*** out of 5
"You gotta believe me! Somebody's gotta believe me!"
Let's play a round of Zero Degrees to Alfred Hitchcock!
This film is directed by Ted Tetzlaff, the cinematographer for Hitchcock's masterpiece Notorious.
The screenplay was by Mel Dinelli (who did a handful of notable noir films [Spiral Staircase, Beware My Lovely, Cause for Alarm, Jeopardy], but mostly wrote for television, including 1 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents). It was based on The Boy Who Cried Murder, a short story by Cornell Woolrich, who also wrote the story that inspired Hitchcock's masterful Rear Window(note the thematic similarites in title and theme). Roy Webb, who composed the score, also worked on Notorious.
And how does all this Hitchcocky influence affect the final results? Pretty well. Hitchcock famously remarked that he destroyed the tension by making the mistake of letting the bomb go off in Sabotage, killing the boy who carried it. Spoiler- the boy doesn't blow up here, and the tension is mighty palpable.
Bobby Driscoll, a major child star on loan from the Disney studios, is the star of this tale- a little boy who likes to make up stories to spice up his pretty drab daily life. The opening scenes effectively present a potent juxtaposition between the boy's vividly imaginative fantasies and the real world of rotten, crumbling condemned city buildings among which he and his friends play and live.
Late on night, Driscoll goes out on the fire escape to sleep where it is cooler, and witnesses his upstaur neighbors (Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman) kill a man in their apartment. Their motives are never explained, a good example of how well the film depicts the story largely from a child's perspective.
Barbara Hale and Arthur Kennedy are his beleaguered but well-meaning parents, who, like the people in the Aesop's fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, refuse to accept that his tale of murder is anything more than a nightmare or another of his wild stories. He persists at attempting to persuade them he is telling the truth, but only get himself into trouble, shut in his room and otherwise punished and pushed aside.
The moment when his parents leave him home alone in the apartment with the killers plotting to come and silence him may be one of the scariest in noir. Like all the great antiheroes (we can call him that since his previous tales are partly to blame for his current position), he is left to face the world and fate alone. The way he manages to excape shows the kind of toughness that only the strongest of the great noir characters exhibit, yet in the end it is clear he is still really just a frightened child trying to survive evils he is not meant to know, making the crescendo of tension all the more dramatic, and its climax so shocking.
Watch for repeated window imagery:
1) The introductory shot of the child is looking through an open window, down at his friends below, a perfect symbol of isolation.
2) When he is sent to his room for telling stories- the bars of the fire escape communicate that he is trapped in this situation
3) the murder scene is viewed through a window, from the outside looking in.
4) When Driscoll's cries for help are finally heard after the climax is over, as lights come on and neighbors are seen looking out the windows with concern, before calling rescue squads in the end the danger Driscoll faces.