Hitchcock on the set with Oscar Homolka
Hitchcock shooting on the set of Sabotage, 1936
aka: The Woman Alone
Great Britain (76 mi) 1936 d: Alfred Hitchcock
One of the more provocatively compelling Hitchcock films from the 30’s, though it may be Hitchcock’s version of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), a film that led to lacerating criticism, including Kubrick death threats, so he pulled the film from theaters and refused to show it in England for the next 30 years, as the public associated the horrific violence in that film with a marked rise in street crime. Hitchcock’s film, confusingly coming on the heels of a film he made entitled SECRET AGENT (1936), and a later film called SABOTEUR (1942), is loosely based upon Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent, one of the great modernist novels that insightfully predicts the historical influence of anarchist and revolutionary violence, also the creation of secret police units, long before many of the social uprisings of the twentieth century. While the book explores the consequences of radical terrorism through detailed characterizations of the people involved, showing the negative effect it has not only on the individual, but also their families, Hitchcock is similarly interested in the scapegoat theme, where innocents are sacrificed while carrying out terrorist aims, which in the film remain nameless. Nonetheless the centerpiece of the film features a scene showing how others are unsuspectingly exploited into the services of these shadowy groups, where Hitchcock builds tension through a carefully sustained editing scheme leading up to the violence, but is less convincing when it comes to the ramifications. Certainly one of the things the film gets right is a pervading mood of paranoia creeping into British life in the preamble to World War II when Europe was on the brink of war, in this case fed by suspicious acts of sabotage meant to frighten citizens and divert their attention from abroad, where Hitchcock introduces the subject in a brilliant opening montage connecting a literal dictionary definition of the word “sabotage” as the deliberate destruction of buildings or machinery “with the object of alarming a group of persons or inspiring public uneasiness,” with electrical inspectors discovering foul play in shutting down their generators, causing the lights to go out in London, where we hear their panicked voices sound out in confusion, “Sand. Sabotage. Wrecking. Deliberate. What’s at the back of it? Who did it?” Hitchcock leaves no doubt who did it, as we see a lone man creeping through the dark of the backstreets to get away, washing the sand off his hands once he gets home, an act as futile as Macbeth trying to wash the blood off his hands. In this way, the audience is introduced to the terrorist, Karl Anton Verloc (Oscar Homolka), before anyone in the film becomes aware. In fact, his wife Winnie (Sylvia Sidney) defends him throughout as the kind of man that wouldn’t harm anyone. The power outage causes an angry mob scene outside where people are in a frenzy demanding their money back from the small Verloc owned movie theater, where just as they are about to get their money refunded the power mysteriously comes back on.
Hitchcock paints an intimate family portrait, where a middle-aged Verloc speaks with a thick Eastern European accent, has a younger American wife, who married the older Verloc apparently not out of love, but because he provides a good home and is good to her much younger brother Stevie (Desmond Tester), who demonstrates a lovable clumsiness in the kitchen, while an interested admirer, Ted Spencer (John Loder), works next door at the fruit stand. It’s a familiar love triangle, where the younger woman meets a handsome man her own age, while the older husband she respects and feels indebted to is hiding a terrible secret. How long will it take her to find out the secret and switch her allegiance to the other man? Little does anyone know both men are covers for their real interests, where Verloc is a paid terrorist belonging to some secret underground organization while Spencer is an undercover detective working for Scotland Yard trying to expose whoever’s behind the recent series of terrorist acts. Stated bluntly, the powerful men behind these acts are too carefully protected and concealed to catch, so what Scotland Yard is after are the people they hire to carry out their dirty business. Spencer has been watching Verloc, suspects he is responsible for the blackout, and has a man tail him afterwards when he meets another suspicious looking, well-dressed foreigner named Vladimir (Austin Trevor) at the Aquarium, receiving a money package in an envelope where he’s ordered to escalate his next mission to something more devastating. Despite raising objections about the potential loss of life, he needs the cash, which places him in a bind, as he needs to support his family. Later Verloc visits a pet store with plenty of canaries, immediately recalling the apocalyptic doom of The Birds (1963), where the proprietor, Professor Chatman (William Dewhurst), amusingly promises singing canaries, but when a customer brings them back when they refuse to sing, he claims the customer is at fault. Led into the back room, the fidgety Professor, an explosives expert, lays out his plans to bomb the Victoria railway station in Picadilly Circus while the streets are overflowing with admiring citizens on the afternoon of The Lord Mayor's Show Street Parade, where in a clever shot Verloc imagines seeing collapsing buildings as he stares into a fish tank, with the Professor delivering the bomb to Verloc’s home hidden in a birdcage. Meanwhile Spencer has been working on getting information out of Winnie and her brother, but quickly realize they’re hiding nothing, focusing all of their attention on Verloc, literally surrounding the house with agents making it impossible for him to leave, so he devises a plan to send the unsuspecting Stevie instead, supposedly delivering two canisters of film (Bartholomew the Strangler) along with a wrapped package carrying the bomb, with strict instructions to deliver the package no later than 1:30, as the bomb is expected to detonate fifteen minutes later.
One might recall Hitchcock’s extended cameo sequence in Blackmail (1929), where he’s seen as a subway passenger who’s continually bothered by a persistent little boy that keeps pestering him by grabbing his hat, a scene the audience finds adorable. Stevie’s bomb delivery sequence is a ghastly inversion of that scene, where instead of smiling at the cuteness of the child, the audience is shaken to the core at the thought of what might happen, where Hitchcock creates considerable suspense showing how a young boy doesn’t at all understand the seriousness of the situation, and instead of delivering the package promptly he is seen dawdling through the city streets along the way, getting sidetracked by all the activity, continually cross-cutting different events that delay him even further, mixed in with updated shots of a clock revealing the time. Quentin Tarantino lifted a clip from this film in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) demonstrating the perils of carrying nitrate film, as they were highly flammable and were not allowed on British public transportation for safety reasons, which only delayed Stevie’s journey even more. As the time clicks down, it’s clear he can’t make it unless he’s allowed onto a bus, where the conductor insists that he sit away from other passengers, but as time slips away, he’s still on the bus at the appointed time and instead he’s seen playing with a puppy before the blast occurs. Audiences were horrified by the killing a child, where according to François Truffaut, “Making a child die in a picture is a rather ticklish matter; it comes close to an abuse of cinematic power,” as it took much of the tension right out of the air, where many felt it was overly cruel, though it’s undeniably a powerful scene, taken straight from the book. Hitchcock later regretted harming a character the audience sympathized with, especially a child, calling it a violation of his own cardinal rules, but did not regret showing the explosion, where Hitchcock’s treatment leading up to it was years ahead of its time. Viewed from today, after the world has experienced precisely these kinds of terrorist incidents, including the 7 July 2005 bombings in London, the audience’s identification with the character only makes it that much more uncomfortable and tragic, becoming one of Hitchcock’s most powerful scenes. Hitchcock was likely influenced by German director Fritz Lang, as actress Sylvia Sydney worked the same year in Lang’s FURY (1936), but especially his interest in crime, as both directors shared an abiding obsession with themes of murder and guilt, where both used suspense and a subjective use of space to establish intensely personal points of view (like the ten-minute sequence following Stevie), leading us farther into the character’s psyche than audiences had ever been before, feeling the full emotional effects of the victims onscreen. Before Hitchcock rose to prominence, it was Lang who was considered by many to be cinema’s preeminent master of suspense, where his thrillers had a profound influence on Hitchcock’s precise means of visual and narrative storytelling, as it was Lang’s fusion of criminality and ordinary life in M (1931) that had such an impact on future directors, where both returned again and again to themes of murder, guilt, identity, sexuality, and the creation of suspense. Lang may have pioneered the espionage and conspiracy film, but it was Hitchcock who added his own mischievous personality, mixing jeopardy with sex appeal and a delicious sense of humor. While Lang eventually saw crime as part of an overall social system, Hitchcock focused more on the personal ramifications. where as time went on Hitchcock realized his true vocation was a crime thriller director, becoming more and more fascinated with murder, eventually called the Master of Suspense. But in this film, Hitchcock was as yet to become the director that we know of today.
After the bombing, Hitchcock veers from Conrad’s book and creates his own memorable aesthetic, as it’s one of the few Hitchcock films without a mystery, as the audience knows Verloc is the saboteur from the beginning, so the film is largely told through pure visual storytelling, where it’s almost entirely a suspense film. After hearing about the death of her brother, Mrs. Verloc is in a state of shock, wandering into the cinema where the audience is howling with laughter over a Disney cartoon, Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935), where she sits down and for a moment laughs along with them until an arrow pierces Cock Robin’s heart, and the narrator boldly asks, “Who Killed Cock Robin?” This blending of the real and the unreal leads to one of the most inventive montage sequences in the film, when Mr. Verloc returns home and rationalizes his actions, showing more concern for his dinner than her brother’s death, becoming a drama of exchanged glances with her husband, glaring at him with suspicion while he tries to maintain a sense of balance and normalcy, but she continues glaring a hole right through him, capturing a look of rage and hatred in her eyes. This is as perfectly executed a sequence as the lead-up to the bombing, where there is no dialogue, no music, just quick successive shots of faces and hands as Mrs. Verloc serves her husband dinner, a vegetable platter where her hand almost automatically becomes glued to the serving knife, where the camera continues to probe under the surface where the tension elevates when he becomes aware of the knife, yet the expression on their faces is unchanged, trying not to give anything away. The way the scene is shot everything revolves around the knife, where their actions are utterly convincing, a choreography of two wounded souls as he walks over towards her, where she’s in a heightened state of alert, in a panicked fright, where a sudden noise creates a reflex action where the knife accidentally finds her husband, who drops to the floor. The shock of losing her husband and brother leads to an unending sense of despair, rescued from turning herself in suddenly by an intruding Spencer, as he has romantic inclinations. Spencer’s hopeful mood of optimism is totally out of synch with the rest of the picture, most especially the depths of anguish of the emotionally tormented Mrs. Verloc, and the finale feels empty, as it’s largely manipulated and orchestrated by a character whose motives are not fully trusted by the audience, bringing the film to a disappointing conclusion. While there are spectacular sequences contained within the film, overall the film as a cohesive whole just doesn’t hold together. The ending does recall Blackmail (1929), which also features a woman committing a murder in a dazed state. Both films end similarly with the heroine prevented from confessing their crimes by a policeman boyfriend. While it’s one of Hitchcock’s darkest works, it’s not nearly as bleak as the book which has Mrs. Verloc hurling herself over the railing of a ferry and drowning in the English Channel. Sidney did not understand Hitchcock’s working methods, especially such a lengthy scene without dialogue, where she might expect extended camera time, but Hitchcock used short quick takes and worked it all out in the editing room. It was only after they hastily put together a rough daily version of the completed scene that she understood how it all came together, taking her totally by surprise, as she developed a dislike bordering on contempt for Hitchcock up until that point. The film received acclaim from esteemed American and British film critics Dave Kehr and Raymond Durgnat, calling it the summit of Hitchcock’s British period. Perhaps the real trouble with SABOTAGE is the time of its release, much like the book which predates actual historical events, where the world was not yet familiar with the work of terrorists or suicide bombers and found the gruesomeness of the act rather preposterous at the time, coming before Hitchcock became Hitchcock, where the deaths of the young boy and the husband in this film are as fully realized as the notorious shower scene in Psycho (1960), but placed in a more meaningful context.
Beginning in 1934, coincidentally the year of Hitler’s rise to German Führer and his declaration of dictatorial power, Hitchcock created a series of politically themed British spy thrillers, beginning with THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) through The Lady Vanishes (1938), continuing again in the early 40’s in America, all set in a backdrop of contemporary European politics, though Hitchcock had no interest in ideologies or delving into international relations, but used these real-life circumstances purely to enhance his own cinematic explorations, where ordinary English citizens caught up in extraordinary moments were expected to stop foreign spy rings. Hitchcock went so far as to exclude national identities, or the cause of the political unrest, as his personal interest lay elsewhere. This may surprise some, as Hitchcock lived in Europe during Hitler’s rise to power between 1933 and 1939, when German anti-Semitism spread throughout Europe, yet “the Jewish question” is not a part of Hitchcock’s films. According to An interview with Patrick McGilligan - Dvdclassik, author of Alfred Hitchcock : a Life in Darkness and Light, “Hitchcock was definitely an anti-Nazi and (later) an anti-Communist, so his personal stance was anti-totalitarian.” Hitchcock’s films often warn against spies or terrorists, but offer little commentary on the complicity of governments, where the political sophistication of his postwar masterwork NOTORIOUS (1946) may be an exception. As an individual, Hitchcock had many leftist friends and collaborators, but never viewed himself as a political person and avoided making political statements both in interviews and in his films, which adds an element of timelessness to his films, as they retain the central drama of the story rather than comment upon some ideology that has fallen out of fashion. The key to his success was his flair for narrative, using a kind of cinematic shorthand, working things out to the smallest detail ahead of time, often withholding crucial information from both his onscreen characters and the audience in order to heighten the suspense, while accentuating motive and the underlying psychology. Hitchcock’s films were strongly believed to have been extensively storyboarded in meticulous fashion during pre-production, but much of this may have been a mythology pushed by the director himself, creating a picture of competency and total artistic control before the shooting even began. Hitchcock rarely bothered looking through the viewfinder, as he already envisioned the film he wanted to make, yet he was also flexible enough to adapt to changes that occur during the filming process, actually changing the entire concept of NOTORIOUS midway through the production. While his specialty may be crime storytelling, this was not a style he invented, but was an as yet unexplored artform when he started out, where like Shakespeare, he was not afraid to borrow or blend the best ideas of others into his own works, eventually reaching the pinnacle of success through the crime thriller due to his amazing consistency to intelligently entertain and amaze audiences over six decades of filmmaking, becoming a premiere artist who is in the running for the greatest director in the history of cinema, with Vertigo (1958) finally reaching the top of the list of the once-a-decade poll Sight & Sound 2012 Polls | BFI voted as the greatest film of all-time.
Note – The Hitchcock cameo occurs at about the 9-minute mark, immediately after the lights are turned back on and just before the lady shuts the theater kiosk window, where Hitchcock can be seen wearing a coat and hat walking on the sidewalk from the center of the screen to the viewer’s left, leaning back and looking upwards.
According to David Sterritt, author of The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock - Page 12 - Google Books Result:
Three observations can be made concerning this and other cameos. First, Hitchcock enters his movies not only to wink and wave at his audience, but to comment on the action in some small, sly way that accords with the manipulative, often sardonic attitude that characterises much of his work in general. Second, his presence indicates a wish to approach and ‘keep an eye on’ his characters.
Third, the cameos signal to his audience (which normally receives the message on a subliminal level) that he is the presiding spirit of his films. Each movie posits a particular relationship between its characters, on one hand, and fate – or destiny, luck, the way of the world – on the other. In every case, it is Hitchcock who has determined what kind of relationship this will be and how it will work itself out through narrative mechanisms. His on-screen presence is a mischievously overt signature that proclaims his control over the narrative and the world that it constructs.