Sabotage (1936): A Forgotten Hitchcock Gem

Guest blogger Kim Wilson writes:

I recently wrote a review of The 39 Steps, and based on the comments it elicited I came to the conclusion that Alfred Hitchcock’s  pre-Hollywood films are often overlooked or even forgotten.  I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but I think many of his early British films should be watched to understand how his directorial vision developed.  You don’t just wake up one day and direct Notorious or Rear Window. As such, I think Hitchcock’s earlier films provide excellent examples of how he honed his style over a period of many years. Sabotage (1936) is one of those forgotten gems that one should watch to gain more insight into the Hitchcockian vision.

Based on the novel The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, Sabotage is a suspenseful thriller about an international terrorist group (or saboteurs) who hold London in a state of anxiety through their rampant bombings across the city. Though not designated as Nazis by Hitchcock, many film historians believe that is exactly who the saboteurs were meant to represent. This makes sense, as Germany and Italy had just signed the Rome-Berlin Axis and many Western European nations were growing alarmed by Germany’s growing militarism. There were even rumors that German spies were attempting to infiltrate Britain and create public unrest.  As such, the film’s saboteurs serve both an artistic and political purpose for Hitchcock.

The film opens metaphorically with a close-up shot of a flashing light bulb (a warning signal?) and then transitions into a shot of a crowded London street right before a blackout.  In true Hitchcockian fashion, the film cuts back to the flashing light bulb and we watch as the light slows its pace and then goes completely out upon the blackout. Another quick cut takes us to the Bijou,a movie theatre run by Karl Verloc (Oskar Homolka). Dressed in the typical accoutrement of a shady figure—a dark overcoat—Verloc seems to be sneaking back into his home just after the blackout hits. When he lays down on the couch and covers his face with a newspaper, you instantly know something just isn’t kosher. When his wife (Sylvia Sidney) comes to complain that the theatre’s patrons want their money back he tells her to give it to them, hinting that they don’t have to worry about money any more.  Why?

Soon we are introduced to Mrs. Verloc’s little brother Stevie (Desmond Tester). Stevie encompasses all that is innocent and good, which is reinforced by his helpfulness and trusting nature. Through Stevie we meet Mr. Spencer (John Loder), the street grocer…well, actually he’s not really a grocer but an undercover Scotland Yard detective who suspects Mr. Verloc is involved with the saboteur group. Spencer and Verloc engage one another in the typical Hitchcockian game of cat and mouse. Verloc comes off as cool and detached whenever Spencer makes suggestive comments about the bombings taking place in London.

It is really enjoying to watch these two actors play off one another, especially when you throw in Sylvia Sidney as the unassuming wife. In addition, Verloc is the traditional quiet and unassuming Hitchcockian villain. He doesn’t seem particularly menacing (at least until the end of the film) and seems like an inconspicuous personality. In addition, like in so many Hitchcock films, the line between villain and hero becomes blurred when Spencer begins to have feelings for Mrs. Verloc and even when she reaps her revenge at the end of the film.  Hitchcock had a habit of blurring this line in such films as Marnie, Notorious, and some would say even Psycho. It is also interesting to note that John Loder was not Hitchcock’s first choice for the role of Spencer. Instead, he hoped to work once again with his The 39 Steps leading man, Robert Donat, but the actor was being treated for severe asthma at the time.

The puzzle pieces start to take shape when Verloc and an accomplice meet at an aquarium and discuss the city’s reaction to the recent bombing. A newspaper headline reads: “London Laughs at Blackout.” Evidently no one was hurt in the blast and this means Verloc isn’t getting paid.  He’s told he must deliver a bomb that will do substantial damage before he gets his money.  In a rather creative shot (at least for 1936), we see Verloc staring into a fish tank as he imagines as a collapsing building in Piccadilly.  This scene is especially effective, as Hitchcock uses shadows to evoke a sense of sinister unease.

Eventually a plan is put into action to detonate a time bomb at 1:45 on a Saturday afternoon. A note reads: “London must not laugh on Saturday”—yes, the opposite reaction is, of course, the outcome. In a strange twist (but not strange for Hitchcock), Verloc gets Stevie to deliver the bomb, which is disguised in a film reel canister of Bartholomew the Strangler (a nudge toward the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572?). Ah, but you never send a child to do a man’s work, now do you? Instead of promptly delivering the “package,” Stevie attends a a street show and a parade and finds himself tardily boarding a bus for his destination. The bus, and everyone on it including Stevie, goes kaboom.  It is said that this was one of Hitchcock’s’ greatest film regrets—he had violated his own rule of never harming a character with whom his audience had come to sympathize.  In the end, we are privy to the unraveling of Mrs. Verloc and the eventual comeuppance of Mr. Verloc.

The film is tension filled, especially little Stevie’s errand from hell and the showdown between husband and wife. The bomb delivery sequence is nearly 10 minutes long and is taut with suspense. The showdown between the Verlocs is rife with unspoken anxiety and edited with shots of uneasy close-ups. In addition, Hitchcock uses the theatre setting as a clever device to mix reality with fiction, as in the scene where Spencer is visiting the Verloc’s and he hears screams and shots ring out.  After recovering from being startled, he comments, “I thought someone was being murdered.” And, then with a wonderful comeback, Verloc responds, “Someone probably is.” Priceless, and filled with so many undertones!

Sabotage is perhaps one of Hitchcock’s darkest films—what with killing an innocent child. It is also one of his few films that doesn’t contain a true mystery. Shortly after the film starts everyone knows who the bomber is and there is nothing to truly unravel. Instead, it is purely a suspense film.  As such, it is a rather unique Hitchcock vehicle.

Alfred Hitchcock: Ten Things To Know About The Master of Suspense

Kim Wilson is a history professor with a passion for film.  She writes film reviews for the Classic Film and TV Cafe (http://classic-film-tv.blogspot.com/) and for her own blog at http://1001moviesblog.blogspot.com/.

  • Debbie

    I agree I saw a documentary with Alfred Hitchcock on The Dick Cavette Show and he explained about Sabotage, he talked about some of his movies it was filmed in 1972 just after Frenzy was released.

  • Steve Rothstein

    The Lady Vanishes is one of my favorite Hitchcock movies from the 1930′s. Loved the interaction between Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood. And Paul Lukas was really mysterious in this movie. Great suspense

  • Jack West

    Hitchcock made another film with the same title in 1945. It stared Robert Cummings as a warehouse worker who’s acused of two crimes, arson and murder and falls into Hitchcock’s the wrong man themes. It’s a precurser to his famous 1958 film, North by Northwest. In that one, Cary Grant is the wrong man fless from New York to South Dakota. Sabotage begins in California and has Cummings fleeing from there to NYC. Nazis are involved. Cummings stumbles into a nest of them and prevents the bombing of ship. He chases a Nazi henchman through New York – into Radio City Music Hall and then up the Statue of Liberty – where the Nazi falls to his death from the torch. Unlike NBNW where Cary Grant and Eva Maria Saint were chased up and onto Mt. Rushmore where the bad guy falls to his death from Lincoln’s head.

  • Jack West

    I meant flees not fless!

  • http://www.moviesunlimited.com Gary Cahall

    The movie you’re thinking of, Jack, is actually called Saboteur (1942), and co-stars Norman Lloyd of St. Elsewhere fame as the title villain who falls from Lady Libery.

  • JUanita Curtis

    Alfred Hitchcock is my all time favourite director and I must admit I haven’t seen Sabotage but after your article I will definitely seek out a copy to add to my collection. Recently rewatched Saboteur and it convinced me why Hitchs films stand the test of time. Look forward to more reviews.

  • masterofoneinchpunch

    Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood films are certainly overlooked, but there are many gems out there as well as some very good DVDs of them (as always stay away from the public domain copies).

    Criterion has a wonderful reissue of The Lady Vanishes and a good release of The 39 Steps. MGM has (unfortunately some OOP) great reissues of The Lodger (1927), Young and Innocent and Sabotage. Kino has a copy of Jamaica Inn. Many of these have great extras like the Peter Bodagovich interviews with Hitchcock on the MGM releases.

    I completely agree that these films need to be watched to see how Hitchcock’s style evolves and what already is there (like the wrong man them in The Lodger).

  • jeanine

    I read somewhere that Hitchcock never made a comedy. The trouble With Harry is full of suspense, but it is a laugh riot. The man had a sense of humor often missed.

  • John

    I loved the movie “Sabotage”, the one with Bob Cummings for no other reason than that I lived about three blocks from the NORMANDIE,the ship that was shown in the movie on its side. The ship was shown in the newspaper and my father took my self and my brother to see it in the Hudson river in Manhattan. I am over seventy and it brings back many memories.There were questions raised as to weather it was an accident or some other reason it sank. To this day we still do not know.

  • Robert Wills

    I hate it when someone writes a review or an analysis and describes the whole plot. What is the point? So people don’t need to watch the film?

  • Hitchfan

    I highly recommend this movie. I saw it by accident at a local theater that was supposed to show Saboteur. I was pleasantly surprised.

  • Bill Engleson

    Saboteur ( the Bob Cummings vehicle) is one of my favorite films. It’s a road movie in many respects, a style of film Hitchcock occasionally employed. North by Northwest, Foreign Correspondent, The 39 Steps,The Birds, even, dare I say, Psycho for the first major portion of the film , are examples. I acknowledge that he also made very staged and somewhat static films like Rope.
    But the thread was talking about Sabotage wasn’t it. Ah well!

  • DIRK

    jeanine, if you’ll remember Hitchcock made the one comedy: MR. & MRS. SMITH (NOT to be confused with the recent title starring Brad & Angelina).

  • Trippy Trellis

    I’ve always considered “Sabotage” as Hitchcock’s masterpiece of the ’30s and I love it but if a movie ever begged for a remake it’s this one. A top of the line mid ’40s remake with dream cast: Joan Fontaine, Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten and Claude Jarman, Jr. as Stevie. Wouldn’t that have been something!

  • Carolyn Cooper

    I’m in the process of watching the movies on a Hitchcock DVD, most of which are “silents”. Recently watched “Sabotage”, but remember only one bombing, that of the bus. The other act of sabotage was the blackout. I, too, consider these movies and those of the more recent Hitchcock films, mostly from the 50s and 60s, to be the saga if his evolution as a director. I think he always had a sense of humor. “The Lady Vanishes”, yes, charming Michael Redgrave; “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (remake); “The Thirty-Nine Steps” (remake ?); “Rich and Strange” – Joan Barry is absolutely gorgeous, with an ethereal foretelling of Marilyn Monroe, but more refined, and she could act. (She had a brief film career;married English nobility.)”Secret Agent”. with John Gielgud. I thought the “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn” was controversial and a “first” in movies, but the early 30s flicks had an occasional “Hell” and “Damn”, at least Hitchcock’s did. The plots are often better than contemporary films, and when you see the credits, you understand the reason: frequently written by well-known authors and playwrights, who knew how to tell a story. You’re likely to get several “deus ex machina” situations to let the good guys win, but that was Code for those days.”Young and Innocent” is full of them. “The Manxman”, one of the silents, starred Carl Brisson (those fisherman sweaters are SO masculine,so sexy!), who was Rosalind Russell’s father in-law. Small world in Movieland. I love the glamor of the 30s movies – the costumes and hair, the elegance of refined characters,the country club manners, the style with which the “upper class” conducted themselves, whatever their faults may have been. During the Great Depression, movie-goers could forget their problems and escape to another world for a little while, the price of entering a movie house.

  • Carolyn Cooper

    With “The Trouble with Harry”, you also get that gorgeous Vermont fall foliage.(It IS funny!)

  • http://www.facebook.com/kenneth.m.henderson Kenneth Henderson

    One of my favorite films. The little boy, Desmond Tester, later made some other films and came to Australia in early TV days(after 1956) where he died in 2002(born 1919). I enjoy Sylvia Sidney’s work in other films too.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desmond_Tester

  • WT

    Alfred Hitchcock was one of the best directors in the business. The majority of his films have to be watched more that once to absorb everything he’s trying to convey to the audience. I loved Notorious, Suspicion, Rebecca, Saboteur, Sabotage, The Birds, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Shadow of A Doubt, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Rope, Dial M for Murder, Lifeboat, To Catch a Thief, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, Torn Curtain, Psycho, and Spellbound. I even liked his only comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Hitchcock gets the audience involved in the action – the tension, the suspense, the relief when the villain is caught. He KNEW how to hold an audience’s attention.

  • Chuck Neumann

    Hitchcock’s major British films are indeed worth revisiting. 39 Steps, Lady Vanishes and Sabotage are great films. As far as the bomb & the child are concerned, it was not that a likeable character was killed that Hitch regretted but that he held the viewers in suspense and then had the bomb explode. If you remember, popular characters in “Psycho” and the “The Birds” are killed, but it is unexpected.

  • Andrew A. Pecora

    When I first began to read the comments about Sabotage, I mistakenly thought you were talking about “Sabotuer” with Robert Commings. That was a Hitckock films also and it was about the Nazi party in America. I don’t thin I have evr seen Sabotage. I will have to get it and watch it.

  • John George

    As an interesting exercise for those of you who might be interested in the history/progression of WWII, try viewing three of Hitchcock’s wartime films in the order they were made and released, and you’ll see the war and its development along with insights about it: “Foreign Correspondent” (beginning); “Saboteur” (during); “Lifeboat” (near the end). Enjoy!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001534723082 Kathryn Elich

    The Hitchcock collection that is out for $5 has 20 movies that even some go back to silent film. I watched those so many times – saw this Sabotage many times. I actually learned more about how he constructed a set film story than anything I have read. At first they are mindbending – then they just become fun to look for detail. He had a disdain for the wealthy entitled and could really develop the common man and woman  bad or good. Just get it. I have since passed it on – since I had watched them way too much, and too often – totally addicting.  Great film/story work.