Week 18: Sabotage (1936)

sabotageposter“I had a hell of a time trying to eat my egg on toast in the dark. Half of it’s in my ear, now.”
“If the juice dries up of its own accord, that’s an Act of Providence as laid down in the Act of William the Fourth, where an act is defined as any activity actuated by actual action.”
“When one sets out to put the fear of death into people, it is not helpful to make them laugh. We are not comedians.”
“You must have been showing some funny sort of films, I dare say. You know, perhaps a bit too hot.”
“Don’t forget, the birds will sing at 1:45.”
“Who killed Cock Robin?”
“But she said it before. Or was it after? I can’t remember.”


Had Hitchcock known in advance that his next project would be an adaptation of The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, he might have chosen a different title for Secret Agent. As it was, after a number of title considerations (including the sensationalistic I Married a Murderer) the film was called Sabotage. In an effort to make the story (written in 1907 and set in 1886) more visceral, it was brought into a contemporary setting and the central terrorist organization was changed from an anarchist group to the sinister agents of an unnamed foreign power. It is safe to assume that this power was meant to at least evoke Nazi Germany, but the main saboteur’s name was changed from Adolf to Karl.

sylviasidneyDespite the original’s status as one of Conrad’s most acclaimed novels, Hitchcock hadoskarhomolka his usual lack of compunctions about using the material as simply a springboard for his own ideas. In particular, as with both The 39 Steps and Secret Agent, a major love interest was added (even though the female lead is already married to another man), and the ending, though somewhat bleak, is considerably cheerier than Conrad’s.

johnloderThe production was designed to accommodate major American star Sylvia Sidney, on loan from Hollywood. Sidney plays Mrs. Verloc opposite Austrian actor Oskar Homolka as Mr. Verloc. Homolka went on to garner an Oscar nomination for his performance in I Remember Mama (1948), and appeared in a few episodes of “Alfred Hitchcockdesmondtester Presents.” The true leading man of the film, however, is John Loder as undercover policeman Ted Spencer. Loder was emphatically the second choice for the role; Hitchcock was still pursuing Robert Donat for another film. Unfortunately, Donat was hospitalized due to severe asthma at the time, and Hitch was forced to settle. Young Desmond Tester rounds out the cast as Mrs. Verloc’s half-wit brother, Steve.

sabotage1Sabotage begins with a major power outage striking London, caused by Verloc, the owner of a small cinema house. Amidst the darkness and confusion of the loss of electricity, Verloc slips back home to the theater and sneaks into bed, pretending to have been there all along. Meanwhile, a near-riot is about to breaksabotage2 out in front of the box office, where customers are demanding a refund that the struggling theater can ill-afford. Mrs. Verloc argues with the stubborn crowd, and is both helped and hindered by Ted, a detective from Scotland Yard who is posing as an employee of the greengrocer next-door so he can keep an eye on Verloc.

sparks Ted has a soft spot for Mrs. Verloc, and indeed there seems to be no genuine romance in her business-like marriage to Verloc. He seems to serve the function of caring for her and her brother, while she provides a veneer of respectability and keeps the household running. Verloc’s motives for working as a domestic terrorist are somewhat murkier. He is principled, refusing to participate in anything that will cause loss of life, but also mercenary, seeming to operate chiefly in the interest of supplementing his meager income.

epicfailThe day after the power outage, Verloc meets clandestinely with his superior in an aquarium. Headquarters has declared the previous night’s operation a failure, citing headlines that proclaim “London Laughs at Black-Out.” Verloc’s superior demands something more substantial if Verloc wishes to get paid. He orders Verloc to visit a certain pet store, whose owner happens to run a sideline bomb-making. The bomb is to be placed underneath Piccadilly Circus on the Lord Mayor’s Show Day, when the streets will be filled with crowds. Although Verloc is initially resistant to the idea, he obviously needs the money.

schemingWhile Verloc plots with various fellow terrorists, Ted continues his investigation by pursuing a friendly relationship with Steve and Mrs. Verloc. He concludes that, if Verloc is up to something, his wife is ignorant of it. Matters come to a head when Ted is caught attempting to spy on a meeting of the terrorists and one of them recognizes him as a detective. Verloc knows that he is under surveillance, but the package with the bomb arrives and must be delivered before it goes off at 1:45.

wreckageIn desperation, Verloc sends Steve to deliver the package, warning him of the importance of speed. Steve, however, is easily distracted by the festivities, and dawdles along the way. He boards a bus to make up for lost time, but the bus is caught in traffic. The bomb explodes on schedule, destroying the bus and killing Steve. Meanwhile, Verloc has managed to convince Ted of his innocence, and when news of the bombing arrives, Ted rushes away.

stabbingMrs. Verloc discovers that Steve was caught in the blast when the newspapers mention the discovery in the wreckage of a film canister the boy was carrying. Verloc foolishly divulges his involvement in Steve’s death, making a variety of excuses for himself. Mrs. Verloc ultimately murders him with a knife while serving him his dinner. Ted returns to the cinema to comfort Mrs. Verloc and discovers what has happened. Mrs. Verloc is determined to confess her crime to the police (who are now closing in on Verloc and the pet shop owner who made the bomb), but Ted wants her to run away to France with him.

blasted In the film’s final moments, Mrs. Verloc defies Ted and blurts out the fact that her husband is dead to an inspector. No sooner have the words left her mouth than the theater explodes, destroyed by the bomb-maker (who is inside) and obliterating both him and the evidence of Verloc’s actual cause of death. In the confusion, Ted leads the sobbing woman away down the street, and the inspector cannot remember whether Mrs. Verloc mentioned her husband’s death before or after the blast.

With its love triangle (one angle of which is a sympathetic Scotland Yard detective conveniently assigned to the relevant case) and its London setting, Sabotage is most akin to early Hitchcock films like The Lodger and Blackmail. In fact, its ending is lifted directly from the latter film. “Self-plagiarism,” as Hitchcock liked to say, “is style.” There is plenty of suspense to go around in Sabotage , but unlike the other films of this period there is no mystery. Almost as soon as we know that there has been an act of sabotage, we know who the saboteur is. Ted’s character is revealed to be working undercover in the scene immediately following his introduction as a lowly greengrocer. There are no sudden twists in the plot that reverse our expectations late in the game.

winingdiningThe growing attraction between Ted and Mrs. Verloc (beginning with a characteristically antagonistic exchange in the opening scene) provides a few interludes that attempt to lighten the film. These scenes seem almost to exist in their own movie, particularly an extended sequence where Ted takes Mrs. Verloc and Steve out to lunch at Simpson’s (a favorite haunt of Hitchcock’s) in order to simultaneously woo her and grill her for information. Perhaps if Loder had as much natural charisma and comedic timing as Donat brings to bear in The 39 Steps , these portions of the film might hold up better, but as it is they do little or nothing to advance the story or draw sympathy for the characters.

aquariumThe best scenes are (unsurprisingly) connected with Verloc himself (a complex and fascinating character who serves as both villain and antihero), the central bomb plot and its devastating aftermath. In the aquarium scene, for instance, Hitchcockaquarium2 masterfully selects an ambiance that reflects the sinister machinations of the conspirators. The murky lighting and the lurking of shadowy, indistinct figures behind the glass convey a sense of unease. The two men have their backs to the camera for much of the scene as they stand next to each other, muttering softly together and pretending to enjoy the underwater view.

thebirds This is not the only visual connection in Sabotage between the animal kingdom and impending disaster, either. The bomb-maker’s pet shop specializes in birds. These birds serve as harbingers of doom, arriving along with the bomb packages to help allay suspicion. Their presence foreshadows death for Steve, Verloc, and ultimately the owner of the pet shop, among others.

moviehouse One of the neatest strokes in Sabotage , however, is the movie theater setting. Hitch uses the films shown in Verloc’s cinema house to subtly blur the lines between reality and fiction. Early in the film, Ted stops by the Verloc dining room at suppertime to deliver some lettuce (and see Mrs. Verloc). When shots and screams ring out just outside the room, he jumps, then realizes that the noise came from the film showing on the other side of the window. “I thought someone was being murdered,” he breathes. “Someone probably is,” Verloc replies, in a tone filled with meaning. Later, when he sends Steve on the fatal errand, it is under the pretext of delivering the film Bartholomew the Strangler (which Steve proudly claims to have seen several times) to another theater.

meltingIn the aquarium scene we are permitted a glimpse inside Verloc’s mind, as he imagines the effect of the explosion on its intended target. Interestingly, he pictures Piccadilly projected onto a screen (the glass wall of one of the tanks is transformed before our eyes), and as the sound of an explosion echoes, the scene does not so much disintegrate as it melts, like a piece of film that is just starting to burn in the heat of the lamp. Verloc’s detachment is such that he only imagines the devastation he will cause in the context of an artificial, flickering image. Or, as Hitch himself might say, “It’s only a movie.”

cockrobin1The most striking scene connected with the theater, however, comes after Steve’s death. Verloc has just confessed to his wife and calmly sits down to await his dinner. Mrs. Verloc wanders out into the theater in a daze, where a noisy crowd is enjoying Walt Disney’s (Hitchcock was a fan) Oscar-nominated animated short, “Who Killed Cock Robin?” (1935). Shecockrobin2 sits down to watch, and is soon laughing along with the crowd. Cock Robin is wooing a buxom female bird (a caricature of Mae West), when a shadowy figure with a bow and arrow creeps up and shoots him in the chest. As Robin drops to the ground, we get a close-up shot of Mrs. Verloc’s face, all merriment gone as the sounds of the cartoon’s title theme ask the question, “Who killed Cock Robin?”


She gets up and goes back into the dining room, were Verloc is waiting to eat, and starts to serve him his dinner. He assumes she has recovered somewhat and begins to complain about the meal. Mrs. Verloc, obviously disgusted with him, continues to serve up the meat, but pauses to look down at the large knife in her hand. Something about it disturbs her and she thrusts it away, picking up another utensil to serve with. Verloc stupidly refers to Steve, forgetting for a moment that he is dead, and they both glance over at his empty place at the table.


Suddenly, Mrs. Verloc finds that she is holding the knife once more. She seems confused by the sight of it, and sets it down hurriedly. As she stares distractedly at Verloc, her hand jerkily moves towards the knife and away. He notices her strange behavior and stands up very slowly, moving carefully around the table towards her. He reaches for the knife, and she snatches it up, clutching it to herself. He inches closer, a bit frightened now, and the camera focuses in on their faces. Suddenly, she starts with a small shriek and he cries out. We see her hand letting go of the handle of the knife, which is now embedded in Verloc’s stomach. She seems to have stabbed him almost accidentally, or at least involuntarily. The birds have foretold yet another death.


This entire scene is a masterfully-constructed sequence made up largely of tightly-edited close-ups that heighten the tension to an almost unbearable level with little or no spoken dialogue, always a Hitchcock specialty. However, the real suspense centerpiece of the film is, of course, the bomb delivery sequence, which lasts nearly 10 minutes. That’s over one-eighth of the total runtime, an astonishing percentage which Hitchcock uses to slowly build up the idea of time running out for young Steve.

toothbrushThe boy is first waylaid by a street vendor who is selling toothpaste and hair tonic. The man uses Steve as an example, much to the amusement of the crowd. Naturally, theywalkabout have no idea that the boy is holding a ticking bomb in his lap, a fact which undercuts the basic humor of the scene. However, the camera is constantly reminding us with repeated close-ups and images of the detonation time and the bomb’s inner workings juxtaposed on top of Steve’s long walk across London.

paradeAfter he pauses at some outdoor booths and to watch the parade, Steve suddenly realizes that he has less than twenty minutes to make his delivery. He decides to board a bus, and proceeds to sit down right next to a very cute puppy. The camera cutsbusboarding periodically between shots of Steve playing with the dog, the package sitting next to him, and clocks that the bus passes in the street. Almost immediately it is 1:30, and just a few short seconds later, it is 1:35. The bus is caught in a traffic jam and Steve begins to fidget, afraid that he will be late and Verloc will be upset.


trafficjamSuddenly, a clock shows 1:44, and the time between cuts grows shorter and shorter. The bus is stopped at a traffic light. Steve’s hand clenches and unclenches in extremepackage close-up. He fiddles with the dog some more. Then the face of a clock fills the screen, showing 1:45. The camera cuts in on the very tip of the minute hand as it moves onto 1:46. This is followed by three rapidly-sequenced shots of the bomb from different angles before it explodes, presumably killing everyone on board, including that adorable puppy.


alrightRather than linger on the explosion, however, Hitch cuts violently straight into the Verloc home, where Ted and the Verlocs are in the middle of laughing together over something. Verloc says, “Well, now everything seems to be alright.” Of course, it isn’t, and although Hitch’s decision to allow the bomb to explode is daringly unconventional, he would later come to regard it as one of his biggest mistakes.

Audiences, and even some critics, attacked the director for his “cruelty” in killing the boy, the dog, and the other passengers in the blast. Hitchcock theorized that, after putting an audience through the build-up of suspense surrounding, say, a ticking bomb, one must then relieve the suspense by not allowing it to hurt anyone. When asked if he would do it over differently if he had a chance, he said that he would. As a result, Sabotage despite its flaws, remains a uniquely dark piece of Hitchcockian cinema.

Next Week: Hitchcock develops a twitch

~ by Jared on April 30, 2008.

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