Sabotage (1936) B+
(aka “A Woman Alone”)
Based on Joseph Conrad’s novel of 1907, “The Secret Agent,” Hitchcock’s tense and chilling espionage thriller, is the tale of detective sergeant Ted Spencer (John Loder), who is disguised as a greengrocer to uncover the details of a plot to destroy London.
Also involved the plot is a band of German and British spies who use a movie theater as affront to cover their activities. The owner of the theater, Mr. Verloc (Oscar Homolka), is married to a young American woman named Sylvia (Sylvia Sydney), who along with her brother Stevie (Desmond Tester) is unaware of it.
Homolka’s wife doesn’t suspect Homolka of any wrongdoing, but she’s picked up enough second-hand information about her husband’s activities to arouse the interest of John Loder’s government agent. Posing as a grocer, Loder moves next door to the Homolkas, befriending Sidney and her precocious young brother Desmond Tester.
Verloc asks Stevie to deliver some films which contain a time bomb. The boy is delayed on his errand, and he and a bus full of people are killed when the bomb explodes. When Mrs. Verloc discovers her hubby’s roles, she avenges her brother’s death by killing him.
Her crime remains undiscovered, because the theater and the adjacent apartment are blown up by a bomb carried by another saboteur.
Less effective in (but almost required of) the plot is the romance between Mrs. Verloc and the detective agent.
But, as Donald Spoto pointed out, Hitchcock offers an analysis of the audience watching the film, and of the chaos that’s part of ordinary experience. The film’s thematic concerns also appear in “”Murder”” (1930), “”Psycho (1960), “The Birds” (1963).
The story’s frame is tight, the plot spanning from Wednesday to Saturday, “Lord Mayor’s Show Day, a day of civic pride and great parades, and thus suitable for explosions.
The first thing we see is a close-up of a dictionary definition of sabotage, before and during the credits enlisting Hitchcock’s name. A title card reads: sa-botage: “Willful destruction of buildings or machinery with the object of alarming a group or persons or inspiring public uneasiness.” This unusual beginning suggests that to Hitchcock, the very title (its sound and meaning) are far more important than the world’s relevance to the nominal plot.
The opening shot of the narrative itself is also impressive, a close-up from the audience’s POV on the floor of a bare light bulb suspended from a ceiling, then a quick cut to the outside world, London at night, and back to the bulb, which flickers, signaling a major power failure.
Quick views of the power plants lead to the workmen, one of whom cries out loud, “Sabotage!” Who did it”? The face of Verloc, criss-crossed with shadows fills the screen.
In the streets, Londoners handle the blackout with humor; there’s a carnival atmosphere, and match sellers do good business
But patrons at Verloc’s movie theater demand refunds, and Mrs. Verloc sits in the glass box-office, surrounded by candles. Then her husband arrives, walks through the theater to their apartment in the rear, and washes his hands. The camera shows residue of sand as water goes down the drain
Mr. Verloc enters bedroom, forgets his deed as he snaps on the light, which doesn’t work; he reclines with the evening newspaper over his face. Mrs. Verloc is dismayed that audiences want refunds, gets flashlight and runs upstairs to consult her husband, who sympathizes with the viewers’ requests.
Outside, the greengrocer-agent tells the crows not to expect refund as power failure is “an act of God.” If a plane were to drop a bomb, that would be unfriendly act. He points unwittingly to the two bombs which will be dropped later by the saboteurs. “You don’t understand. You’re all ignorant,” he tells the people.
The first look at Mrs. Verloc’s doomed brother Stevie is in their kitchen as he removes a roast from the oven. Sensing that he’s being watched, Homolka sends Tester out to deliver a reel of film. The reel contains a time bomb, but Homolka is certain that the boy will deliver his package on time and will be safely away by the time the bomb explodes.
Thus begins one of Hitchcock’s most electrifying suspense sequences, as the unsuspecting boy is delayed several times en route to his destination, and ends up on a public bus that stops and starts in trafic—as the bomb ticks away.
In an interview with Francois Truffaut, years later, Hitchcock noted that “the boy was involved in a situation that got him too much sympathy from the audience, so that when the bomb exploded and he was killed, the public was resentful.”
For his part, Truffaut called the sequence an abuse of cinematic power, and Hitchcock agreed, even calling the scene a mistake.
The title of the film was changed to avoid confusion with another of Hitchcock’s thrillers, called “Secret Agent.” “Sabotage” was banned in several countries where the censors and public leaders viewed it a s ahandbook for terrorism.
The film was retitled “A Woman Alone in the ïnitial U.S. release.
Running time: 76 Minutes
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Screenplay: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, Alma Reville, Helen Simpson
Camera (Black and white): Bernard Knowles.
Editor: Charles Frend.
Music; Louis Levy
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