During World War II, aircraft factory worker Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is accused of starting a fire at the Stewart Aircraft Works in Glendale, California, an act of sabotage that killed his friend Mason (Virgil Summers). Kane believes the real culprit is a man named Fry (Norman Lloyd) who, during their efforts to put out the fire, handed him a fire extinguisher filled with gasoline, that he passed on to Mason. When the investigators find no one named "Fry" on the list of plant workers, they assume Kane is guilty.
Earlier, on the way to lunch, Kane and Mason had seen Fry's name on an envelope he dropped. Kane remembers the address, and heads out to a ranch in the High Desert. The ranch owner, Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger), appears to be a well-respected citizen, but reveals that he is working with the saboteurs. Tobin's young granddaughter hands mail to Kane that reveals Fry has gone to Soda City, while Tobin has called the sheriff. Kane escapes the police, taking refuge with a kind blind man (Vaughan Glaser) whose visiting niece, Patricia "Pat" Martin (Priscilla Lane) is a model famous for appearing on billboards. Although her uncle asks her to take Kane to the local blacksmith shop to have his handcuffs removed, she attempts to take him to the police. Kane kidnaps Martin, protesting his innocence. When she stops the car and threatens to stop the first car that comes by, he uses the fan belt pulley of her car's generator to break apart his handcuffs, causing the car to overheat and break down.
As night falls, the couple stow away on a circus train. The circus performers recognize them as fugitives but decide to shield them from the police. Kane and Martin reach the Soda City ghost town, where the saboteurs are preparing to blow up Boulder Dam. Kane is discovered by the saboteurs, but conceals Martin and convinces the saboteurs that he is allied with them. After finding their plan to destroy the dam foiled, Kane convinces the saboteurs to remove his manacles and take him with them to New York. He learns of their plan to sabotage the launching of a new U.S. Navybattleship at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Kane's performance fooled Martin as well; she contacts the authorities, hoping to get to New York to foil the saboteurs' plans.
The saboteurs reach New York but find the phone at their office disconnected, indicating the police are on to them. They meet with New York dowager Mrs. Sutton (Alma Kruger) and other conspirators at her mansion, during a grand society party. Kane finds the captured Martin, who was betrayed by a corrupt sheriff. As Kane attempts to signal her to escape, Tobin arrives. He recognizes Kane and exposes him. Tobin has Kane knocked out and locked in the mansion's cellar. Martin is imprisoned in an office at Rockefeller Center. The next morning, Kane triggers a fire alarm at the mansion and escapes. Martin drops a note from the office window, which is found by some cabdrivers.
Kane reaches the Navy Yard, but only a few minutes before the launching. Rather than wait to explain to the Yard authorities, he rushes out to search for the saboteurs. He spots Fry in a fake newsreel camera truck, prepared to blow up the slipway during the launching. Their struggle prevents Fry from detonating the explosion until seconds after the launch of the USS Alaska battleship. [Note 1]
Fry takes Kane prisoner, and with his two accomplices returns to the Rockefeller Center office. The police and FBI, alerted by Martin's note, are waiting for them. The accomplices are caught, but Fry dodges into the back of an adjacent movie theater. He shoots a man in the audience, and escapes in the panic. In front of the theater, Kane sees Fry get into a taxi. Still holding Kane in custody, the FBI refuse to follow Fry, so Kane tells Martin to shadow the saboteur. She follows Fry onto the ferry to Liberty Island, attracting his attention, and then to the Statue of Liberty. She calls the FBI, and at their direction, goes into the statue to find Fry and distract him. In the viewing room in the statue's head, She strikes up a conversation with Fry, stalling him until Kane and the FBI arrive.
Kane escapes his escort and encounters Martin, who tells him that Fry is escaping. Kane pursues Fry onto the viewing platform on the torch. When Kane emerges from the tunnel he confronts Fry. Falling over the platform's railing, Fry clings to the statue's hand. Kane climbs down to apprehend Fry. As the police and FBI agent reach the platform, watching from the railing, Fry's grip slips. Kane grabs the sleeve of Fry's jacket. The stitching gives way, and Fry falls to his death. Kane climbs back up and embraces Martin.
The pivotal and controversial scene in Saboteur featured the SS Normandie.
Hitchcock was under contract to David O. Selznick, so he first pitched the idea for the film to him; Selznick gave the okay for a script to be written, assigning John Houseman to keep an eye on its progress and direction. Val Lewton, Selznick's story editor, eventually rejected the script, so Selznick forced Hitchcock to offer it to other studios, "causing ill feelings between the producer and his director since it not only showed a lack of belief in Hitchcock's abilities, but also because the terms of Hitchcock's contract would net Selznick a three-hundred percent profit on the sale."Universal signed on, but Hitchcock could not have the two actors he wanted for the leading roles. Gary Cooper was uninterested in the project and Barbara Stanwyck had other commitments. He settled on Robert Cummings who had a new contract with Universal, while Priscilla Lane was borrowed from Warner Bros. although her scenes had to wait while she finished Arsenic and Old Lace, a production that was eventually shelved until its 1944 release.
Universal did bring in Dorothy Parker to write a few scenes, "mostly the patriotic speeches given by the hero." Although Parker had been brought in to "punch up the dialogue", Hitchcock also called in Peter Viertel to continue to work on the script.[Note 2]
Hitchcock used extensive location footage in the film. Second unit director Vernon Keays and cinematographer Charles Van Enger shot exteriors in the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California, and John Fulton shot the background footage in New York City. For the New York city footage, special long lenses were used to shoot from great distances. One background shot shows a capsized ship in the harbor. Fry glances at it and smiles knowingly. The ship shown is the former SS Normandie, which burned and sank in February 1942, leading to rumors of German sabotage.
There was clever matching of the location footage with studio shots, many using matte paintings for background, for example in shots of the western ghost town, "Soda City". The famed Statue of Liberty sequence takes place on the torch platform, which had actually been closed to public access since the Black Tom sabotage in 1916. A mock-up built for filming accurately depicted this part of the statue. The scene also used innovative visual effects. In particular, Lloyd lay on his side on a black saddle on a black floor while the camera was moved from close-up to 40 feet above him, making him appear to drop downward, away from the camera. Film taken from the top of the Statue was then superimposed onto the black background.
There was no music score for the film's Radio City sequence; instead, Hitchcock combined action shown on the theater screen (including gunshots) with the action in the theater. The contrast of the large screen images with the shootout below encompassed the audience into the action and was one of the more effective scenes in Saboteur.
Hitchcock makes his trademark cameo appearance about an hour into the film, standing at a kiosk in front of Cut Rate Drugs in New York as the saboteur's car pulls up. In his book-length interview with François Truffaut (Simon and Schuster, 1967), Hitchcock says he and Parker filmed a cameo showing them as the elderly couple who see Cummings and Lane hitchhiking and drive away, but that he decided to change that shot to the existing cameo.
Scripting, pre-production, and principal photography on Saboteur wrapped in 15 weeks, the fastest Hitchcock had ever worked. By January 1942, the film was in post-production. Early in April,Saboteur was "redflagged" by officials in the War Office who had concerns about the scene involving the SS Normandie. Regarding this scene, Hitchcock said: "the Navy raised hell with Universal about these shots because I implied that the Normandie had been sabotaged, which was a reflection on their lack of vigilance in guarding it." Despite the official objections, the scene remained in the final film. Saboteur was premiered in Washington, D.C. on April 22, 1942, with Hitchcock, Cummings and Lane, along with 80 U.S. Senators and 350 U.S. Congressmen, in attendance.
Hitchcock made use of irony on multiple occasions to strengthen his meanings.
Early in the film, the authorities are seen as menacing, while the well-respected rancher and kind grandfather is a Nazi agent. In contrast, only ordinary folks and the down-on-their-luck perceive Kane's innocence and offer trust: a long-haul truck driver, a blind householder and the circus freaks. In New York City, wealthy Mrs. Sutton is secretly funding a Nazi group.
Driving along the New York waterfront Kane's car passes by the capsized hulk of the liner SS Normandie, an ominous warning of what could happen if the conspirators succeed in their plans.
The final battle symbolizing tyranny against democracy takes place on the torch of Statue of Liberty.
Saboteur did "very well at the box office even with its B-list cast"; it made a "tidy profit for all involved."
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called the film, "(a)... swift, high-tension film which throws itself forward so rapidly that it permits slight opportunity for looking back. And it hurtles the holes and bumps which plague it with a speed that forcefully tries to cover them up." Crowther noted that "so abundant [are] the breathless events that one might forget, in the hubbub, that there is no logic in this wild-goose chase"; he also questioned the "casual presentation of the FBI as a bunch of bungling dolts, [the film's] general disregard of authorized agents, and [its] slur on the navy yard police", all of which "somewhat vitiates the patriotic implications which they have tried to emphasize in the film."
Time magazine called Saboteur "... one hour and 45 minutes of almost simon-pure melodrama from the hand of the master"; the film's "artful touches serve another purpose which is only incidental to Saboteur 's melodramatic intent. They warn Americans, as Hollywood has so far failed to do, that fifth columnists can be outwardly clean and patriotic citizens, just like themselves."
Norman Lloyd recalls that Ben Hecht told Hitchcock after seeing the death of Lloyd's character in the finale, "He should have had a better tailor."