Beginner's Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: Sabotage (1936)
It can be really jarring to hear a director admit to a mistake, or even concede that a film he or she had made was unsatisfactory. But when a director makes over fifty films even he can see his weaker films. In his interview with Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock doesn’t have much regard for his 1936 thriller Sabotage. Truffaut agrees with him, calling it disappointing. Personally I wouldn’t call Sabotage a major achievement, but I find it much more enjoyable than either Hitchcock or Truffaut do. It’s a clean, streamlined thriller with a number of tense sequences and one commanding lead performance.
Based on the novel Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, Sabotage follows Karl Verloc (Oskar Homolka), a man involved with a shady organization planning a terrorist attack on London. His wife, Mrs. Verloc (Sylvia Sidney, best known now as the afterlife caseworker in Beetlejuice) runs a movie theater, and her kid brother Stevie (Desmond Tester) lives with them. Ted Spencer (John Loder) is a Scotland Yard Sergeant who befriends Mrs. Verloc and Steve as means to investigate Karl. As the saboteurs plan for a bomb to go off in London, Ted’s cover is blown.
Sabotage doesn’t have a very complicated plot. Hitchcock and his screenwriter Charles Bennett do not explain what Karl’s terrorism ring wants or where they come from. One can presume they’re Nazis since this is pre-WWII. In fact, Hitchcock had to change Verloc’s name from Adolf in the book to Karl to avoid any direct Nazi comparisons. The ambiguity of the sabotage means the plot doesn’t cloud up what ends up being a fairly straightforward film. Mrs. Verloc has to deal with her world crumbling around her, and her tragic life forms the emotional core of the story. The suspense between Karl and Ted is intense to watch, as their respective masks fall away. In the end, it doesn’t matter that Karl’s motivations were unclear; the story isn’t about the macro implications of the plot but the emotional consequences.
The most famous, or rather, infamous, scene in the film is where Stevie unwittingly delivers a bomb across the city of London. The audience has the details: what’s in Stevie’s box, the exact time the bomb will go off, and how long it takes for him to get there. Then Hitchcock tortures the audience by giving the poor boy so many obstacles (a vendor selling toothpaste, the Lord Mayor’s Show parade). Hitchcock keeps cutting to clocks and the wrapped package. It’s deliciously ironic that the two things that block Stevie contrast with the dirty, illegal work he is unknowingly carrying out. Despite the masterful suspense, Hitchcock was displeased, calling it cruel to the audience. He insists that he made the wrong choice about the bomb.
My personal favorite part of the film is when Mrs. Verloc confronts Karl. Hitchcock’s sharp, precise direction and choice of camera angles highlight the emotional suspense, as well as the threat of danger. Reportedly, Sylvia Sidney clashed with Hitchcock on set, and never worked with him again. That’s unfortunate because she delivers one of the strongest, most nuanced performances during Hitchcock’s British era. Sidney’s unusual and expressive face conveys pain and understanding without much dialogue. Whether it’s the small joys of being with Stevie or bracing herself against Karl’s distance and vague cruelty, Sidney grounds the film with her subtlety.
Hitchcock wasn’t pleased with his leading men. He wanted The 39 Steps’ Robert Donat to play Ted Spencer but he was unavailable, and found John Loder quite dull on screen. Also, Oskar Homolka was too plump according to the director, and thus hard to believe as a villain. Hitchcock found it hard to get big stars for the male roles, since their names were to appear below the title and Sylvia Sidney’s.
The disdain for the police comes through here, as Ted isn’t very effective and the police in general are shown as rather dim here. Working with frequent cinematographer Bernard Knowles (The 39 Steps), Hitchcock features some striking shots, including the truly arresting opening sequence beginning with the dictionary definition of “sabotage.” Running a tight 76 minutes, Sabotage is entertaining and suspenseful. My respect to Hitchcock, but it’s a lot better than he thinks.