In Saboteur, a wartime propaganda film by Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd) sabotages the aircraft plant where he is working, but the police think Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) did it. And so, Barry has to flee from the police in order to find Fry so he can clear himself. Along the way, he has to kidnap Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) because she thinks he is the saboteur and would otherwise go to the police.
“You look like a saboteur,” Pat says to Barry accusatively. Inasmuch as Barry is played by Robert Cummings, what are we to make of this remark?
First of all, there is reality. We all know that as a general rule saboteurs do not have a distinctive look. Now, inasmuch as World War II had just broken out, I suppose that if Barry had been Japanese or German, her remark would have been appropriate. Of course, today we would call that racial profiling, but since this movie was made in 1942, she could have gotten away with it. But Barry does not appear to be either German or Japanese. (No, I didn’t forget about the Italians, who were also one of the axis powers. It’s just that even in World War II, Hollywood always portrayed Italians as good guys, or as gangsters who were patriotic about America.)
Second, there is type casting. A movie producer might call up an agent and say, “We’re making a spy movie. Do you have anyone who looks like a saboteur? If so, send him over for an interview.” And then the agent might send over someone like Norman Lloyd. But he would not send over Robert Cummings.
Because neither reality nor typecasting would make anyone say of Robert Cummings that he looks like a saboteur, it is odd that Pat would think that he does. Furthermore, she has a very good reason for thinking he is a saboteur, which has nothing to do with his looks. When she first met him, she saw that he was wearing handcuffs, and she realized that he was the fugitive the police were looking for.
Actually, it is precisely because Barry does not look like a saboteur that he is able to avoid the police. Earlier in the movie, Barry is arrested. After he gets out of the police car, he jumps from the bridge into the river below. The truck driver that had earlier given him a ride recognizes him, and he misdirects the police so that Barry can escape. Now, why would anyone do that? I would have helped the police by pointing out where Barry was hiding. All we can conclude is that the truck driver figured Barry did not look like a criminal, so he helped him escape.
Barry takes shelter in the house of a blind man, Philip Martin (Vaughan Glaser). It is here that Pat makes her entrance to the movie, because she is his niece. When she arrives at her uncle’s house shortly after Philip and Barry have become acquainted, she sees the handcuffs that her uncle already knew about on account of his acute hearing. She says he should have turned Barry in to the police. Her uncle accuses her of being cruel. He assures her that Barry is not dangerous. And besides, he argues, a man is innocent until proven guilty. Now, because Philip is blind, he obviously cannot be coming to these incredible conclusions simply on account of Barry’s looks. But Philip tells Pat that he can see intangible things like innocence.
Pat pretends to go along with what her uncle wants, which is to take Barry to a blacksmith to get the handcuffs off, but she tries to take him to the police instead. That doesn’t work, however, and after some complications, they find themselves in the company of some circus freaks. Some of them want to turn Barry over to the police, who are inspecting the circus trucks, but the deciding vote is the bearded lady who blathers about how fine it is that Pat has stuck with Barry through his difficulties, and therefore they must be good people. This makes about as much sense as when earlier a man and a woman saw Barry kidnap Pat, dragging her into the car against her will, and the woman said, “My, they must be terribly in love.”
What these three instances—that of the truck driver, Uncle Philip, and the freaks—have in common is that appearances, in one form or another, make people decide to thwart the police and help the fugitive. Toward the end of the movie, Tobin (Otto Krüger), one of the villains, says of Barry that he is noble, fine, and pure, and that is why he is misjudged by everyone. But save for the police, Barry is not misjudged by others. The point of this remark is to show just how much evil foreigners underestimate Americans. The idea is that Americans, being basically noble, fine, and pure, can readily see the goodness in others, which is why they are willing to help a fugitive from justice escape from the police: they can just tell that Barry is noble, fine, and pure. Of course, Otto Krüger is of German descent, which means he looks like the enemy, which is why he was selected to play this part.
If this movie had been intended alert Americans to the danger of enemy agents in their midst during World War II, it would have cast against type, letting Otto Krüger or Norman Lloyd play Barry, the innocent man, and letting Robert Cummings play Frank Fry, the saboteur, or Tobin, the chief villain. Then the movie would have driven home the point that you cannot tell by a person’s appearances whether he is good or evil. In such a movie, Pat’s remark that Barry looks like a saboteur would make sense, but the truck driver, Uncle Philip, and the circus freaks would have to be suspicious of Barry instead of trusting. Instead, the movie seems intended to assure the wartime audience that they can just rely on appearances, which is a much more comforting notion.
We cannot completely blame Hitchcock for all this, because he thought Robert Cummings was wrong for the role, on account of his “comic face.” And perhaps it was in reaction to the casting of this movie that he decided to make Shadow of a Doubt (1943) the next year, in in which appearances, instead of being dependable, turn out to be deceptive.