In 1936 Alfred Hitchcock’s name was not yet immortalized as the Master of Suspense, but he was getting there. Having labored through the twenties and early thirties making flat, flavorless silent melodramas and romantic “comedies,” Hitchcock had reinvented himself as a maker of thrillers. While hampered by the limitations of early sound cinema equipment, films like Blackmail (1929), Murder! (1930), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) were clearly evocative of a master auteur beginning to develop his own voice. By the time he directed Sabotage, the writing was on the wall.
Sabotage is possibly Hitchcock’s most viscerally effective pre-Hollywood film. And yet it is not remembered half as warmly as some of his other films from that period. Many regard The 39 Steps (1935) as the era’s masterpiece. And certainly it is the most interesting for scholars eager to identify early instances of the thematic patterns that would come to dominate the rest of his career: the Wrongly Accused Man plot; the icy blonde; and the ritualistic, almost fetishistic debasement and humiliation of said icy blonde. Next would probably come The Lady Vanishes (1938), a charming (if not always completely balanced) comic thriller about an old lady who disappears from a train who may or may not have been kidnapped by agents of one of those vague, “undetermined” enemy countries which were so ubiquitous in European films in the months and years before the Nazis rolled their tanks down the streets of Warsaw.
And indeed, it is one of those enigmatic societies that dominates Sabotage. The film opens with an attack on London’s electricity grid. We are introduced to Mrs. Verloc (Sylvia Sidney), the wife of the owner of a London cinema who tries to placate the crowd of frustrated viewers from demanding their money back due to the outage. In the midst of the chaos, she spots her husband Mr. Verloc (Oscar Homolka) sneaking in the back way. Strangely, he insists that she refund all of their tickets because he has “some money coming in.” Even stranger, he insists that he has been asleep in his room the entire night.
Mr. Verloc is revealed to be none other than the saboteur himself. During a moody, atmospheric sequence where he meets with his contact in an aquarium, he is informed that his mission has been a failure because the press mocked the outage in the papers. “They must not laugh,” his contact quietly tells him. And then he is given an even greater task: drop off a package of “firecrackers” to a Tube station that Saturday. Initially reluctant to participate in anything that would actually take human life, Verloc finally agrees.
Mr. Verloc is the film’s great enigma. There is no real explanation given for why Mr. Verloc participates in a campaign of sabotage other than his thick Germanic accent. Neither, for that matter, is there any reason why Mrs. Verloc would marry him. They share no affection or kind words to each other. But notice how Hitchcock also utilizes the character to drive the plot. Later films would center around misdirecting the audience into thinking that an innocent person was actually a criminal: that Mrs. Bates is the killer in Psycho (1960); that Richard Blaney is the serial rapist/murderer in Frenzy (1972). But Hitchcock almost immediately reveals Mr. Verloc to be the saboteur.
But instead of alleviating the film’s tension, Hitchcock uses this revelation to explore different narrative dynamics. Mrs. Verloc’s dawning realization that her husband might be a murderous criminal predicts another trend that would come to define Hitchcock’s later work: women who enter into relationships with dangerous men. Whether their entry into said relationships is accidental (Suspicion , Shadow of a Doubt ) or deliberate (Spellbound , Notorious ), these Trapped Women films provide a curious counterpart to the aforementioned Wrongly Accused Man films. The latter are films comprised of psychological exteriors: they-are-chasing-me-so-I-must-run; I-am-falsely-accused-and-must-clear-my-name; I-can’t-trust-anyone-but-this-beautiful-woman-I’ve-met. But the former are films of psychological interiors: is-my-husband-or-relative-a-monster; has-he-killed-people; will-he-kill-me; will-anyone-believe-me-if-I-report-him? The Wrongly Accused Men travel through exotic locales and set pieces. The Trapped Women are confined to cloistered houses, dining rooms, and bedrooms. The traditionally feminine space of the home becomes a prison and the act of fulfilling society’s prescribed gender roles as wife and homemaker become potential death sentences. Mrs. Verloc suspects that something is wrong with her husband: his erratic behavior; his disappearance the night of the power outage; the odd company of quiet men he keeps. When she learns that he is being investigated by an undercover Scotland Yard officer, Detective Sergeant Ted Spencer (John Loder), her suspicions become blatant paranoia. And that is from where much of the film’s suspense originates.
But the film’s greatest triumph is a sequence that doesn’t involve Mrs. Verloc at all. On the day of the bombing, Mr. Verloc has his wife’s young brother Stevie (Desmond Tester) act as the unwitting courier of the package of “firecrackers.” The bomb, hidden in a film canister that he is instructed to deliver to Piccadilly Circus, has a timer which is set to go off at 1:45. But in a maddening series of events, Stevie keeps getting delayed on his way to Piccadilly, completely oblivious to the tick-tick-ticking of the clock which might spell his doom.
First he gets roped into a product demonstration by a street huckster. A throng of people close in around to see the poor boy get toothpaste shoved into his mouth. Tick-tick-tick. Then he gets stopped by police who have cleared an important street for a crowded military procession. Tick-tick-tick. And finally when he gets on the bus to Piccadilly, they get mired in an impassable traffic jam. Tick-tick-tick. TICK-TICK-TICK—
Hitchcock’s craftsmanship and Sidney’s incredibly nuanced performance help the film transcend its flaws, for the movie is not flawless. First, it seems hard to swallow that a Police Detective would openly court the wife of a suspect he is investigating while undercover. Second, the film doesn’t end with the capture/destruction of Mr. Verloc but with the capture/destruction of his bomb supplier. This is sort of like if Star Wars (1977) had ended with the defeat of Grand Moff Tarkin after Luke & Co. had disposed of Darth Vader a good 10-15 minutes earlier.
But the film’s biggest flaw is a sequence involving what I like to refer to as a Hitchcock Hiccup: a scene where a character inexplicably performs an action which no logical human being would actually make in similar circumstances. And, oh, how I hate Hitchcock Hiccups. They infect many of his films, including several of his greatest: why does Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt assume that he can kill his niece by trapping her in an exhaust-filled garage when a) she is surrounded by big, heavy things she can throw out a window to escape and get air, b) he has no way of knowing if she’ll go to the garage in the first place, and c) there is no reason why none of her friends or family couldn’t hear her screaming for help; why does Guy give Bruno the gun when he discovers him in his father’s room in Strangers on a Train (1951); why does Mitch agree to bring his sister’s songbirds along in their car during their escape in The Birds (1963)?
The answers to these question are surprisingly simple: because Hitchcock needed an innocuous but easily escapable death trap that would convince the niece of her uncle’s evil intentions while leaving him room for plausible deniability; because Hitchcock wanted a scene where Guy slowly walks down a flight of steps while Bruno leers over him with a loaded gun; because the songbirds freaking out would be the first indication that the birds would renew their attack. All of these actions serve important narrative purposes, but I would remind the reader that no actual human being would do such stupid, illogical things. And the Hitchcock Hiccup in Sabotage is especially egregious: while spying on Mr. Verloc’s group of saboteurs, Spencer puts his hand inside the sill of the window that he is hiding outside of. The saboteurs, having no small modicum of spatial awareness, see the detective’s hand poking through the window, grab him, and pull him in. Why did Hitchcock do this? So he could have a scene where the detective is surrounded by a group of murderous criminals. But the idea that a trained police detective would make such a simple, blatant mistake is so absurd that it borders on weeping hilarity.
I fear that I am ending this review on a low-note and am leaving the film with a negative impression. I want to re-iterate that despite its flaws Sabotage is a brilliant film that captures an important artist on the cusp of his nascence to greatness. It is a film of interpersonal, psychological dynamics projected against the backdrop of a nation nervously bracing itself for an oncoming storm. Hitchcock would only make three more films in his native England before jumping ship for Hollywood. Personally, after watching Sabotage I’m amazed that Hollywood waited that long to snare him.