Hitchcock reviews Dial H for Hitchcock. Film reviews by Terrence Brady

Sabotage is the 1936 adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel, "The Secret Agent." It was named this so the film would not be confused with Hitchcock’s other 1936 production, The Secret Agent. Unfortunately, in 1942, Hitch made another film dealing with the sabotage theme titled Saboteur.

Not to be confused with this latter production, (set in America after the director left his homeland) the ‘36 Sabotage is set in London where Carl Verloc (Oskar Homolka) uses his "Bijou Theater" as a cover for subversive affairs. His wife is a young American (Sylvia Sidney) who has no knowledge of her husband's extracurricular activities and lives out her simple existence minding their theater and her younger brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester).

Unknown to the Verloc’s is that Scotland Yard is keeping close tabs to Carl's activities and has a detective, Sgt. Spencer (John Loder), working undercover in the grocer next to the Bijou. Spencer’s suspicions are heightened at the outset of the film when a suspicious blackout paralyzes the city. Scotland Yard orders the detective to establish an acquaintance with Mrs. Verloc in order to gain information on her husband. When Carl's associates discover that Spencer might be aware of their plans, Carl must proceed solo on a second act of sabotage. When an untimely (excuse the pun) disaster strikes her younger brother, Mrs. Verloc turns on her husband in a gruesome attempt for retribution. Spencer, discovering the crime scene, strives to conceal her innocence before an explosive (sorry) end comes to the Bijou.

If one recalls anything from this film, it will be the time bomb sequence in which a city bus is destroyed. A public outcry was raised and the film was even banned in Brazil as censors there declared that it sensationalized conspiracy and terrorist techniques. Hitchcock himself conceded that he was erring in building up the audience's suspense and then not providing a proper relief. Instead he opted for the more spectacular route of showing the bus explode; killing its passengers -- including the young Stevie.

Another scene of grisly death, handled much more like the Master of Suspense, was when Mrs. Verloc squares off with her husband at the dinner table. The quick editing of faces and hands clutching a carving knife created a frenzy of anxiety as the scene played out a powerful display of murder without the use of any dialogue.

And speaking of dialogue, there are quite a few good quips throughout the film. In particular, those offered by Sgt. Spencer provide a touch of light banter in his exchanges with Mrs. Verloc, as well as, with a constable walking his beat. [Considering the director's mistrust of the law, one could almost imagine it was he making the comments to the officer]. Originally wanting Robert Donat (The 39 Steps) for the part of the detective, Hitch settled for Loder who managed to play the role quite well. Oskar Homolka, though, was the one who stole this show. As Carl Verloc, the terrorist next door, he is a flawed man who must decide between his loved ones and his cause. While not completely evil, he is quite menacing as the conspirator and his destiny with death is inevitable. The turnstile scene is an excellent example of showing how he is trapped and can only choose one avenue to free himself.

RATING: 5.0 (of 10). While hardly the best effort by Hitchcock, Sabotage is a bit prophetic with its glimpses of "unfriendly acts" by powers that even the Scotland Yard superintendent state are by "people they'll never catch." Alternate titles: The Hidden Power (1936) and A Woman Alone (1937 US title).

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