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.