For our next Alfred Hitchcock review (our 18th so far), here’s a review of Sabotage by Justine from Justine’s Movie Blog. If you don’t already follow her site, I urge you to do so, she reviews such an eclectic gamut of films so there is always something interesting to read.
Thanks Justine for being a part of this!
Before director Alfred Hitchcock took his movie making talents to the United States, he was making classic films in his home country in the UK. One of these films was called Sabotage. Sabotage isn’t one of Hitchcock’s most well known movies, but it is, in my opinion, one of his most well made, and what I would consider an unpolished gem. Based on Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Secret Agent, Sabotage is purely a thriller, exposing Hitchcock’s special talents when it comes to presenting suspense in film through the use of simple shots and editing.
Mr. Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka), his wife, Mrs. Verloc (Sylvia Sydney) and her young brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester) own a small movie theater in London. When the power goes out in the city, a few policemen find that sand was put in the boilers, and they claim that this is an act of “sabotage.” Mr. Verloc slips through the darkness and sneaks around to the back of the cinema and upstairs to a bedroom. He then lies to his wife and says he was sleeping up there the whole time. After Mr. Verloc shows this suspicious behavior, it is soon revealed that he is working with a group of people who are paying him for these acts of sabotage. Meanwhile, an undercover Scotland Yard policeman named Ted Spencer (John Loder) is working as a green grocer next door to the theater, and he becomes suspicious of Mr. Verloc the more he investigates the case. At the same time, he develops romantic feelings for her, and is eager to know whether or not she has any idea of what her husband is up to. Eventually, an unnamed man convinces Mr. Verloc to deliver a time bomb underneath the Piccadilly Circus, and it is this event that inevitably unravels all of their lives.
One of the great things about Sabotage is that the audience doesn’t spend the whole time wondering who is responsible for the crimes in the story. We already know that it is Mr. Verloc who is responsible for the power outage in the beginning of the film. We also know that he is working for some kind of terrorist group, although it is never revealed who or why. The suspense comes from the fact that Mr. Verloc’s wife doesn’t know that he is responsible for these things, so it is up to the audience to guess when and how she will find out. The suspense also comes from a couple of brilliantly filmed scenes, in which one or more people’s lives may be in danger.
There is one scene where Mr. Verloc sends Stevie to deliver a package to a cloak room under Piccadilly Circus in London. The audience is aware that this package actually contains a time bomb, but Stevie is told that it is a film canister. He is told that he must deliver the film by 1:30 the latest, because unbeknownst to Stevie, the bomb is set to explode at 1:45. Knowing this, the audience’s suspense grows every minute that Stevie is still carrying that package. He is held up several times because of crowds, a parade, and a man who forces him to be a volunteer so he can show a crowd of people how well his special toothpaste works. Finally, Stevie gets on a bus when he realizes he’ll never make it in time if he continues walking. It is here, with the use of quick editing and music, that you are put on the edge of your seat. There are several shots from the boy sitting on the bus (Hitchcock even put a woman holding a cute puppy next to him for good measure), to a clock, to the traffic lights, back to Stevie, so on and so forth. As the clock nears 1:45, the shots are quicker, switching back and forth between Stevie and the clock, building up to a climax no one wants to happen.
Hitchcock suffered some harsh criticism for this scene. Some people thought it was unnecessary and cruel that he should show a young boy’s death on the screen. Hitchcock claimed to regret including this scene in the film. However, I think that without it, the suspense in the film would’ve suffered greatly, and the ending would not seem authentic. Mrs. Verloc needed a good reason to be driven to her violent actions at the end of the film, and the death of her younger brother was the best possible incentive. Not only that, but also the audience seeing the explosion happen makes us sympathize more with Mrs. Verloc when she finds out.
Sylvia Sydney does a fine job as Mrs. Verloc. She is the heart of the story. There is a scene when she is sitting in the movie theater after her brother has been killed, and she is watching a Disney cartoon, Who Killed Cock Robin? At first, she is enjoying it, laughing along with the rest of the audience. When Cock Robin gets shot, the camera focuses on her face as it changes from a smile to the most heart-breaking expression. In just one facial expression, you can see something change within her as the fact that her husband is a monster begins to register in her mind.
Sabotage excels at creating suspense in a story where there are no mysteries. Sylvia Sydney’s performance is top notch, and aside from Hitchcock’s more popular English films (The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes), Sabotage shows the talent Hitchcock had for storytelling, and so early on in his career. It is a movie that is often overlooked, despite it being one of his most skillfully crafted thrillers from his earlier years of filmmaking.