More than seventy years after its release “Sabotage” remains relevant, in fact, it is even more relevant today, considering the world we live in, than in 1936 when it was first released. Based on Joseph Conrad’s short novel, “The Secret Agent,” the plot focuses on Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka), a foreigner from an unnamed country. Verloc owns a local cinema in London and is a member of a terrorist group set on crippling London. His wife (Sylvia Sidney) is completely unaware of her husband’s underground activities. Living with Mr. and Mrs. Volker is Mrs. Volker’s younger brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester) whose death in the film sparks its most famous sequence and is the centerpiece of the film.
Hitchcock sets up the opening moments with a nice sequence of shots. A dictionary page explaining the definition of the word sabotage as the opening credits appear followed by a series of shots as the city of London loses its electric power. Two investigators identify the cause, the result of sabotage, and then a quick cut to a close up of Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka) our saboteur.
The blackout does not have the desired effect Verloc’s group wanted. The newspaper reports Londoner’s mostly enjoyed the happenstance and laughed it off. Verloc soon meets with his contact at a local Aquarium where he is told that the next time people will not laugh. He’s instructed to meet with a bomb maker whose front, a pet store, sells birds. The birds are an important plot point in the film. For Hitchcock, birds would become a recurring motif appearing in many of his films (“Psycho,” “To Catch a Thief” and “The Birds”).
The adaptation of Conrad’s novel was written by Charles Bennett (“The 39 Steps,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “Foreign Correspondent”) with dialogue assistance from Ian Hay and Helen Simpson. The title change was necessary since Hitchcock’s previous film, also adapted by Bennett, was called “The Secret Agent” based on a novel by Somerset Maugham called,” Ashenden.”
In the essential Hitchcock/Truffaut interview book, the French director/critic states he found the movie disappointing. He states, “The thing that’s basically wrong with the whole picture is the characterization of the detective.” Hitchcock admits, John Loder, who portrays Scotland Yard detective Ted Spencer, was not his first choice. He wanted Robert Donat, but he was unavailable. There seems to be two explanations put forth by biographers. One is Alexander Korda who had Donat under contract refused to release him. Hitchcock biographer Patrick McGilligan notes that Donat suffered from chronic asthma and “when he came down with acute bronchitis,” Hitchcock had to settle for the bland, less interesting Loder. As a Scotland Yard investigator, Loder who works undercover at a fruit and vegetable store next to the movie theater, is a pale and uninteresting actor. As he looks into the possibility of whether Sidney’s character has any knowledge of her husband’s subversive activity he begins to develop a crush on the married lady. Needless to say, Robert Donat would have definitely added a smoother Cary Grant type charm to the detective than Loder could pull off.
Hitchcock had another problem he thought was wrong with the film. He felt he made a major mistake in showing the young boy carrying the bomb around London and eventually being blown up. After endearing the boy to the viewers, and then to have him killed in such a violent way, Hitchcock felt he may have alienated the audience.
But let’s consider the horrific idea of a terrorist blowing up a London bus filled with not just the boy but many other innocent people. In 1936, this was considered pretty shocking and probably far-fetched. In today’s environment we all know this idea is much too close to reality for comfort, just think back to the 2005 series of coordinated public transportation bombings in London including a double-decker bus, as is the idea of a young child carrying a bomb. The fact we have come to like the boy only makes it that much more uncomfortable and tragic. The film remains much stronger emotionally today and more relevant because of these powerful scenes. This sequence is also a primer for Hitchcock’s theory of suspense versus surprise (1).
A second memorable sequence follows the young boy’s death after Verloc confesses to his wife he is responsible for the boy’s death though he blames Scotland Yard. Mrs. Verloc in shock wanders into the theater where the audience is enjoying the Disney “Silly Symphony” cartoon. She soon finds herself giggling and laughing along with the audience. When Cupid kills Cock Robin with his arrow, the cartoon’s catchphrase “Who’s killed Cock Robin?” begins. This brings Mrs. Verloc back to reality. Filled with grief we find Mrs. Verloc back in the apartment slicing up the evening dinner. A carving knife is most prominent in the shots. Hitchcock cuts back and forth between the knife, Mrs. Verloc and Mr. Verloc. When he realizes what she’s contemplating, he gets up, approaches her and attempts to take the knife, but she grabs it first stabbing her husband…or does he walk into the knife killing himself?Hitchcock leaves us with this bit of ambivalence.
Sylvia Sidney was a popular American actress at the time and had just finished making “Fury” with Fritz Lang. At first, both Sidney and Hitchcock looked forward to working with each other, but they quickly came to dislike the other during the filming. As an actress, the stage trained Sidney was use to long dramatic takes and did not understand the cinema techniques Hitchcock employed, the close up, the short quick takes of the carving knife, no dialogue and how it would all make sense once put together in the editing room. It was only after she watched the completed film she understood how it all came together.
The British critics were somewhat harsh in their reviews, knocking Hitchcock for being “callous” in killing the young boy, and a cute looking dog. In America, where Hitchcock was still regulated to the art house circuit, the film was released here under the title, “The Woman Alone,” critics were more charitable and considered it a fine follow up to “The 39 Steps” and “The Man who Knew Too Much.” “Sabotage” remains one of Hitchcock’s darkest works right up there in its bleakness with “The Wrong Man,” “Vertigo” and “Psycho.” It remains one his finest films from his British period.
(1) Hitchcock’s theory - “We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s 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 it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a 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 is a bomb beneath you and it is 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 we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed of the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.” From Hitchcock Interview Book.