Sunday, September 16, 2007

9/16: Saboteur, High Noon

Saboteur is a well-executed wartime thriller from suspense master Alfred Hitchcock, crammed with fascinating set pieces and great action scenes, though overall lacking in plausibility or the deeper insights that often underpinned his later work. Robert Cummings plays Barry Kane, a factory worker during World War II who's falsely accused of sabotage after an explosion at his workplace. He flees the police, knowing they'll never believe him, and uses his scant clues about the real saboteur to try and track down the root of the conspiracy. Along the way, he encounters a blind man who shelters him briefly, then takes off with the man's distrustful daughter (Priscilla Lane) in tow. The plot veers from set piece to set piece and is mostly indifferent in between; the meager threads of the fascist conspiracy that Cummings is tracking are a mere excuse for some stunningly executed suspense.

Best of all is the scene at a society ball where the fascist spies are mixed in with the crowd, slowly trying to close in on Cummings and Lane without alerting the innocent partygoers to the disturbance. Hitchcock perfectly captures the sense of being trapped even in public, of being totally alone in a massive crowd of strangers. There's also the famous ending scene, set atop the Statue of Liberty, with the villainous real saboteur dangling — literally by a thread — off the Statue's lamp. This scene provides the blueprint for the Mount Rushmore sequence from the later North By Northwest, and it's a great scene in its own right.

But the film's most substantial scene is the one in which Cummings and Lane hitch aboard the rear car of a circus caravan, discovering a community of freaks inside who engage in an impassioned argument about what to do, whether or not to shelter these outlaws from the pursuing police. The scene takes on an allegorical dimension with a subtlety and intelligence that's largely missing from the rest of the film, with its by-the-numbers action emphasis. The debate between the freaks is a microcosm of democracy at work, with an incredibly thin man leading the discussion and taking the side of protecting the intruders. He's opposed by a dictatorial midget, a kind of mini-Hitler figure who represents the forces of oppression, the police state, the militaristic outlook that sees no value in basic kindness to others. Even his nickname, "The Major," points to his militaristic, fascist origins. In between these two opposing forces, the other freakshow members — a bearded lady, a fat woman, a bickering pair of Siamese twins — represent the various cacophonous voices of democracy at work. They are indecisive and disinterested, making decisions without facts, and fighting amongst themselves. The scene's underlying idea is the way in which people's disinterest in democratic institutions can make room for the opinions of fascists like the Major to gain hold. Even if no one actively supports his view of the intruders, their laziness, self-interest, and petty quarrels very nearly allow his nasty outlook to win out.

The fascinating freakshow scene aside, Saboteur mostly just offers up thrills and action with little else of interest. Fortunately, that's enough to make this a solid second-tier Hitchcock. The leads are a bit weak, and their relationship is largely unbelievable and poorly developed, and even the villains mostly don't make much of an impression. And the expected wartime preaching built into the film, though not as heavy-handed as the ending of Foreign Correspondent, is definitely a sign of its times. Even with all its problems, though, it's definitely worth seeing for the way that Hitchcock, even saddled with a somewhat lame script and an unassuming cast, could create a tense, suspenseful, exciting film.

High Noon does exactly one thing throughout its trim length, and it does it exceptionally well. It is a perfect example of how a singleminded dedication to creating a mood can result in a truly rewarding and compelling filmic experience. Every facet of the film, every moment in its economical structure, contributes to the ever-growing tension that will be released only in the crisp, fast-paced showdown of the film's final minutes. Director Fred Zinnemann maintains a tight control over the pacing and rhythm of the film, using quick close-up shots of clocks as markers in the editing, like emphasized beats that drive home the over-arching tension. Gary Cooper plays the small-town sheriff Will Kane, on the verge of retiring, marrying his sweetheart Amy (Grace Kelly, radiating with chaste beauty), and heading off to a peaceful life as a store owner, in deference to his new wife's pacifist Quaker beliefs. But his plans are disrupted on his wedding day by the announcement that his old foe, the violent and vengeful Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), has been released from prison and is heading back to town on the noon train. Three of the outlaw's cronies await Miller's arrival at the local station, and the countdown to noon occupies nearly the entirety of the film, encompassing an hour that passes almost in real time. It takes an hour of film time for the train to arrive, even as an hour passes in the film itself.

Kane fills this hour by trying to rouse the townspeople to help him fight Miller. He briefly considered leaving town as originally planned, and everyone urges him to do so, but he decides that his honor won't allow him to back down from this battle. He even risks losing his new wife, who promises to leave him rather than see him needlessly killed, but he won't turn away from facing Miller. Gaining support in the town proves difficult though, and Zinnemann relentlessly chronicles the near-complete rejection of Kane by his former friends and neighbors. As the clocks tick down the time until the train's arrival, the townsfolk debate, shy away, and guiltily dodge the responsibility of joining the posse. Kane finally ends up facing the deadly foursome all by himself, in a taut and economical showdown that's exciting without forsaking the film's commitment to stark minimalism. Zinnemann's restraint is impressive; there's not a wasted shot or gesture in the whole film. Everything is channelled towards the final confrontation, every edit contributes to the steady pulsing beat that subtly intensifies and quickens as it grows closer and closer to noon. And when the train arrives, right on time, the editing becomes briefly frantic, the train's whistle piercing on the soundtrack, the cuts fast and abrupt, between Kane in his office writing his will, the empty streets of the town hushed in anticipation, the outlaws forebodingly waiting at the station.

In High Noon, Zinnemann crafted the ultimate study in pacing and editing, using the rhythms of the film to create a steamrolling mood of dread, expectation, and suspense. He's helped tremendously by Cooper's stoic, melancholic performance, which helps anchor the growing dread around a specific, sympathetic figure. This is a classic Western, and well deserving of its reputation.

1 comment:

Neah said...

Did you happen to notice Lee Van Cleef as one of the bandits? If I read his filmography this was his first film.