It’s that time again, time to dive into the past and look back at the films of Alfred Hitchcock – at the reasonable rate of one a week – which is what this blog does, and what I do along with it because I write it and also I don’t want the blog to get lonely.
This week we’re in the solid middle of six British suspense films that Hitchcock made in the 1930’s and a very solid entry into what I would call his “domestic thrillers” with a look at darkness and light in Sabotage.
Released in America as The Woman Alone, Sabotage begins with a dictionary definition – almost harkening back to the silent film days of Hitch’s early years. The definition lays out the meaning of the word sabotage, and the subject of the film – but that’s not what the movie is really about. For that we must wait for the very next shot…
A light bulb glows in London. And as people go about their business, the city suddenly goes dark. It’s a black-out – and everyone takes notice. That’s your movie right there – darkness and light. In the electrical plant, the authorities discover sand in the works and decide that it was an act of sabotage!
At the local cinema, the crowd is demanding their money back as Mr. Verloc played by (Oscar Homolka) returns home. He goes to wash his hands and we see sand in the basin. He’s guilty! But downstairs, his suspiciously young wife, Mrs. Verloc (played by the bland-faced Sylvia Sidney) doesn’t know anything about her husband’s evil tendencies. She struggles with the patrons, helped by the handsome young green grocer’s store employee next store (remember that Hitchcock’s father owned a green grocer’s) and eventually the lights all come back on.
The next day, Verloc meets with a contact in the dark shadows at the London zoo aquarium and it’s revealed that he’s a member of a ring of sabotaging spies! The contact however isn’t happy with Verloc’s little black-out stunt. It made the people laugh, but the spies want screams. The contact says Verloc won’t get paid until he does something more drastic and sends Verloc to a local bird-store owner, who deals in death. Verloc is trapped and agrees.
Meanwhile, at Scotland Yard, the police suspect Verloc, and oh yes – the handsome man from the green grocer’s is actually an undercover officer (played by the okay I guess John Loder) named Ted spencer! Ted is assigned to find out more about Verloc, and starts to ingratiate himself with the family and with Mrs. Verloc’s young brother, Stevie.
Verloc goes to visit the bomb maker at the bird shop (Hitch would revisit The Birds later on) and the bomb maker tells him that the bomb is to be placed at Picadilly Station at 1:45 PM on Saturday. We watch the bomb-maker set the timer on the bomb for 1:45 and Verloc learns that the package will be delivered to him on the day.
That night, while meeting with his evil spy friends, Verloc discovers that Ted the grocer is actually a police officer – and that he’s under suspicion of Sabotage. He asks his wife if she knew anything about it and Mrs. Verloc denies it – but the damage is done.
When the bomb is delivered to Verloc the next day, along with some canaries for Stevie, (birds always go with death in Hitchcock) Verloc notices that Ted is lurking outside waiting to follow him – so Verloc gives the bomb to Stevie – telling the boy to leave the package at Picadilly Station. Stevie is also returning some film cans. Stevie heads off to do the task and Verloc waits – anxiously.
Then, in a master class of filmmaking, Hitch takes youg Stevie through London – distracted at every turn, and unaware that a time bomb ticks in his hand. As Stevie makes his slow way to his destination, we cut to various clocks he passes – and then Stevie gets on a bus… and meets an old lady with a puppy. And then, while playing with a puppy, next to an old lady, young Stevie forgets his troubles.. .until the bomb goes off, killing them all!
Back at the house, Verloc confesses to his wife – but he’s turned cold by the act – and is now a threatening man – and what’s more, Ted is on the case! Later on, in ANOTHER amazing sequence – while eating dinner Verloc and his now, understandably angry wife, share a tense dinner – and then both spy a knife, and both think that the other can’t be trusted. Soon, Mrs Verloc grabs the knife, there’s a struggle – and much like Blackmail, Mr. Verloc ends up dead – and she is left holding the blade.
Soon, policeman Ted finds Mrs. Verloc and confesses his love for her – they kiss and he tries to help cover up her killing of her husband, except just as the police arrive, the bomb-maker shows up to get back the canaries – which tie him to Verloc and gets stuck in a crossfire, during which he explodes a bomb! The bomb kills the bomb-maker and also destroys any evidence that Mrs. Verloc killed her husband. All ends well, except that Stevie and a puppy are dead because Hitchcock is a sicko.
Sabotage has slowly been gaining respect over the years, and is now – justly, I think – considered a Hitchcock classic. It’s seriously brilliant, but more for the technique and mastery Hitchcock shows in making it, than for the film itself as a whole.
Let’s start with the good, and there’s a lot of it. Sabotage is tightly plotted and so intensely focused on the drama and tension within and around the Verloc family that every scene radiates with some level of either desperate suspense or urgent fear. The way Hitch has learned to film and cut a scene – to maintain tension while two people only think about a knife, not even touch it mind you – just think about it. It’s amazing.
And nowhere is this deep understanding of film more evident than in Stevie’s fateful and final trip to Picadilly Circus. The cutting between the packed bomb and Stevie and the various clocks he passes – all while counting down to his inevitable, yet unfathomable, death is perfection. People talk about Hitchcock being a “master of suspense” and sequences like this are why.
Filmmaking mastery aside, the film is also classic for its bold (and probably shocking for the age) screenplay. Based on a novel by Joseph Conrad and adapted by Charles Bennet (who’s been doing all of Hitch’s movies recently), the screenplay takes something simple and familiar – a movie theatre, a bird shop, a family, an aquarium – and with every turn Bennet peels back the mundane facade and shows the danger lurking behind every corner. Plus, what other script would or has ever had the guts to dare kill a puppy and a boy all at once.
As for the bad, there’s the acting – especially John Loder (playing the undercover policeman) and Sylvia Sidney. Both see, at times to be just outclassed by the material. Oscar Homolka is great and strangely sympathetic as a terrorist and saboteur unwilling to take a life, but even his imposing fearful eyes can’t help Loder and Sidney find enough facial expressions to consistently convey their fear. And the romance that blossoms between them is as awkward as it is convenient.
Still, and luckily for us, Sabotage isn’t a movie of performance – it’s a movie of moments and shots and in that sense, Hitchcock takes us all to school.
Liberally adapted from Joseph Conrad’s highly regarded novel, Sabotage was originally written to star The 39 Steps‘ Robert Donat as the undercover policeman – but Donat suffered from severe asthma, and couldn’t get healthy in time for shooting – leaving Hitch to aim a little lower in his casting choices.
Filmed almost immediately after completing The Secret Agent, Hitchcock even had camera crews sent out to film background scenes and shots around London before editing on the previous film had completed. He was definitely a man who knew what he wanted.
And when it came to actual production, Hitch was so adept at the mechanics of film that it seems like his scenes just fell together. Only star Sylvia Sidney seems to have had a bad time on the production – as she and Hitchcock would never get along very well, and Hitch himself would later remark on how hard it was to get any kind of expression from the actress. Sidney, for her part, would always claim to not really understand the filmmaking process and the idea of just turning a performance on or off for the camera and she would often require a great deal of lead up in order to get into the emotion of a scene. (This was all in spite of having previously acted in several films)
One curious and fun bit of the film is the inclusion of a Walt Disney cartoon sequence – involving birds of course – which plays in the Verloc’s movie theatre at one point. Hitch apparently had to get Disney’s approval for the element, and Walt Disney’s name amusingly enough appears in the opening credits! An odd combination if there ever was one.
In the end, Sabotage was released in 1936 to slightly tepid reviews and responses from the audience – but critics soon warmed to the harsh suspense and everyone commented on Hitch’s mastery of film suspense. Hitchcock himself would later blame the film’s reception on his killing of Stevie – but I think he would have left it as is if given the chance.
A combination of two earlier films (Blackmail and The Lodger), and also the first pure example of Hitchcock’s “domestic thrillers”, Sabotage is Hitch at his creepy best.
Taking the concept of “the man you love might be a killer” from The Lodger and adding in the “a policeman that loves me helps me cover up a murder I committed” concept from Blackmail, Hitch turned Sabotage into a nod to his filmic past – and also a great look at what was to come.
In later years movies like Shadow Of A Doubt and Strangers On A Train and Rope would come to personify the Hitchcock touch – those small little murders and the deep sense that we weren’t safe, even in our own homes with the people we loved and thought we knew. That very particular and domestic terror was crystallized for Hitch is this film. Sabotage is the first example of Hitch digging his fingers into the potential of the theme, and while he would go on to do it better – the seeds sown here permeate all over his career.
And then there’s the birds. Sabotage might be thematically about darkness and light (the flickering screen, the blackout, the shadows of the aquarium, the light of discovery) but it’s the evil of winged things that really stands out here. Hitchcock didn’t seem to have any actual fear of birds, but he saw early on the potential they had for instilling unease in an audience. And while he’d definitely explore that idea later on, not just in The Birds, but in Psycho and The Lady Vanishes and even Hitchcock’s very next picture, Young and Innocent.
Sabotage also includes some religious imagery (nuns laughing) there’s Hitch’s love of the movies, a green grocer, a knife, Ted the detective is given away by his hands, elements of voyeurism, and of course straight up murder.
Anyhow – it’s a cracking good film and tense as all heck when it comes to the last reel.
Now – unfortunately, and also fortunately, I just started work on a TV show this week, so I might be hard pressed to get a new Hitch done every week, but I’ll keep trying my best. So, HOPEFULLY I’ll see you all next week with a look at Hitchcock’s fun and curiously under seen love and suspense story Young And Innocent.