Sunday, November 13, 2016


SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

Yes, I’m writing about another Alfred Hitchcock directed film. But, even here, in this 1942 effort, where the dialogue is a bit corny and the plotting is not up to the suspense level of other Hitchcock movies, there are still interesting aspects to consider.
 The title refers primarily to the character Fry played by Norma Lloyd, who is the operative used by a subversive group who hope to eventually topple the American democracy and replace it with a totalitarian one. But, Fry frames the story’s hero, Barry Kane (Robert Cummings), and the authorities believe him to be the saboteur who set a U. S. Air Force plant on fire. (Is “Kane” an ironic play on the biblical Cain, who killed his brother, and this Kane must now do penance by setting things right?)  The opening credits show a large shadow of a person projected onto the outside walls of the plant. Later, a concessions person waiting for the workers to come out for lunch, says, “Here come the walls,” as they open. Could the shadowy figure represent a foreign threat to the country, possibly fascism (considering that the film was released at the time of the Nazis)? The shadow could symbolize how the enemy is disguised, among us, but passing as a respectable countryman. The doors opening could also indicate that the nation dropped its guard and let the attacker inside. (The concession person is accompanied by a woman putting on lipstick, a small tip to the idea of disguising oneself?)

The “appearances are deceiving” theme plays out in the film. Fry pretends to be a worker at the plant. When the blaze that he set breaks out, he hands the unsuspecting Barry a fire extinguisher, on the surface a fire fighting tool, but which Fry filled with gasoline. Barry hands it to his friend to stop the fire, but the worker becomes engulfed in flames. When the authorities discover that Barry handed the deadly extinguisher to the man, they pursue Barry, who is tipped off by the mother of the dead employee. Barry, an innocent man who appears to be guilty, is on the run (a recurring Hitchcock theme – The 39 Steps, North by Northwest). He hitches a ride with a truck driver, a complete stranger, from whom one would not expect help, who seems to take a liking to Barry, and later helps him escape the authorities.

At the plant, before the fire, Fry dropped an envelope with money, which we later realize is payment for his sabotage, and Barry finds out that Fry works at Deep Springs Ranch. The truck driver drops him off there. The place appears beautifully scenic and non-threatening, but again, the surface look is deceptive. The owner, Tobin (Otto Kruger) says he doesn’t know Fry. While he excuses himself, the man’s toddler grandchild pulls letters out of a pocket that has Fry’s name on it, saying he is going to Soda City. There is more deception here, since Tobin cloaks himself with the innocence of the child, whose pure nature contrasts with how she ironically reveals the sinister workings of the older man. Tobin returns, reveals that he recognized Barry, and called the police. The villain states that his deception will be believed because he is the one who comes off as respectable. He says “I am a prominent citizen, widely respected. You are an obscure workman wanted for committing an extremely unpopular crime. Now which of us do you think the police will believe?” Barry holds the child in front of him to shield him as he escapes. This action may seem dangerously manipulative toward the infant, but, symbolically, it implies that he, unlike Tobin, deserves being protected by a shield of innocence. He gets caught by police who put handcuffs on him, but he gets away.

After his escape from Deep Springs Ranch, Barry arrives at the home of Philip Martin (Vaughan Glaser), who is also not what he seems at first. He is blind, but as he tells Barry, “Don’t you know I can see a great deal farther than you can? I can see intangible things. For example, innocence.” He tries to get his relative, the model Patricia (Priscilla Lane) to help Barry. She also appears to be someone who will turn Barry in, but eventually is won over to his fight to clear himself and stop further attacks. When she changes her mind about Barry, she says “it’s a free country,” which emphasizes the virtue of a democracy versus a fascist country.
He cuts the handcuffs on a car radiator fan and its belt, and the two hook up with a circus train. The movie again presents the appearance versus reality theme. The odd looking and possibly scary Bones (Pedro De Cordoba), the Human Skeleton, and other performers, turn out to be helpful, and protect them from the police. Bones, emphasizing democracy as opposed to the totalitarian-loving Tobin, puts helping the strangers to a vote. He also says that good people stick with other good people when they are in trouble. The little person (Billy Curtis), who does not on the surface seem imposing, surprisingly, is the mean one. And, there is a pair of Siamese twins (Jeanne and Lynn Romer), one of which is nice, the other, nasty, perhaps, again, signifying the double nature of good and evil in the world.
The circus train drops them off at Soda City, something else that pretends to be something it is not. It looks like a ghost town, but they find a room that is a hideout for the bad guys. The stove in the place deceptively hides a communication device. They find a telescope which focuses on the Hoover Dam, the next target. Two men approach, and Pat escapes while Barry, now taking a page from his adversaries, pretends to be working for Tobin, since Barry’s face is in the news as the one suspected of setting the fire. The outfit that runs the espionage activity is in New York, and they bring Barry there. The duality in human nature is illustrated by one of these conspirators, the ironically named Freeman (Allen Baxter). He says he admires Tobin because of his love for his grandchild, and he tells a story about how he, as a child, had golden curls, which implies that there was once innocence in this man.
 Pat went to the local sheriff, a person who you would think you can trust and who should abide by the law. Not in this story. He works for the saboteurs, and Pat is picked up and brought to New York, too. They find themselves in the mansion of Mrs. Sutton (Alma Kruger). Here is a woman who on the surface appears to be, like Tobin, a respected and charity-giving person, but who works with the villains as she fools the rich American citizens who attend her parties. Philip, based on what Barry had told him, exposed Tobin, so the Hoover Dam attack was out of the picture, so he fled to New York. He tells the others at Sutton’s home that Barry is not working for him. But, he says he makes a good patsy because, “He’s noble and fine and pure. So he pays the penalty that the noble and the fine and the pure must pay in this world: he’s misjudged by everyone.” The truly good person is not putting on any deceptive cover – he is what he appears to be. Tobin’s cynical statement argues that members of the public project their own failings onto a decent person, invalidating him, possibly out of envy for the qualities they can’t live up to. Tobin gives his critique on democracy when it is run by a passive, uninformed population when he says to Barry that he’s “a good American. Oh, there are millions like you. People who play along without asking questions. I hate to use the word stupid, but it seems to be the only one that applies. The great masses, the moron millions. Well there are a few of us unwilling to troop along, a few of us who are clever enough to see that there’s much more to be done than just live small, complacent lives, a few of us in America who desire a more profitable government. When you think about it, Mr. Kane, the competence of totalitarian nations is much higher than ours. They get things done.” Barry counters with his recent experiences with the decent people who helped him, and how they are the backbone of the country.

Barry escapes from the Sutton house when he sets off a fire alarm. The conspirators took Pat to an office building in Manhattan. To emphasize the evil intent of the villains contrasting with their surface respectability, one of the bad guys says that he hopes that the can get rid of Pat soon, because he has to take a relative to the philharmonic. Pat constructs a sign and drops it out of the window, alerting people on the ground that she needs help. In the meantime, Barry, having figured out that the next attack is at the Navy yard, goes there and encounters Fry, with whom he fights, but cannot stop from setting off a bomb which knocks the battleship on its side. Fry escapes. But, the other conspirators are apprehended at the office building where Pat dropped her sign. Hitchcock, as he will do in the scene at Mt. Rushmore in North by Northwest, places dangerous action ironically at a place that symbolizes security and democracy. Here, Fry, the saboteur, tries to hide his republic-threatening self among the unsuspecting crowds at the Statue of Liberty. The “noble and fine and pure” Barry tries to save him as he hangs from the lamp of freedom, but Fry plunges to his death.

The dual nature of people is reinforced by how the film uses “fire” as a motif. It is destructive in the opening blaze that destroys the airplane plant. Again, Barry thinks he is fighting the flames when he hands the extinguisher to his friend, but instead he contributes to the man’s death with the gasoline filled tank. When Barry rides with the truck driver, the latter tells his passenger that he carries a fire extinguisher because he knows of someone who saved a friend in a car accident. This tale shows how fires can be put out with the right tool, and makes Barry feel even more guilty that in his case he inadvertently helped end his friend’s life by increasing, not putting out, a fire because of a deception. When he is held by the conspirators, one of his captors uses a fire-related term to imply inflicting duress on Barry when he says he wants to give him “time to roast.” Also, the supposedly benevolent warming stove in Soda City is a sham, containing the enemy radio inside of it. Of course, the saboteur’s name is Fry, echoing his destructive pyrotechnic bombs. But, the friendly truck driver smokes a cigarette, and in this pre-cancer awareness time, the fire here provides pleasure. Also, Barry asks for a cigarette which allows him to use the distraction to escape at one point. At Philip’s home, the heat from the fireplace dries out the rain-soaked Barry, and warms him. In this case, the fire is comforting, and Pat cuddles up to Barry when they are on the run outside to seek relief from the night’s cold air. And, Barry escapes the Sutton house by faking a fire, ironically using the fear of its danger for beneficial purposes.

The movie, despite its speechifying, corny love lines and abrupt ending, successfully develops the theme about the possibility of treachery hidden behind a seemingly benign appearance, and the need to consider innocence before assuming guilt.

The next film is Breaker Morant.

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