Sabotage (1936) Alfred Hitchcock

sabotageMore than seventy years after its release, Sabotage remains relevant today. In fact, it is arguably 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 the couple, in an apartment above the cinema, is Mrs. Verloc’s much younger brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester), whose death in the film sparks its most famous, and most infamous, sequence.

Sabotage (1936)Hitchcock sets up the opening moments with a nice sequence of shots. First a dictionary page explaining the definition of the word sabotage as the opening credits appear. This is followed by a series of shots as the city of London loses its electric power. Next we see two investigators identify the cause…sabotage. Finally, 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 reported Londoner’s mostly enjoyed the happenstance and laughed it off. Verloc soon meets with his contact at a local Aquarium where he is told, 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 as we will see. For Hitchcock, birds would become a recurring motif appearing in many of his films (Psycho, To Catch a Thief and The Birds).

sabotagesylviaThe adaptation of Conrad’s short novel was written by Hitchcock regular, Charles Bennett (The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Foreign Correspondent) with dialogue assistance from Ian Hay and Helen Simpson. The title change from the source novel was necessary since Hitchcock’s previous film was called Secret Agent. That film was based on a Somerset Maugham novel called Ashenden.

In the essential Hitchcock/Truffaut interview book, the French director/critic says 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. Unfortunately, the actor 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 Loder. Whatever the reason, as the 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 investigates the possibility of whether Mrs. Verloc has any knowledge of her husband’s subversive activities, he begins to develop a crush on the married lady. The charismatic Robert Donat would have definitely added a smoother Cary Grant kind of charm to the detective than the characterless John Loder could pull off.

Hitchcock himself had another problem he thought was wrong with the film. He felt he made a major mistake in showing young Stevie 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. However, 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. We just have to think back to the 2005 series of coordinated public transportation bombings in London, including a double-decker bus. We have also over the last few years read of young kids being used to carry bombs in various terrorist attacks.

In the movie, the fact we have come to like the boy only makes it all 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)

Sabotage TheaterA second memorable sequence follows the young boy’s death after Mr. Verloc confesses to his wife he is responsible for the boy’s death, though https://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/wp-admin/media-new.phphe then goes on to blame Scotland Yard. Mrs. Verloc, in shock, wanders into the theater where the audience is enjoying the Disney Silly Symphony cartoon, Who Killed Cock Robin? 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 shakes Mrs. Verloc back to reality. Overcome with grief, we find Mrs. Verloc back in the apartment, in an almost robotic state 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.  Verloc soon realizes what his wife is contemplating. He gets up, approaches her and attempts to take the knife, but she grabs it first, stabbing him…or does he walk into the knife killing himself? The way the scene is shot, Hitchcock seems to leave us with this bit of ambivalence.

Sylvia Sidney was a popular American actress at the time Sabotage was made. She was working with prominent directors like Fritz Lang whom with she just finished making the anti-lynch mob film, Fury. At first, both Sidney and Hitchcock looked forward to collaborating with each other, but soon after production began, they quickly came to dislike one another. 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 all the small pieces of celluloid would come together.

                                             Sabotage

The British critics were somewhat harsh in their reviews, knocking Hitchcock for being “callous” in killing the young boy.  In America, where Hitchcock was still regulated to the art house circuit, the film was released under the title, The Woman Alone. Critics in the U.S. were more charitable and considered it a fine follow up to The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too MuchSabotage remains one of Hitchcock’s darkest works right up there in its bleakness with The Wrong Man, Vertigo and Psycho.  It’s one his finest films from his British period.

Footnotes:

(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 put 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. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”  From Hitchcock/Truffaut Interview Book. (Page 73)

This article is part of the CMBA “Fabulous Films of the 30’s” Blogathon that runs through May 1st. You can read more entries in this series by clicking on this link…http://clamba.blogspot.com/2015/04/cmba-spring-blogathon-fabulous-films-of.html

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18 comments on “Sabotage (1936) Alfred Hitchcock

  1. Sadly, I wholeheartedly agree that this film is even more meaningful today. I love Hitchcock’s British films – they stand on their own, of course, but you can also see the evolution towards his master works. Excellent post – I enjoyed it very much and wish I could ditch work today and pop in a few early Hitchcocks to while the day away (and scare the beejeezus out of me).

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    • John Greco says:

      Marsha, So true that with Hitchcock’s British films you see can see his growth. His British films definitely stand on their own.

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  2. I never knew this was based on a Conrad novel, which helps explain its eerie appeal. I’ve always thought this film made me feel more unsettled in Hitchcock’s other films, as it was clear that no one was safe. You’re right about the detective. Entirely forgettable.

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    • John Greco says:

      That no one was safe feeling is what helps make it so relevant today. I think we all feel their is a danger wherever we go and wherever we live. Sadly so.

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  3. I wouldn’t say it’d seemed totally farfetched– the first world war had seen more than a fair share of sabotage and terrorist acts, sadly, though it would have been out of the ordinary by 36. But you’re right, the murder of the child is utterly shocking, and probably why this one stands out in a director’s filmography is nothing but standouts. This is probably my favorite of his 30s films, because it has a both kind of weird anger and sympathy toward Verloc. I don’t think a movie about German saboteurs released a few years later would be quite so ambiguous with its ending or even a tiny bit sympathetic..

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    • John Greco says:

      Danny, true enough what you say about World War 1. First time I watched this film I was completely shocked by the young boys death. I imagine audiences of the day were completely upset by it. The sympathy for Verloc is interesting. Today, you would be hard pressed to find someone sympathetic toward a terrorist act except for another terrorist.

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  4. I’m another one who was completely shocked that the young boy was killed. I couldn’t believe it! However, that scene was so well done – as only Hitchcock could do.

    I love Silvia Sidney in this film. She has a heavy weight to carry and she does it well.

    Fabulous choice for the blogathon!

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks! I include this film as one of Hitchcock’s best of his British period. Sidney is really good here. As you say she has a lot of weight to carry.

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  5. There is an atmosphere of dread hanging over the picture that makes it both an uncomfortable and mesmerizing watch. I wouldn’t have thought of it off the top of my head as one of the “Fabulous Films of the 30s”, but now I won’t think of it as anything else.

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  6. Great piece, John. In the 20s and 30s there was an almost paranoiac fear of “anarchists.” (Think Sacco and Vanzetti.) I particularly like your description of the way Sylvia Sydney overcame her initial confusion and resistance to Hitchcock’s style of visualizing the action as a series of sometimes apparently disconnected shots. Hitchcock was obsessed with manipulating audience reaction and when the bus explosion (and the false flashback in “Stage Fright”) didn’t have the desired result, he was crushed.

    Desmond Tester, who played Sidney’s young brother, was a conscientious objector during WWII and it ended its career. He later moved to Australia. Here’s what he said about “Sabotage” in an interview: “I did enjoy working with him [Hitchcock] because he had an easy manner. I liked he way he would work you up and play a practical joke on you.” About the bomb scene he says: “I was indignant that Hitch put an old lady and a puppy in the scene for sympathy rather than leaving it all to me…. I was a believer in real drama as distinct from rigged thrills and suspense.”

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    • John Greco says:

      When Danny Reid, in his comment, mentioned arnarchists I immediately thought of Sacco and Vanzetti. Thanks for the background information on Desmond Tester, I was completely unaware of his history.

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  7. Rick says:

    Great review, John. I’m so glad you mentioned the Hitchcock/Truffaut book, which is my favorite about the making of movies. I’m with you on the bus scene–it’s shocking and instills the film with an “anything can happen” element. That creates its own suspense from that point forward. For me, Sidney and Loder are minor liabilities, but Homolka is quite good. Hitchcock was often more interested in his villains, especially when the leads weren’t charismatic stars like Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Robert Donat.

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    • John Greco says:

      The Hitchcock/Truffaut book is a must for anyone seriously interested in film. I agree with you on Homolka. He’s good and that Hitch did have a lot more interest in the villains.

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  8. Wonderful review! I’m not as familiar with Hitchcock’s British films as I should be, but your review has made me want to learn more! Thank you for a fun read!

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  9. John Greco says:

    Thanks Cameron! I don’t know what you have seen but this film, The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, The Man Who Knew Too Much and silent films like The Lodger, Murder and Blackmail are all must sees.

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  10. Gavin Lockey says:

    Thanks John for this comprehensive review of a movie that remains one of my Hitchcock favourites. It is a movie that, more than 39 Steps or The Lady Vanishes, resonates on further viewing. It has great depth. I find Sylvia Sidney both beautiful, sincere and incredibly moving in her role. Homolka is as towering in his performance as Verloc is terrifying in his realism. I think John Loder makes a pretty good stab at the part and was reasonable (far better on film than Gielgud in the 30s.)

    For me, despite the shock of the bus bomb, the boy et al. the pinnacle of the movie is the killing of Homolka by his wife. This is terrifically shot, brilliantly acting and unbearably moving. I read the original Conrad book years before seeing this and I think the essence of Conrad’s book is in this scene and the dark madness of it all is also indicative of the writer.

    Cheers John, and well done Alfred!

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    • John Greco says:

      Gavin, thanks for the kind words. I agree that Sabotage definitely has more depth simply, if for no other reason than the world we live in today. Sylvia’s killing of Homolka is superbly done by Hitch. I love both The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, they are excellent films, but lightweight ,entertainment. Sabotage has gained a depth that these two films don’t have. All in all three of Hitchcock’s best films from his British period.

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