This is my first entry for my Hitchcock blogathon which begins this Friday.
In this first post I’m writing about one of Hitchcock’s early British films. That film is his 1936 espionage thriller Sabotage.The film is based on the novel The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad.
Hitch always liked to ensure he kept his audiences squirming in their seats in suspense and fear. This film features a sequence aboard a bus that has us doing both of those things, and it also has us getting very angry at Hitch.
The infamous bus sequence of which I speak is rivalled only (for me) by the Statue of Liberty sequence in Saboteur, and by the shocking shower murder in Psycho. The Sabotage bus sequence is also note worthy for being very realistic, it is utterly shocking, horrific and brutal when viewed today; so I can only imagine how audiences in the thirties must have responded to witnessing this sequence upon the films original release.
The sequence of which I speak sees a boy board a bus in London. He is unknowingly carrying a bomb, which is hidden inside a package he has been asked to deliver. We know the time it will detonate. As the boy carries it around town, the clock is counting down to the time of detonation. It makes us feel angry at Hitch because there’s no happy end to that bus sequence and also because a child is killed and was powerless to escape their horrific end.
The film is set in London in the 1930’s. Many scenes take place in a family flat above a cinema. The family who live there are the Verloc’s, and they both own and run this popular cinema. The Verloc family consists of Karl Verloc(Oscar Homolka), his much younger wife (Sylvia Sidney)and her younger brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester).
Unbeknown to his wife, Karl is a member of a group of saboteurs. The group have already done several things to cause problems (such as shutting down the electricity to the city.) They now want to go a step further and create sheer terror, they want to set off a bomb in central London.
Scotland Yard’s investigations have led them to the Verloc’s cinema and they put an undercover officer to work in the shop next door to keep an eye on what’s going on. That officer is Ted Spencer (John Loder) and he befriends Mrs. Verloc and her brother. His feelings for them are genuine, but he tries to keep in mind that Mrs. Verloc could also be a part of the group too.
Karl has to collect a bomb and he is tasked with setting it off. The race is on to try and gather proof against him and to stop him before he does fatal damage.
This is a very bleak and serious film and there is precious little Hitchcock humour to be found here. The subject matter of this film is even more relevant today, given the world we are currently living in. I think that our own experiences with these horrors make us realise that this film is sadly far from being just a frightening fiction. There are plenty of Verloc’s roaming around our communities today, and that is truly a chilling thought indeed.
Mr. Karl Verloc is one of Hitch’s coldest and nastiest villains. Homolka does a very good job in portraying this horrible man. Right from the start it’s pretty clear to us that he is a chap to steer clear of, there is no soul to be found within him. His personality did make me wonder why his wife stayed with for so long? There must have been something about him that made her want to be with him, or maybe she just couldn’t accept the unpleasant truth staring her in the face and denied his true nature to herself? As the film goes on Verloc becomes more and more loathsome. What happens to him in the end is more than justified I’d say. If ever anyone had that end coming to them it was certainly him.
This film also does a good job of capturing a loved ones inability to accept that a family member could be capable of murder or of a serious criminal act. Mrs. Verloc (who as it turns out is not involved with the saboteurs in any way) won’t accept the truth about her husband until his actions cause her to lose someone very dear to her.
Sidney is excellent as the woman who has her whole life destroyed. Her perceived image of her husband is shattered and her innocence comes to an end too. Your heart goes out to this woman and you pity her for the terrible situation she finds herself in.
My favourite scenes are the following. Mrs. Verloc struggling against her desire to pick up the knife and use it to hurt her husband. Mr. Verloc meeting a fellow saboteur at the London zoo aquarium. Stevie showing Ted behind the back of the cinema screen and the window into the flat where Ted can spy on the saboteurs meeting there. The bus explosion. Mrs. Verloc watching an animated film and laughing, her uncontrollable laughter soon turns to tears.
Good performances all round, a tense and shocking story and many memorable sequences help to make this one of Hitch’s best films. I like how many scenes in this could almost be from a Silent film; the famous sequence with the knife for example plays out with no dialogue, the power of it comes from Homolka and Sidney’s expressions in that moment. Hitch knew full well the power of actors faces in key moments, this film is very much an actors film and he uses them to full effect.
What are your thoughts on this film? Please leave your comments below.