Friday 30 August 2013

Sabotage (1936)

Yet another Hitchcock movie. This is really going to be a recurring feature as the good Alfred is featured on the list more than any other director. Someone among the editors of the List really loves this guy.

If in the coming revision of the list they would consider sanitizing the extravagant list of Hitchcock titles I believe this is one that will disappear. Well, at least if I had any say in it. It is not bad, it is just not as good as the average Hitchcock film and “Blackmail” and “The 39 Steps” go a long way to describe where Hitchcock came from, so that job is well covered.

I did not like “Sabotage” very much. Technically there are some interesting elements, but there are just too many things that bother me with this film.

Let us take the good things first.

“Sabotage” is about suspense. We have to be on our toes and nowhere is that more evident than when Stevie (Desmond Tester) carries the bomb around town, not knowing that time is running out. That is suspense with the montage cutting to make us feel the pressure of time running out. Stevie does not know he is carrying a bomb and that just makes it more agonizing for us. Also Mrs. Verloc  (Sylvia Sidney) , who goes without a first name, is unaware of the snake she is hosting. When she finally realizes Mr Verloc’s (Oskar Homolka) true nature it is with a masterful sense of danger that keeps us in suspense.

However I get the feeling that the entire film was made to create these two scenes.

Mr. Verloc is foreign (read German) and in league with a bunch of people who wants to do damage on Britain. Today we would call them terrorists. The idea is apparently that by spreading fear at home, Britain will move its attention homeward and away from some foreign affairs. A totally messed up logic as the police already suspect that the disruptions are caused by foreigners, thus the terrorist’s actions will only cause attention on their employer and not the other way round. In any case Mr. Verloc has to blow up an underground station to really spread terror and this is apparently a serious step up from his previous activities. It is pretty clear that he is a mean son of a bitch and a pretty ice cold one at that, but I am not sure I get his motivation. He seems to be doing this for money and not some crazy ideology, yet he is also bent on going through with it even with police on his tail. Where his ring associates scatter at the scent of police, Mr. Verloc does not abort, but insists. To me the only reason for this is to create suspense. His solution is to send a courier, his very young brother in law, to deliver the bomb. This is to me a serious plot hole.

Although I had been warned by the Book it was a shock to me that Hitchcock let Stevie blow up with the bomb. It was necessary to turn Mrs. Verloc on Mr. Verloc, but come on, we like Stevie and he is only a child! I cannot handle films where children gets hurt and blowing one up with a bomb falls right into that category. That is just appalling. In fact that would be enough in itself for me not to like the film.

In this story Hitchcock lets us in on all the secrets. We know what is going on, but the characters do not. Part of the suspense is therefore that the characters are unaware of the peril they are in. That is fine by me. Hitchcock uses that trick a lot in his early films. However personally I prefer to see it from the characters point of view and be as surprised and shocked as they are. Hitchcock did that in “The 39 Steps” and that worked beautifully.  Here on the other hand we are just waiting for Spencer (John Loder), the policeman, and Mrs. Verloc to uncover Mr. Verlocs secrets, which are no secrets to us. Therefore it is also almost anticlimactic when they do.  Also it is getting to be almost a cliché that the policeman and the lady in peril become a couple. Well, I understand him, Sylvia Sidney is pretty, but I have seen that before.  Of course Spencer helps her out of her fix with a little help of providence, but the damage is done and a lot of people are already dead.

A highlight of the film is that we get to see a lot of London in the thirties. I love that kind of shots and this one has plenty of them and at the end of the day that is probably the most positive thing I take with me from this film.


  1. This will sound harsh, but I give the film extra points for blowing up the kid. Moments like that are important in film--it makes the audience realize that anything can happen. And knowing this about Hitchcock, it makes things that happen in his later films much more filled with tension. After all, he'd kill a kid for plot reasons.

    1. Yes, it does make Hitchcock unpredictable in that way and knowing how far he will go adds to the suspense. Still on a personal level I just hate it when children are hurt and given where I live these days blowing up a bus is just very bad style.

  2. I thought Sylvia Sidney was the best thing about the film. I agree that the cop teaming up with the damsel in distress to get her out of her crime became almost a cliche with Hitchcock. Something about police corruption or did he just need a way to include a love story?

    1. Somehow the love story has become a fixture. you cannot get around it even in childrens movies. Here it seem unnecessary, even a bit disturbing. I would have liked it better it they were friends or related. Sexual tension is out of place in this film.
      Silvia Sidney is a pretty girl even dressed down as she is in "Sabotage". I just wonder if it helps the film. What is such a nice girl doing with scum like Verloc?

  3. I liked this film, but I didn't love it. I'd actually get rid of Blackmail and The 39 Steps before I'd get rid of this one, but ultimately I agree that this one could go, too.

    I agree with Steve on the movie having the child be killed. I didn't think a movie in the 30s would go there and it did. For me, that made it have more of an impact.

    1. Well, it does make a impact and I am sure that 77 years ago people got freaked out about it, but like in my reply to Steve that does not mean I like it. It was necessary for the plot, not for me.