d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 86 mins.
Note: The following review contains a significant spoiler.
Filmed as the specter of World War II loomed over Europe, Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage is a moderately successful thriller that is slightly meandering at times but contains a rather explosive scene that has reverberated in Hitchcock lore.
The plot concerns a band of Eastern European anarchists who have unspecified politics and are planning acts of terrorism in England. (Their worldview and their plans are, of course, MacGuffins.) The film's leading anarchist, a German-accented movie theater owner named Mr. Verloc (Oscar Homolka), has come under suspicion for his affiliations and has come to be investigated by his relatively naive wife (Sylvia Sidney) and a dashing undercover police officer (John Loder), who, much like romantic interests in other Hitchcock films, was a pure concoction of the director's imagination. (Robert Donat, still the director's darling boy since The 39 Steps, was lobbied hard to take on the role of the undercover agent. He did accept, but his chronic asthma left him with acute bronchitis and he had to bow out.)
Sabotage was based on the 1907 novel The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, but was renamed because Hitchcock had just previously released a movie called Secret Agent. As Patrick McGilligan notes, The Secret Agent was a major work by Conrad that had earned respect in the pantheon of literary critics, but "even so, Hitchcock felt free to take his usual liberties with the material." He dropped characters, modified elements, and upped the tension where he saw fit, including the film's most famous sequence. Mrs. Verloc's young brother, a barely pubescent boy named Stevie, is tasked by the anarchist to deliver a box for an errand that is loaded with a bomb.
Hitchcock famously observed that when you put a bomb under a table and it suddenly explodes, that's surprise; but when you put a bomb under the table and the audience knows it's there, that's suspense. By that standard alone, the sequence with Stevie and the bomb on the bus is one of Hitchcock's all-time great practices in creating eye-popping tension. (I'd also add to that list the moment in Rear Window where Thorwald, understanding that Lisa is showing the ring on her finger to someone across the apartment courtyard, chillingly peers back at Jeff through the binoculars.) The bomb makers have gone incognito as a pet shop, and the warning for the bomb we're given is, "The birds will sing at 1:45." Stevie, aloof and giddy on the bus with the box in his lap, looks out the window, unaware that he is taking the bomb to its intended target. But then the bus stalls in stop-and-go traffic. The camera flows in point-of-view shots as Hitchcock gives the viewer mobile glances of street clocks and clocks on on buildings, each time bringing us closer and closer to 1:45, and it becomes immediately apparent that Stevie is not going to make it to the target – a plus, sure – but that he is still holding the box. The explosion, unfairly deemed heartless and cruel on Hitchcock's part, unravels Verloc's ties to terrorism.
So, what works in the film? Well, the bus sequence, undoubtedly. Hitchcock also stages a masterful scene where Mr. Verloc meets with his contact at the London Zoo Aquarium, backs toward the camera and partially silhouetted as they talk at a near inaudible level and a wide shot of the animals swimming through the gigantic tank. Furthermore, there's a bizarre sequence about two-thirds of the way into the film where one of Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies is screened in Verloc's movie theater at the same time of heightened dramatic tension. (McGilligan: Hitchcock frequently cited Walt Disney as one of his favorite filmmakers and "had the best breed of actors because he could always rub them out if he didn't like their performances.) Mrs. Verloc also brings her husband to his eternal justice in a brazen and shockingly fast moment that initially seems to be a cop-out but later strikes you as remarkably economic.
Sabotage is one of Hitchcock's British films that has an undeniable cult following among the director's devotees, but it's never been a movie I've found to be particularly captivating. It was criticized upon its release for its utter bleakness (in hindsight, we know the bleakest days of Europe were still a few years off from 1936). But I don't feel it's that bleak; I find its early and emotional depiction of the harsh realities of terrorism to be intellectually satisfying. Instead, I think Sabotage falters on a few basic cinematic levels. The acting isn't great (Hitchcock and Sidney butted horns behind the scenes) and the script isn't taut enough. I will readily admit it's near-impossible to pan, however, and it's growing in critical status today, due to its interesting formal elements and its position among Hitchcock's British spy series. And, fortunately for the viewer, it's a film that emerges relatively closer to good than mediocre.
10 October 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 86 mins.