I have enjoyed Alfred Hitchcock’s films and was delighted to learn about Backlots tribute to the director in Hitchcock for Halloween Blogathon. I decided to focus on the 1936 film, Sabotage, as I appreciate much of Hitchcock’s earlier films, the films he made while still living in England, before Hollywood came calling.
Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel, The Secret Agent, which concerns a spy, his anarchist comrades, and their terrorist acts, Hitchcock took the contents of the novel and moved it from the 1880s to 1936. The film revolves around 4 characters: Karl Verloc, his wife, Mrs. Verloc, Stevie, the teenage brother of Mrs. Verloc, and Sgt. Ted Spencer, from Scotland Yard. While not exactly a “horror” movie, it is suspenseful and takes a look at human evil, with the wanton destruction of innocents by terrorist acts. As I watched the film for the second time, it struck me that the three main adult characters all have secrets.
Karl Verloc(Oscar Homolka) is a seemingly mild-mannered movie theatre owner, an immigrant to London, considered nice by all of his neighbors and associates. We find out early on that he is not as he seems, that he is caught up in an anarchist group, doing deeds of sabotage in the city for money. We aren’t sure if money is his main reason for doing these evil acts for the group or if there is more behind his motives. Homolka, who I had only known previously for his turn in 1948’s I Remember Mama, as blustery Uncle Chris, is much younger in this 1936 movie. He gives a great performance as a conflicted man, nice on the outside but inside, full of darkness, and justifications for his evil acts.
The luminous Sylvia Sydney plays Mrs. Verloc. She reveals that she married Verloc when they lived in America, not for love but for security and gratefulness as Verloc agreed to let her younger brother, Stevie, live with them. We don’t know why she has the sole care of her brother and can only assume that her parents are deceased and that she is Stevie’s only living relative. Ms. Sydney’s large eyes grab the audience in her gaze and she uses them masterfully to express and emote; confusion, bewilderment, and shock. An alternate title for the film was A Woman Alone which put more of the plot on Mrs. Verloc’s shoulders, but I like the Sabotage title better. To me, that title encompasses all of the characters much better. I did read in my research that Sydney didn’t enjoy working with Hitchcock so this was their only collaboration.
Stevie(Desmond Teeter) is perfect as the happy-go-lucky, but awkward teen brother of Mrs. Verloc. With his mop of unruly, wavy hair, his gangly build, he’s the perfect picture of teenage boyhood. Eager to please his sister and her husband, happy with his lot in life as far as we can tell, what happens to him is utterly heartbreaking.
Sgt. Ted Spencer(John Loder) is undercover, working as an assistant at a greengrocer’s shop nextdoor to Verloc’s movie theatre. Scotland Yard, Spencer’s employer, has gotten hints about an ararchist group that Verloc possibly is a member of. Spencer has been put at the greengrocer’s shop in order to keep tabs on Verloc and to ingratiate himself with the family. What he hasn’t counted on was a growing attraction to Mrs. Verloc, whom he wants to try and protect at all costs in case it is proven true that her husband is an anarchist and terrorist.
I looked for HItchcock’s cameo shot and missed it. There are a lot of crowd scenes so I am assuming he is in one of those. Cinematically, what caught my eye were: the opening shot of a page from a dictionary showing the definition of the word Sabotage, a light bulb filmed up close, showing its brightness, then a cut to London at night, all lit up, and its citizens happily moving here and there to whatever interests are theirs for the evening, another quick shot of that lighbulb, only now it’s dimming and then goes out, followed by a second shot of London, of Big Ben, all going dark. Instead of hysteria, the plucky Londoners find candles, matches, torches(flashlights for us Yanks) and happily continue on their way. Then there is another quick shot of men at a power plant examining machinery and they find sand had been put into it, “Sabotage!”, one of the men exclaims. Verloc arriving home, sneaking in so his wife, running the ticket booth won’t see him. He washes off his hands in the bathroom sink and we see sand left behind in the sink, and we know, he is the one who commited the sabotage at the power plant. Another scene that caught my eye was when Verloc has met his anarchist contact at London’s Zoo to find out about the next terrorist job. He has been ordered to deliver a bomb and told who to get the bomb from. After the anarchist has left the Zoo’s aquarium where this latest plan was discussed, Verloc stares at a tank of fish and before his eyes it turns into a group of London buildings that collapse in an explosion, and then this imaginary scene turns back into the fishes swimming in a tank. Lastly, there is the building of suspense as Stevie has been asked by his brother-in-law to unknowingly take a part in the terrorist act, with quick shots of Stevie traveling to a destination to make a 1:30 pm delivery, getting waylaid on his journey by traffic jams, a parade, a street vendor, and cuts to various clocks showing the time. Shots of Stevie, to a clock, and back and forth builds the tension and suspense to a fever pitch. Then the movie has a bit of a calm before the final storm, when Mrs. Verloc realizes that is up to her to stop her husband. With the arrival of Scotland Yard, another anarchist, and Sgt. Spencer, the films ends quite differently than Conrad’s novel does.
Sabotage is shown now and then on Turner Classic Movies, it is available to purchase or view on instant rent at Amazon.com, and it is also available to see via Netflix and it’s also on Hulu. I highly recommend it for the Hitchcock movie fan in your life and it would make a great addition to their movie collection if they don’t have it already!
For a look at an great Hitchcock film prior to his output in Hollywood, look for Sabotage!