Sabotage (1936)

Alfred Hitchcock’s British movies can be clunky at times, but they are also enormous fun. To make up for the static 1930s camerawork that sometimes slowed the pace, Hitchcock would boldly experiment with the way that he presented the story. Sometimes the result was unsuccessful; more often it produced something clever and individualistic. It is hardly surprising that he was offered the chance to work on a bigger budget in America.

The most confusing part of Sabotage is the film’s title. Hitchcock clearly thought that audiences would be puzzled by the very word itself, and the film begins with an open dictionary providing us with a helpful definition of the word.

Most of us probably know what the word means now. The confusion lies more in the presence of similarly-titled Hitchcock movies. The director also made Saboteur in 1942. In the same year as Sabotage, Hitchcock had just finished making Secret Agent. Sabotage is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Secret Agent. Since Hitchcock had used the title once that year already, this film was called Sabotage. So Sabotage is an adaptation of The Secret Agent, but Secret Agent is not.

It says something about early Hitchcock films that we have the unlikely sight of the director adapting a Joseph Conrad novel. Conrad’s intense and often sea-based stories are usually a long way from the thrillers of Hitchcock. However The Secret Agent was more closely aligned to Hitchcock’s 1930s output, as the story involves spies, terrorism and conspiracies.

In any case, Hitchcock only loosely reproduced the Conrad story. Before continuing I should explain that I am not sure how to discuss Sabotage without providing spoilers (starting from the next sentence), so read on at your peril. One of the major changes was providing a happy ending. Conrad’s book is more downbeat. Yet curiously this happy ending is provided by allowing a murderer to go free, something that even Conrad did not do.

Plenty of details from Conrad’s book are in the film, including the reluctant saboteur Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka), an explosive that accidentally kills his brother-in-law, a meeting with a fellow-conspirator who carries a bomb on his person at all times, and the murder of Verloc by his wife as vengeance for killing her brother.

Some feel that Hitchcock’s movie is faithful to the spirit rather than the letter of Conrad’s novel. I am not sure about that either. The tone is lighter in many ways, and the more serious intentions of the original work are lost. It is at least true that Hitchcock does not flinch from the murder of a child (though he later wished he had), or from another violent murder by a sympathetic character.

This curious blend is characteristic of Hitchcock. Normality and abnormality often go hand in hand in his films. Throughout Sabotage, Hitchcock contrasts the comically mundane dialogue of the ordinary Londoners with the insane plans by saboteurs and terrorists. Everyday life is under threat from darker elements.

Hitchcock’s 1930s films often revolve around conspiracies and plots by unknown elements. It is not too fanciful to imagine that this paranoia arose from the presence of neighbouring Fascist states that posed a potential threat to western democracy. This is never expressed openly in any of the films. For example, Verloc’s name in the book just happened to be Adolf, but in the film his name has been changed to Karl to avoid associations with the German leader, Adolf Hitler.

The story revolves around Karl Verloc, a man of foreign origin who runs a movie theatre. In the book, he ran a newsagent that sold pornographic literature. The only hint of this here is when a greengrocer tells Verloc the police might be watching him, and speculates that he might have been playing ‘hot’ films in his cinema.

Verloc has a wife (Sylvia Sidney). Mrs Verloc (her first name is never given) seems happy enough with her husband, but she is hesitant when it comes to praising him. She instead mentions that he is kind to her brother, Steve (Desmond Tester), implying that she did not marry Verloc for love, but as a means of providing for Steve. Perhaps if Verloc had sensed this, his actions later on might have been different.

Behind this respectable, or semi-respectable, veneer, Verloc is hiding things. He is a member of a secret organisation that is hostile to Britain. At the start of the film, the electricity goes out all over London. Employees look into the problem and speak in brief staccato sentences. They establish that the cause is sabotage. Hitchcock immediately establishes the culprit. Verloc walks menacingly towards the camera as he leaves the scene of the crime.

It is unclear why this secret organisation is carrying out sabotage. There is a dark suggestion that the plans are intended to distract people from matters abroad, something that seems to hint at Fascist countries.

It hardly matters. The conspirators exist only to move the story forward. Hitchcock was more interested in how his heroes react to the situations in which they find themselves, and he enjoyed meticulously creating suspenseful set-pieces. The feel of the movie was more important than the detail.

Despite the dark intentions of the saboteurs, the electricity cut does not engender fear but laughter, as cheerful Londoners carry on in the dark. Verloc meets his contact at an aquarium, an early example of a scene common in thrillers, where two wrong-doers meet in a public place. In The Lady from Shanghai, Orson Welles also uses an aquarium as a meeting place for a planned crime.

Verloc’s contact is unhappy that Verloc’s act of sabotage backfired, and he will not pay Verloc unless he performs a more serious act of terrorism. Verloc is reluctant to carry out an act that causes losses of life, but his scruples matter less to him than the money he has not been paid.

In the course of Verloc’s plans to bomb Piccadilly Station (part of the London Underground), we encounter a handful of his fellow-conspirators. Most of them are never arrested, an intriguing loose end. The most colourful of these is The Professor (William Dewhurst), a pet shop owner who carries a bomb on his person so that the police cannot arrest him. We know that he is morally degenerate (by 1930s standards) because his daughter has an illegitimate child, and the father is unknown.

However the net is closing in around Verloc. He is being watched by a police officer, Sergeant Ted Spencer (John Loder), who is posing as a greengrocer. This leads to the most morally unacceptable action of the film, one that causes Verloc’s undoing.

Unable to leave the house because he is being watched by the police, Verloc decides to ask his delicate young brother-in-law Steve to place the bomb at Piccadilly. Of course the poor boy does not know what is in the package that he is asked to leave at the station.

This leads to the two best set-pieces in the film. Steve needs to be at Piccadilly by 1.45, as the bomb is timed to go off then. Hitchcock builds up the suspense by agonisingly delaying Steve’s journey there. Steve takes a while to leave the house, brushing his hair, and playing on the nerves of the anxious Verloc.

Out on the street, Steve meets a number of delays. He is waylaid by an obnoxious street salesman, and forced to wait for a parade to go past. Meanwhile the importance of Steve’s actions are emphasised with close-ups of clocks, of the package held by Steve and even of the inner workings of the bomb. The musical soundtrack imitates a ticking sound. Just as Steve was agitating Verloc with his delays in leaving the house, so Hitchcock is building the audience into a state of agony with these delays.

At one point Steve decides to make up for lost time by catching a bus. The conductor is initially reluctant to let him board the bus. Ironically the conductor fears that the boy’s nitrate film tapes will be flammable, when that is not the item he needs to worry about. Unfortunately the conductor is talked around.

The bus fails to make it to Piccadilly on time, and it explodes, killing Steve and the passengers. This scene was a controversial one. Hitchcock himself said that allowing the bomb to go off was one of his greatest mistakes. It certainly breaks the rule that Hitchcock once stated when outlining the rules of suspense. This is the part that is usually quoted:

Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is quarter to one. In these conditions the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen, “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!” In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.

Less widely quoted is Hitchcock’s next words, in which he insists that of course the bomb should not go off in those circumstances, as the audience would be upset.

That was the case with Saboteur. Audiences do not respond well to the scene where the bomb goes off and kills an important character. Critics tend to enjoy the scene more, because it adds an edge to the film. Steve’s death exposes the moral vacuity at the centre of Verloc’s nature. He is a man who has no scruples about putting his wife’s brother in danger so that he can receive money for his criminal actions.

Steve’s death also makes the scene of Verloc’s final demise more effective. By this point, Verloc’s wife is aware of his role in Steve’s death. We know (but Verloc does not) that she married Verloc for Steve’s sake. Verloc’s attempts to comfort her by implying that she would have been worse off it he had died instead are seem crass and insensitive, as does his attempt to change the subject to more petty grumbles.

As a result, the audience is more likely to feel sympathetic towards Mrs Verloc when they see what she does next. She is cutting up food with a knife. Hitchcock makes sure to show us the knife and then cut to the reactions of husband and wife, as they both realise with horror what she is going to do next. After the act, there is an awful silence. A camera is placed at floor level watching Mrs Verloc walk away.

It seems remarkable that Hitchcock is able to offer a happy ending of sorts, with a fortunate coincidence covering up Mrs Verloc’s actions, and allowing her to escape justice. It is a contrived finish, and yet one that gives the film’s conclusion a curiously dark tinge.

Sabotage is not without its flaws. Some scenes are slow and static. Some of the humour is clumsy. Loder’s chirpy mannerisms are a little irksome, and Tester’s posh accent seems quaint. However the film is an interesting early Hitchcock work that shows his gift for balancing darkness and light, and for stirring up excitement and suspense in his audience.


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