Although I consider Alfred Hitchcock my favorite director, I must confess that I’m not too familiar with his British-era films aside from THE 39 STEPS, THE LADY VANISHES and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. As for SABOTAGE, I had seen a rough DVD copy about five years ago, sitting in my college library. My memory of the film is spotty so seeing it now felt like the first time.
SABOTAGE centers around Verloc (Oscar Homolka), a member of a gang of saboteurs who plan to bomb London. He runs a cinema with his unsuspecting wife (Sylvia Sidney) and her younger brother Stevie (Desmond Tester). Hot on his trail is Ted (John Loder), a Scotland Yard detective posing as a grocer.
The cinema that Mr. and Mrs. Verloc run adds some fun to the proceedings. I especially like the scene where a grieving Mrs. Verloc attends a Disney cartoon. The movies at the cinema recall the action in the plot, a convention Woody Allen used in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS to great effect.
Watching Hitchcock’s early films is such an informative experience. I can witness the elements of his style are taking shape and he finds ways to get around the limitations of early film technology. Having said that, the thing I appreciate most about Alfred Hitchcock feels fully formed even in these early films. I love when Hitchcock directs the audience. I love how he uses visuals to develop character and setting, and to create feelings of dread and anticipation. He shows us exactly what he wants us to see, orchestrating our reactions and emotions.
Hitchcock directing the audience is best exemplified in SABOTAGE through the infamous “bomb on the bus” scene, where Hitchcock does something that would be controversial even today, perhaps even more so. Hitchcock puts the pieces of the sequence together for his audience: a bomb, the time the bomb will go off (“don’t forget, the birds will sing at 1:45”), and the location where the bomb will go off. He then proceeds to throw in multiple obstacles during the bomb’s delivery to its destination.
This sequence brings to mind an old story that Hitchcock once told which highlights his methodology for suspense. The story comes from a seminar Hitchcock gave for the American Film Institute. “Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion.” Hitchcock explained that this is not suspense but mere surprise (in modern terms, a jump scare). But if the filmmaker shows the bomb under the table, the scene is suspenseful. When will the bomb go off? Will everyone survive? Who put the bomb there?
Hitchcock employs this technique in SABOTAGE by showing clocks, a brief shot of the note with the 1:45 deadline and just who is unwittingly carrying the bomb. Because the scene involves a young boy, the suspense is even higher. As Stevie travels through London, forced to participate in a sideshow among other distractions, Hitchcock plays with our emotions, mounting the tension. We wonder if Hitchcock will break Anton Chekov’s rule about guns in the first act going off in the third. We hope he will.
Alfred Hitchcock’s sense of humor comes into play here, and it’s as morbid as ever. When Stevie sits on the bus, he’s next to a sweet old lady carrying an adorable little puppy. Stevie even plays with the dog right before the bomb goes off. These three figures feel like a tableau of purity, kindness and innocence and it’s almost comical. Hitchcock reinforces this by cutting to the three main adult characters (Sidney, Homolka, and Loder) having a laugh.
Alfred Hitchcock said in 1972 that he regretted letting the bomb go off (though the scene was faithful to the novel Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad on which it was based) because the bomb should not have gone off in a true suspense scene. My apologies to the Master of Suspense but I think he’s wrong. The bomb has to go off in order to pay off the suspense created while Stevie is trying to get to his destination, which sets up the climax. Considering the scene has come to define SABOTAGE, I can see where Hitchcock is coming from.
SABOTAGE may have the incredible sequence on the bus, but the entirety of the film is not Hitchcock’s finest. It lacks the artistry of Hitchcock’s more well-known 1930s films. Part of the problem is that the story is almost too linear, with little ambiguity or moral complexity. SABOTAGE, though not as widely remembered as some of the director’s classic thrillers, is a fascinating look at the visual talents of Alfred Hitchcock.