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Sabotage (Blu-ray)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
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Directed by: 
Alfred Hitchcock
Sylvia Sidney
Oskar Homolka
Desmond Tester
John Loder
William Dewhurst
Bottom Line: 

By the mid-1930s, Alfred Hitchcock had apparently settled comfortably into a winning routine working for Michael Balcon’s Gaumont-British production outfit, the preceding part of his career having recently suffered a number of uncertainties and setbacks during a period of employment at John Maxwell’s British International Pictures, with the director having somewhat failed to capitalise on his early notable name-making Gainsborough successes, “The Lodger” (1926) and “Blackmail” (1929). Hitchcock being reunited with Balcon also coincided with the fruitful coalescence of a number of previously established working relationships in Hitchcock’s professional life, resulting in what is now seen as the high watermark of his ‘British period’, with several high profile critical and commercial hits at last coming the director’s way, starting with “The Man Who Knew Too Much” in 1934, and continuing with the hugely successful and popular “The 39 Steps”-- the film that really put Hitchcock on the map and precipitated the interest from Hollywood that would eventually open up the second front of the director’s rapidly developing career.

“Sabotage” comes slap bang in the middle of this’ comfortable’ period (although it was in fact his final film for Balcon) -- and is one of the results of Hitchcock’s by now traditional working holiday retreats to St Moritz In Switzerland, which were spent in the company of his then closest collaborators, screenwriter Charles Bennett and associate producer Ivor Montague, both of whom has been involved in various professional capacities (Bennett wrote the original stage version of “Blackmail” and collaborated on its screenplay, then wrote the original story for “The Man Who Knew Too Much”; Montague had helped re-edit “The Lodger” after it was initially rejected at Gainsborough) with deciding the direction taken by Hitchcock’s career thus far, but had hit their stride operating as an efficient hit-making machine for the director at Gaumont-British. As was the custom by now during these regular sojourns, a treatment for the next of Hitch’s projects -- as always, based on a suitably popular source novel or play -- would be bashed out in brain-storming sessions between the trio until it fitted the very particular requirements of what Hitchcock now considered to be his winning thriller formula, as first engineered by Bennett. Recently it has been the work of G.K. Chesterton, John Buchan, and Somerset Maugham that had been astutely ‘made over’ in this way; this time Joseph Conrad’s 1906 novel “The Secret Agent”, inspired by the cauldron of anarchist terrorist agitators operating in late nineteenth/early twentieth century Europe, provided the grist for the Hitchcock/Bennett/Montague mill.

Confusingly, Hitchcock’s just completed follow-up to “The 39 Steps” had already gone by the name “Secret Agent” so a change of title was on the cards from the off … At one point, early in production, the film was going under the name “I Married a Murderer”; but the curt “Sabotage” was eventually (wisely) decided upon instead. This is not a film that stands out in the company of its flashier, more attention-grabbing peers from the British Hitchcock cannon of the 1930s, and it’s often as a result overlooked. “The 39 Steps” and “Secret Agent” had seen the director take the espionage themed adventure thriller genre he’d patented in “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and cast it on to a much bigger and wider canvass based around showy set-pieces set in memorable locations, with risqué humour, chase sequences and plenty of romance. The Conrad novel is a serious examination of innocence, betrayal and treachery in turn-of-the century England; and despite the many changes and simplifications Bennett’s screenplay brings to the material in order to turn it into another 1930s Hitchcock spy thriller, this is still a low-key interior film rooted in psychological complexity and the ironies of moral compromise so redolent of the director’s first forays into thriller territory: it marks a return to the thematics of “The Lodger” and “Blackmail” -- both of which were shadowy urban London tales about guilty women and outsider men and the love-hate dynamic that exists between them. The changes made to the Conrad story, though, also underline how Hitchcock was explicitly referencing his own London childhood biography with this film, turning this tale about spies and turncoat terrorists into an immensely personal project set in the kinds of London locations and amongst the kind of people Hitchcock would have grown up with, while capturing the dread and paranoia of the city in the build-up to WW2, but without any specific political references to Nazism.

The film’s detective ‘hero’ from Scotland Yard, Sergeant Ted Spencer (a fairly undistinguished performance by British actor John Loder -- but then Hitch always was more interested in his villains during this period), works undercover at a greengrocers, much like the one Hitchcock’s father in Leytonstone would have owned; the foreign terrorist he’s hunting is actually living next door, in the apartments behind the screen of the bijou cinema the agent runs with his American-born wife. In the Conrad novel, the villain had been the proprietor of a seedy Soho tobacconists’ store who deals in under-the-counter pornography; but the closest reference to these beginnings here, comes when someone wonders if the interest the police are beginning to show in the anarchist agent might be because he’s been showing ‘some “funny” sorts of films: ‘you know – perhaps a bit too hot!’  Turning the foreign agent into the manager of a West End cinema manages to condense the director’s biography thus far into a single street location that becomes central to the entire plot, with the film opening by establishing the isolation and guilt of the film’s foreign saboteur, Karl Verloc, as he returns from a successful mission to sabotage Battersea Power Station by pouring sand into the turbines, thereby plunging London into darkness. Verloc is effectively played by Austrian actor Oskar Homolka, whose furtive looks made him ideal casting as a Russian or German spy in many Cold War era thrillers. At the start of the film he’s pictured in shadows and isolation, quite separate from the gaggle of complaining Londoners (cameos from Hitchcock regulars Claire Greet and Sarah Allgood included) attempting to get their money back at the ticket office while he pretends he’s been asleep throughout the entire event in the upstairs living quarters shared with his wife (a photogenic American import, Sylvia Sidney) and her younger brother Stevie (Desmond Tester). Later, Verloc is confused when meeting his peculiarly Establishment-sounding contact in the aquarium of London Zoo to learn that despite the ‘success’ of his mission he has still failed because the black-out did not induce the effect sought-after by this unnamed enemy network: ‘when one sets out to put the fear of death into people, it is not helpful to make them laugh!’ … It turns out that the plucky Londoners of the West End simply turned the power cut into an excuse for a party!

Verloc’s inability to properly communicate with or truly understand the mores of the people he is attempting to exist among while he tries to disrupt their way of life paints him as one of Hitchcock’s most tragic villains; he’s a sociopath, and is therefore cut off from emotional connection with those around him, while having to attempt to simulate a loving relationship with his unsuspecting American wife, all the while surrounded by prying eyes (that are already mistrustful of foreign outsiders) in cramped urban London spaces. His paymasters meanwhile, go completely undetected (and are in fact never brought to justice) and appear to pass for the very epitome of English respectability. Verloc’s is painted as a nightmare existence as a pawn of greater forces than himself, who is mired in deception and isolation and mistrust. There is always uncertainty concerning Verloc’s true feelings towards Sidney’s character, though, which Hitchcock manages to sustain right up to the morally ambiguous climax of the film. The main crux of the plot revolves around Ted Spencer’s developing relationship with Mrs Verloc as he tries to inveigle his way into her affections in order to find out what she knows about her husband’s past activities as part of Scotland Yard's effort to gather information about the terrorists’ next target: a plot to blow up the Lord Mayor’s Parade by planting a time-bomb in the cloakroom of the Underground station at Piccadilly Circus, the device built by an eccentric agent posing as a pet shop owner in Islington (William Dewhurst).  Ted falls in love with Mrs Verloc for real during the investigation as he engineers ‘accidental’ meetings between them both in Trafalgar Square, or when he arranges an lunch time outing for Mrs Verloc and Stevie at Simpson’s in the Strand (Hitchcock’s own favourite place to wine and dine, and where Ted’s cover is almost blown by a chef who recognises him as a regular) while Mrs Verloc continues to try to resist his advances and her own developing feelings for Ted, unaware of her husband’s clandestine meetings with foreign agents in their home or of his visit to ‘The Professor’s’ shop in Islington, where he arranges to have the bomb delivered  concealed in the bottom section of a canary’s bird cage as a present for Mrs Verloc’s little brother, Stevie.

The espionage plot plays out almost entirely in familiar domestic spaces (convincingly rendered in careworn detail by art directors Robert F Boyle and Jack Otterson) or in a fleapit cinema which functions as the cross-over point between public and private realms, turning the film into an effective critique of the hypocrisies of the institution of marriage and contemporary family life: “Sabotage” is a mainstream thriller, aimed at an audience for commercial films, that is really a subversive broadside at the repressions and denials inherent in so-called civilised virtues, all the while disguised as a popular spy film. The Professor’s family – his wife and young daughter – are the only characters fully aware (and comically resentful in the case of the infant daughter) of the illusion they are all involved in, until the pivotal event of the movie, which is also one of the most controversial in Hitchcock’s career: unable to leave the family home to carry out his mission because of Police surveillance, Mr Verloc gives the bomb to Stevie hidden in the film canister of a two-reel horror film (“Bartholomew the Strangler”), with instructions to have it delivered by 1.30pm. Held up by pushy London street hawkers and crowds assembling for the parade (which is staged by Hitchcock on a studio back-lot against a giant photograph of a Piccadilly street!), Stevie ends up still being sat on a crowded bus (opposite a woman with a playful Jack Russell puppy on her lap) when the time bomb explodes at the appointed hour of 1.45pm, killing everyone on-board including him!

A beautifully edited set-piece of precisely arranged images (the editor was Charles Frend) that demonstrate Hitchcock’s method of building suspense at its most formally exact, this superlative sequence was later criticised by Hitchcock himself after some critics condemned it for its brutality. He claimed in many interviews later that letting the bomb actually explode was ‘a grave mistake’ since the boy was so sympathetic that his death made the audience resentful of the filmmaker for killing him off, taking them out of the illusory world intended by the picture. In fact, the death is true to the novel and completely necessary for the next big set-piece of the movie, which is the real centrepiece of the story: Mrs Verloc’s discovery of Stevie’s death and her realisation of her husband’s involvement in it, leading first to her half-accidental murder of Verloc and then to Ted’s decision to cover for her and his plan to flee the country in her company, despite her own willingness to turn herself in. Silvia Sidney did not get along terribly well with Hitchcock and, as an actress trained in theatre technique, could not understand his method of working with performers, which to her seemed to ignore the actor’s craft completely. Only when she saw the final result did she understand, although she apparently never really approved of how her performance had been almost entirely created in the editing room through montage and juxtaposition of images; indeed, she was never to work with Hitchcock again despite her effectiveness in the picture. Sidney has almost no dialogue in these latter stages of the storyline – her character’s grief, guilt and the internal realisation of her husband’s true nature are conveyed to us using cinematic techniques and editing and are never verbalised, yet the viewer always knows exactly what she is thinking throughout as she catches fleeting hallucinatory glimpse of her dead brother in London crowds; wanders the cinema isles now rife with the sound of laughing children during a screening of the Disney Film “Who Killed Cock Robin”; and finally confronts her husband’s lies and evasions at the dinner table over a traditional Sunday roast (which, with true Hitchcock perversity, becomes a bloody crime scene) as she stares at Stevie’s empty chair. The moral ambiguity is heightened by the possibility that Verloc offers himself as a sacrificial offering to his wife in contrition, and by Mrs Verloc being allowed to get away with (perhaps) premeditated murder scot-free after the killing is blamed on the bomb-making Professor, who returns to retrieve the evidence of his involvement in proceedings and becomes involved in a siege with police officers that ends in the destruction of the cinema.

Shot in gritty black-and-white by Bernard Knowles and supported by excellent performances by Homolka and Sidney (look out also for a talking bit part for “Carry On” star Charles Hawtrey as a henpecked suitor during the aquarium scene), “Sabotage” is let down slightly by its nondescript leading man (Hitch wanted Robert Donat, but the actor was tied up in contractual obligations to Alexander Korda) but is a much stronger, tightly arranged affair than it is often given credit for. Its HD rendering on Blu-ray makes its strengths much more apparent now, and this release from Network Distributing, as part of its British Film strand, will be required purchasing for all Hitchcock fanatics. Extras include a short introduction by film scholar Charles Barr; an on location feature hosted by the actor Robert Powell which revisits the London Zoo, Trafalgar Square and Simpsons in the Strand locations utilised by Hitchcock during the making of the film; and a gallery of production images.


Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night

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