A young man goes on the lam for supposed sabotage of an aircraft factory in California where he works during the Second World War. Some immediately judge him innocent, others guilty; though there is one point on which they all agree: to be a saboteur you must surely dress like one.
The ‘saboteur’ in question is Barry Kane (played by Robert Cummings). Kane spends the entire story chased from West Coast to East Coast by law enforcement officials and, eventually, those responsible for his predicament – the real saboteurs, a shadowy group of mostly high society types who dress in top hat and tails and have friends in very high places.
What makes Kane’s escapade interesting in a costume sense is how meaning is prescribed to his primary garment, an A-2 leather flight jacket with epaulettes (above an obvious association with his place of employment, i.e. why he is wearing this type of leather jacket), and how this meaning is supplanted depending on whom he meets on his journey.
Patricia Martin (Priscilla Lane), for example, although eventually believing Kane is innocent and falling in love with him, initially considers he has the ‘look of a saboteur’. Leather, of course, would eventually become a costume signifier for a tough or rebellious persona. If the tenet was established by Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1955) it had long been in evidence on film, from long Nazi trench coats to professional villains’ on the job workwear, e.g. James Cagney in White Heat (1947).
It is important to consider that in Saboteur, Kane does not deliberately take off his leather jacket, even when under the hot desert sun or after being soaked in a river. Doubtless this was no accident. Director Alfred Hitchcock wanted Kane to be recognisable as someone who may have committed the crimes he was accused of.
In terms of the narrative it was essential that those characters who encounter Kane make a decision as to his guilt based on what they see. Would Kane have had the same effect on people in a pinstripe suit and trilby? Highly unlikely. This idea is further explored in the last act when Kane goes undercover with the real saboteurs and given an immaculate, beautifully cut double breasted suit with sumptuous wide lapels and tucked in handkerchief. The moment he removes the leather jacket, for the first time ever, he actually becomes the saboteur.
Further irony is brought to light in the final scene. Having pursued real saboteur Fry (Norman Lloyd) to the top of the Statue of Liberty, Kane is left with the man’s life literally in his hands.
As Fry dangles from the towering landmark, Kane holding on tightly to the soft grey flannel of his jacket, a sudden ‘pop’ can be heard (note: look closely and you will also see how Cummings’ sleeve, or that of his stand-in, was tucked underneath to make the close up shot clearer). The shoulder seam on Fry’s suit splits open and seconds later he falls to his death wearing society’s armour of the ‘respectable man’.
The morality of Saboteur is clear: judgment based on appearance leads to paranoia, paranoia leads to fear and fear leads to irrational panic. Some who met Kane peered beyond his apparently dangerous facade. Phillip Martin (Vaughan Glaser), Patricia’s uncle, completely devoid of sight, had no choice but to trust his instincts.
In fact it worked in Kane’s favour that he was branded with the simple iconography of a deviant man because it forced those he encountered to gaze deeper at the person inside, revealing a decent, patriotic man who belayed his scruffy exterior. Not a saboteur then, but a hero in disguise.
© 2011 – 2019, Lord Christopher Laverty.