Sunday, August 12, 2012

#727. Sabotage (1936)

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Sylvia Sidney, Oskar Homolka, Desmond Tester

Tag line: "...A Bomb Plot ...A Killing ...Justice"

Trivia: Robert Donat was originally slated to play Ted Spencer, but a prolonged illness prevented him from playing the role

As was the case with 1934's The Man Who Knew Too Much, I go way back with Hitchcock’s 1936 film, Sabotage, another title I found resting in the bargain bin at my local K-Mart in the mid ‘80s. The story of an anarchist hell-bent on destroying London, Sabotage has a scene so shocking that even Hitchcock himself would come to regret it.

Verloc (Oskar Homolka), a professional saboteur, operates a movie house in the center of London, which he uses as his cover. Living with him in the small apartment behind the cinema are his unsuspecting wife (Sylvia Sidney) and her young brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester). Yet try as he might to keep his covert activities under wraps, the police are on to Verloc, and have stationed an undercover policeman (John Loder), posing as a grocery clerk named Ted, in the store across the street to monitor his activities. Just as Verloc is about to launch his next terrorist act, he realizes he’s being watched, and instead asks Stevie to deliver a package for him. What the boy doesn’t know is this package contains a powerful bomb, set to detonate at a specific time, and if he’s delayed on his way to dropping it off, he won’t live to explain what kept him.

I usually try to avoid spoilers in these write-ups, but with Sabotage, I’ll have to divulge one, so consider this a spoiler warning; if you haven’t seen the film and want to go in fresh, please skip the remainder of this paragraph. The time bomb scene I described in the above synopsis is the single most suspenseful sequence in Sabotage, with tensions mounting every time young Stevie gets distracted on his journey. Unfortunately, the boy’s short attention span will lead to tragedy, and the bomb will explode before its delivered, killing Stevie and a number of innocent people who happened to be on the same city bus as him. Aside from killing a child, which he admitted was a “grave error”, Hitchcock regretted the fact he built up such suspense, only to have it all end badly. Realizing this made his audience “resentful”, Hitchcock would carry the lessons learned from Sabotage with him through the rest of his career. And while I tend to agree having the bomb go off was a mistake, the entire sequence, up to that point, was handled masterfully, with Hitchcock dragging us to the edge of our seats, watching nervously as it played out. It may have been, as he said, a grave error, but it was a skillfully crafted one.

Even if you take the above scene out of the equation, Sabotage is a taut motion picture, with some exceptional “Hitchcockian” moments (including one involving a kitchen knife). While Hitchcock himself may have looked back on this film with remorse, it remains an early example of the Master of Suspense doing what he did best.


Manuel said...

Me ha interesado mucho su comentario sobre la película "Sabotage", la pena es que no deja ver el vídeo en mi país por derechos de copyright.
Perdón, no es publicidad pero aprovecho para invitarle a que vea en mi blog la entrada "Estrellas de la pantalla" creo que le puede gustar.
Un saludo.

Anthony Lee Collins said...

I'm not sure any director has ever anticipated and controlled the audience's reactions as thoroughly as Hitchcock. What information we needed, and when, and how close to the edges of our seats he could pull us before we'd fall off. As you say, he made a mistake here, but he had masterful control while doing it. I remember when I was watching Inglourious Basterds there were sequences which I thought were at Hitchcock's level in control of the audience's reactions. That's not something I think very often. :-)

Dave B. said...

Thanks for the comments!

@Manuel: Perdón si esta respuesta es confusa. Cuento con un traductor en línea ya que no hablan español. Le agradezco su comentario, y sin duda echa un vistazo a su blog en intentar una vez que tengo la oportunidad. Gracias por visitarnos!

@Anthony: Excellent insights! You are 100% correct: Hitchcock was the master of manipulation. And even though he himself considered the scene a mistake, he WAS being faithful to the original story by including it. And your point about INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is also spot-on. Thanks as always for your contribution!

Steven J. Newman said...

Perhaps it was regretful to kill off a boy and innocent bystanders in a commercial film, but showing the collateral damage of sabotage, was laudable in the moral sense. Interesting that he later chose to break another cardinal rule in Psycho by killing off the apparent protagonist early on in the film.