Sabotage (1936, Alfred Hitchcock)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

The fourth film in Alfred Hitchcock’s so-called “thriller sextet,” the six fast-moving, reputation-making suspense pictures he made for the Gaumont studio in the middle to late 1930s, is unquestionably the darkest of all, and the most quintessentially British. It depicts a London already teeming with chaos and on the precipice — though Hitchcock couldn’t possibly know how correct this was — of some kind of doom. Taken from Joseph Conrad’s ruthless and difficult 1907 novel The Secret Agent (which, confusingly, shares its title with Hitchcock’s previous film, actually based on some of Somerset Maugham’s personal experiences), it tells the story of a mild-mannered terrorist hiding in plain sight as the proprietor of a small movie house. He is Mr. Verloc, played by the superficially sinister but kindly Austrian actor Oskar Homolka, and there is so much more to him — and to the film — besides what we initially suspect. Despite Hitchcock’s usual tactic of stripping and simplifying his source material, this is one of the most novelistic films he ever made, with nearly every scene rife with remarkable detail to generate sufficient lingering consternation for a full week’s worth of nightmares.

Sabotage is a dark, draining film because of its surrender to chaos. Well before his more studied American era, he presents an unforgiving, shadowy world with few elaborate effects and comparatively little stunt editing to distract us from the sheer horror, a horror generated wholly by people and their misplaced motives. Apart from Vertigo and perhaps Shadow of a Doubt, it’s probably his most unsettling creation — even when compared to the often arresting bleakness glimpsed in other films of the Sextet, particularly Secret Agent, it stands out for its unsentimental realism and its reluctance to temper its despair with humor (in fact, in one sequence, its direct rebuttal to such practices).

Homolka’s Verloc is, like John Gielgud in Hitchcock’s previous film, a reluctant killer, whose secret life in a spy ring bent on the destruction of London has origins never made totally clear to us, which is all the better for the sense of mystery and inevitability it adds to the story. (The great weakness of Conrad’s novel is frankly its tendency to over-explain.) The cinema, called the Bijou and situated on a phony London street you’d swear wasn’t a constructed set (it was built in the middle of an empty field, exposed to the elements, but artificial all the same) for how beautifully it evokes the bustling, unforgiving London later visible in Frenzy, serves as a front and occasionally as the group’s meeting place. Verloc is unaware that one of the employees of the greengrocer next door is a government official with his eyes peeled.

But there’s a personal element: Verloc and his wife Winnie, a sweet and tough Sylvia Sidney, and her younger brother Stevie, both unaware of Mr. Verloc’s secret life, live together above the theater. After a blackout orchestrated by Verloc fails to generate much fear in the city and after many of his associates bow out for fear of their activities being detected, the uneasy situation culminates in Stevie being unknowingly tasked with the delivery of a bomb (hidden next to a couple of film cans in a bit of cruel, self-referential irony) all the way across town in precious little time. Hitchcock establishes the boy’s clumsiness from his first frame on the screen, and his awkward fumbling in crowds leads to his brutal death, still stuck on a bus, an accidental suicide bomber.

When the news finally floods back to Winnie, she is beyond shaken, stumbling into the theater in which the Silly Symphony cartoon Who Killed Cock Robin? is playing, distant from the proceedings as awareness sinks in, laughing hysterically, her mind reeling with grief and revelation. When one bird in the cartoon violently kills another, she is sent over the edge. This is the picture of the impact of war and its disregard for life upon innocence, upon common sense, upon real people. Her trauma becomes ours. At the dinner table — in a truly remarkable series of shots and cuts — Verloc vainly attempts to justify the accident; he has the audacity to try and comfort her by assuring her that they could “have a kid” of their own. Several point-of-view shots find her taking an almost robotic revenge (when someone later asks her what happened, she is nonchalant and broken: “He killed Stevie”). In one psychologically monstrous shot, she is followed by a stationary camera after his death, stumbling back toward a chair to cope with her new madness, with the bottom portion of his corpse still in the foreground. The evidence of her own guilt is destroyed when the building goes down in a fire and she, the one survivor of the three residents, leaves with the “grocer”…. but as in Blackmail, she will always remember where instincts led her, and the complete justification of it will not provide any comfort, perversely because she is alone in her anguish; no one knows, except the very nice cop who seems like something of a cipher. In this context the chilling final frames of both Blackmail and John Boorman’s Deliverance — the surfacing body bringing a nightmare back into daylight — feel almost merciful.

The motivation for this film’s unforgiving nature is obvious given the time and place of its production release — 1936 Britain — but Hitchcock’s impassioned, complex glare into the eyes of the enemy retains its resonance today precisely because it was so vital in its period. Staring into the abyss, what Hitchcock and his audience see is not a simplistic, elementary version of what we call evil; there are no clear-cut morals here, or at least not enough for them for us to thoroughly rebuke Verloc until his absence of shame (as Leonard Leff put it) becomes known to us. Hitchcock himself later doubted the necessity of the picture’s harsh impact, as did many moviegoers, particularly in the scene involving the death of the young Stevie. But without the boy’s death, Sabotage would lose its soul. It is only through such radical loss that the message, and the unspeakably moving experience of being so completely in the shoes and the heart of a woman who must take revenge, can be delivered. (The film’s American title, The Woman Alone, eloquently evokes one of the director’s most consistent themes and conflicts.)

But if the message seems mixed, that’s because of the intricacies of the people and their story. Most curious is the nature of Verloc’s relationship with his wife, much younger than him and hardly affectionate. Whole avenues of speculation and enigma are opened up; why does her brother live with them? Why does he have a different accent? And why does the couple’s relationship seem so cordial, and cold? They never call one another by their names, and there’s an oppressive formality to their interactions. Winnie comments upon how unfailingly kind her husband is almost with a sense of exasperation. So many questions persist. This movie — full of cinematic references, making full use of its setting — brings us a glimpse at the pregnancy of every moment, of the mysteries and secrets in this tiny world in which people make their time (as claustrophobic as Blackmail, despite again all of London at its disposal), and it’s so crucially an urban middle class setting and an impressionistic portrait of what seems like a real and tragic human story. The people and places are so evocative, the story is almost simply an excuse for us to be engrossed within them.

To be fair, nothing works without Hitchcock’s powerful flair with the camera; his photography is more a fly on the wall here than usual, capturing the delicate, at times beautifully ugly intensity of individual moments — an uncomfortable meeting between Verloc and an informer in front of an aquarium, and in particular the infamously terrifying Disney sequence, which Pauline Kael correctly argued as one of the most upsetting and brilliant scenes in Hitchcock. (Sabotage contains many moments that would belong in any list of the director’s signature moments if it were better known.) It seems as though he lives inside this film and has examined every possible connotation for his characters; that’s always true to an extent, but it’s a skill not used in service of so achingly real and tragic a story since Blackmail.

Perhaps Hitchcock’s foremost fascination in Sabotage, as in Secret Agent and destined to recur many times hence, is the inevitable clash between duty and everyday life, a clash which in this case becomes deadly — Verloc’s indecision balancing his impulse against loss of human life and his need for money, to say nothing of his disgust at the seamy London in which he’s engulfed, epitomized by a chilling scene involving a bird shop owner, actually a bomb maker, played by William Dewhurst, whose grown daughter looks on at him with open contempt, another broken home left unexplained to us but with its dynamic nevertheless painfully clear. The theme manifests as well in Winnie’s tormented moments forcing her essentially to choose between her dear brother and her husband, to say nothing of Stevie’s easily-distracted tendencies that lead to the massacre of numerous people (and at least one dog) on a bus.

It’s often stated that the major flaw of Sabotage, assuming one does not adopt the silly fiction that Stevie’s death is superfluous, is the character of Sgt. Spencer, the Scotland Yard investigator posing as a greengrocer (not insignificantly, Hitchcock’s father’s occupation), and consequently the performance of John Loder in that role — initially intended for Robert Donat. Loder is a clean-cut heroic “perfect” type who seems like a compromise and does perform the part more blandly than Donat would’ve, as Hitchcock would argue. Yet the performance’s relative anonymity — compared to Sidney and Homolka, both of whom are outstanding — strikes this viewer as to some extent quite appropriate. Loder can’t fully be blamed in the first place; Homolka, playing a rough draft of Claude Rains’ unforgettable Sebastian in Notorious, is given so much to work with — Verloc is intimidating by his sheer form but is a mouse when confronted by secretive associates, married to a much younger woman with whom he seems to share little if any affection, and he lives with her teenage brother, for whom he seems to hold a certain amount of quiet disdain. In the end, perhaps the point is that a simplistic hero with seemingly little inner life can do nothing to stop a complicated villain.

As a result, Sgt. Spencer — for all his derring-do and his impressive ability to ingratiate himself with Winnie and Stevie if not Mr. Verloc — accomplishes basically nothing in his attempts to put a wringer in the terrorist’s plans. He joins the film’s list of cinematic meta-references. It almost feels like a deliberate invasion of Hollywood stereotype in a story that is all too real. This is supported by the centering of the action around the theater. Two conclusions, then: 1) Because the “hero” is so idealized, he is a cardboard do-gooder who makes attempt after attempt to “save the day,” and even seems to think he has done something at the close of the film by just contributing half-hearted consolation to a widow, when a busload of people including at least one young boy are dead and the movie theater is engulfed in fire. 2) If he were a more realistic or interesting character, the movie would make far less sense; perversely, by enhancing the character, it would be taking the easy way out because it would support the notion that for the “woman alone,” there is always some hunk nearby to take care of everything.

And despite the fact that the director moved his operations to the U.S. just four years after making Sabotage, there is a possibility of some anti-Hollywood commentary in the piece, with what might be construed as (at the height of the Depression, with war in Europe three years away) the Dream Factory’s ignorance of and distance from the real world. Escape from reality can be sweet and welcome, but simple dreams personified — like the next-door nice guy in the movie — are more hollow than we want to imagine, and become just another part of the swirling nightmare. This is more eloquently, subtly stated here than in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, which uses all this as its thesis.

Beyond that, the same idea of Hollywood “romantic heroism” and its lack of contact with reality is repeated more explicitly in the thematically similar Shadow of a Doubt (almost immediately after meeting Teresa Wright, a detective tells her he is in love with her, a notion she finds rather laughable) and, later, in both The Birds and Marnie. It’s probably not a coincidence that these four movies that comment directly on a certain emptiness of fantasy are among the director’s darkest works.

Sabotage is too involving and realistic — so much so that it’s frightening, because it can’t be trusted to comfort us — to wrap things up tidily. Winnie walks away with Sgt. Spencer into the throngs of people in London, but her emotional state is left unresolved. She is reeling as the film fades suddenly, and there is no sense of relief or closure whatsoever, especially with the knowledge that Verloc’s death will not mark the end of the deadly plans he was carrying out; there’s a kind of fatalism in a Scotland Yard official’s early comment that those actually responsible for terrorism in London are permanently out of the reach of law enforcement. We’re also left struggling on a smaller scale with the ambiguity of Sabotage‘s messages, with the relative calm and kindly nature of its villain and the arrogance of its hero, the leading lady’s status as a murderer and the dead child’s deeply ironic sealing of his own fate. The bleakness of it all haunts permanently, because in contrast to the usual Hitchcock tale, it’s all too believable.

The following year, Hitchcock would attempt to integrate the lessons he learned in Sabotage, as well as some traces of its unrelenting blackness and its fixation upon ordinary people, into a more crowd-pleasing narrative without such broad political implications. Like the rest of the Sextet, this juxtaposition speaks to the versatility of both the director himself and to his chief collaborator during this time, Charles Bennett, who scripted all but one of the films in the series. Indeed, across the annals of Hitchcock’s filmography, this is one of the least “fun” of his works, but it’s also among the most fascinating, and the invitation it extends to a brief, nasty bird’s eye view of a decrepit city in an ominous time that could finally be most any terrible city at any terrible time instills a kind of dread and fear that the director would seldom attempt to match.


[Expansion and cleanup of a review of the film from 2004 as well as an additional essay about John Loder’s character from 2006.]

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