basically the only reasons to watch this movie. Hitchcock made better movies about spies and he made better movies about wrong men accused having to travel great distances to clear their names. Had the movie not been so filled with propaganda, maybe it would be remembered today as The 39 Steps and North By Northwest are, but that isn’t the case and it is unfortunate because the final shot is one of the rarest you’ll see on film.