Sabotage (1936) Alfred Hitchcock


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.

Sabotage7The 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.

sabotage1Hitchcock 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.

sabotage-1936Sylvia 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.

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21 comments on “Sabotage (1936) Alfred Hitchcock

  1. I really enjoyed your write-up, John — I have never seen Sabotage, but I’m pretty sure it’s in my collection. I will be dusting off my videotapes this weekend to find out!

  2. KimWilson says:

    John, fine work here, You’re right about this film being perhaps more relevant today than back in 1936. It is shocking to see Stevie get killed, but I think it adds depth to the movie. Without a doubt, Donat would have been better than Loder.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Kim, Yes, his death is a shocker but we live, unfortunately, with this kind of thing way too much these days.

  3. The Lady Eve says:

    John, “Sabotage” is a film I always think I have seen, but haven’t. Or, at least, I haven’t seen anything but the sequences that are sometimes featured in Hitchcock documentaries. I believe I’ve somehow confused it with “Secret Agent” and “Saboteur.” Excellent write-up, and thank you for straightening me out. Poor John Loder, how lacking in charisma he was. The first role of his that always comes to mind is Charlotte Vale’s colorless fiance in “Now, Voyager.” Paul Henreid had no competition there…

    • John Greco says:

      Loder unfortunately is just plain bland white bread. It’s a shame Donat did not get the role. Hope you get to see this, I’m pretty sure you will like it. i myself still need to see SECRET AGENT,

      • The Lady Eve says:

        It seems Donat’s athsma was really disruptive to his career. Such a talent but only 20 or so films to his credit. I like “Secret Agent,” and hope you have a chance to see it (and review it).

  4. Mike says:

    I think of all Hitchcock’s early British films, this is probably the most underrated. I completely agree with your view that Stevie’s death not only works but makes for a powerful turning point in the film, and whilst John Loder may do little more than tick the boxes, this is more than made up for by Oscar Homolka’s sinister yet not entirely unemotional turn, like a diabolical cross between Bela Lugosi and Edward G Robinson. Great write-up.

    • John Greco says:

      This film is definitely underrated. For me, it belongs up there with his best British work. It’s one of his definitive works from this period. Homolka is cold, cold, cold in this role. While I liked him a lot here, I wonder how Peter Lorre would have done in this role. I think I read somewhere that by the time this film was made Hitch and Lorre were no longer on good terms so the possiblity of working together again was remote. Thanks for the kind words. Will check out our blog.

  5. Judy says:

    I haven’t seen this one but am trying to catch up with more Hitchcock so I will look out for it – I believe it comes on TV sometimes in the UK. I know Donat also nearly lost his part opposite Dietrich in ‘Knight without Armour’ the following year because of his asthma, and, although he did manage to hang on that time, his illness disrupted the filming – a shame more couldn’t be done to help him. Anyway, will look forward to seeing this film.

    • John Greco says:

      Judy, hope you catch up with this one. It’s a must see in the Hitchcock filmography. Donat was a charming actor. I always saw him as an equilvant of Cary Grant.

      • Judy says:

        John, just discovered the one they are always showing on TV in the UK is ‘Saboteur’ – can’t think how I mixed it up with ‘Sabotage’!! Anyway, this one is a great film too, so I’m glad to have been put on to it. And will continue to look out for ‘Sabotage’…

  6. Sam Juliano says:

    John, there is no doubt that all things considered this particular Hitchcock is often underestimated or simply ignored. With a catalogue like the one Hitch owns it’s understandable, and one could only imagine what reputation the film would now boast if the prolific master had not done as much as he had. You do a stupendous job in examining the film’s crucial scenes, historical maturation and artistry. One of your finest!

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Sam, I think this is one of those films that has botten better with age, epsecially considering the subject matter. Appreciate your thoughts.

  7. Such a great movie, and your review did it justice. I also liked Hitchock’s thoughts on suspense which you’ve included – so true!

  8. classicfilmtvcafe says:

    John, while it’s not one of my favorite Hitchcock, it’s never less than interesting and always seems to stir up a good with the bus scene.

  9. DorianTB says:

    John, I very much enjoyed your absorbing review of SABOTAGE (or A WOMAN ALONE, if you prefer :-))! As a mom, I couldn’t help getting teary-eyed at poor Stevie’s terrible fate, as well as Sylvia Sidney’s performance as Mrs. Verloc, especially considering the terrible real-life violence and the loss of innocent lives, as we’ve all seen in all too many real-life newspapers and TV broadcasts nowadays. John Loder isn’t a bad actor, just an uninteresting actor; he’s like the Ralph Bellamy of SABOTOGE! Ah, what could have been if Robert Donat had been in better health! Still, it’s so well done in so many ways, and even merely okay Hitchcock is better than many other filmmakers’ best work. Superb review, John, as always!

    • John Greco says:


      I found Loder rather dull. I agree,he’s not a bad actor, he just seem to lack any king of charisma. The scene on the bus is still shocking and I think that’s what keep this film relevant.

  10. […] perhaps. Letting the audience in on a secret can be powerfully involving (speaking of Hitchcock and suspense vs. surprise). But that’s a quibble, really. The creative brilliance in the storytelling stands out for […]

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