The Devil’s Patriotism

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If you’ve ever seen Alfred Hitchcock‘s Saboteur (1942), you’ll probably recall one brief but noteworthy scene. While fleeing to the Statue of Liberty, Fry (Norman Lloyd) the saboteur is restlessly glancing out his taxi cab window. The cab passes a pier where a ship is seen lying grotesquely on its side; to all appearances, the aftermath of a calamitous event. Fry views the destruction with obvious pleasure; a certain gleam in his ferret-like eyes. Even though his own attempt to sabotage a newly launched ship had just been thwarted (at that moment, police are pursuing him) one gets the impression that he takes consolation in the thought that while he might have failed others may have succeeded.

What Fry is observing (along with the audience, of course) is quite possibly the remains of an actual sabotage of an actual ship…well, sort of.

The ship was the SS Normandie; a French ocean liner renamed USS Lafayette after being seized by US officials under the right of angary. Launched in 1932, she was once considered the “most powerful steam turbo-electric propelled ship ever built” as well as being considered by many as the “the greatest of all ocean liners.” Despite this, the ship turned out to be a commercial failure. Now in US possession, she was moored at Manhattan’s Pier 88 on November 9, 1942, being refitted as a troop ship, when she met her end. Not a victim of Nazi sabotage, but rather the suspected sabotage of an older and uniquely virulent phenomenon in the annals of crime in America. (Wikipedia)

At the outbreak of World War II, it was feared that German U-boats were entering New York Harbor virtually undetected. Nazi sympathizers were also known to be collaborating with the enemy and an act of sabotage was expected at any time. The FBI determined that New York’s shipyards or docks, with warship construction and cargoes supplying a growing and insatiable war, would be a primary target. But to safeguard New York Harbor, the FBI may have been forced to shake hands with the Devil: the Mafia (a crime syndicate never publicly acknowledged by the Feds until the 1960s) then headed by Lucky Luciano; the primary controllers of New York’s waterfront in the 1940s.

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Charles “Lucky” Luciano

However, when the war began, Lucky Luciano was serving a 30 to 50 year prison stretch and, presumably, wasn’t feeling very lucky. He was looking for a way out of prison and when America’s harbors were imperiled, Luciano suddenly waxed patriotic. According to his authorized biography, he had Meyer Lansky (another sudden patriot) arrange a deal with the Government through a high-ranking naval official. In exchange for security (or, more precisely, the mob’s “protection”) for warships being built and cargo being shipped, Luciano would be released from prison and deported.

Because some government officials were reluctant to deal with the Mafia (an insult to Italians in particular and to humanity in general), Lucky arranged for an “incentive.” The Mafia did what they do best and planted an incendiary bomb aboard the SS Normandie; hence, demonstrating the dire need for their services. According to Luciano, the “bomb was blamed on the Germans, and the government was extorted into taking the deal by Lansky and the Italian mafia.” Within a few days, Luciano was released and deported to Sicily. Absolute Astronomy

Saboteur (1942)Directed by Alfred HitchcockShown: Norman Lloyd

Lloyd as “Fry”

When Hitchcock heard of the fire aboard the Normandie, he promptly sent a news crew to the scene to capture some film footage of the disaster. They arrived the next day, after the resulting fire had been extinguished, but the wrecked hull of the ship alongside its mooring would be immortalized in Saboteur. It’s said that government officials asked Hitchcock to remove the footage but he refused.  Perhaps the great director reasoned (as I do) that Fry and Luciano had more in common than either villain would allow. They were both patriotic in their own diverse fashion and both dedicated to their own twisted cause.

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