At the beginning of 1936, having finished The Secret Agent, Alfred Hitchcock and his collaborators Ivor Montague and Charles Bennett took a working holiday to Switzerland where they worked on a treatment for their next film; an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel called, somewhat confusingly, The Secret Agent. As Charles Barr explains in his excellent book on Hitchcock’s British movies, Ivor Montague, a prominent figure on the British Left, was the key inspiration behind the choice of Conrad’s novel; not only for its political content but also for the opportunity it gave for the inclusion of elements from Russian cinema, particularly montage. Hitchcock was also attracted to the book for its potent examination of the costs of violence, the relationship between the state and its discontents and the close study of a relationship in crisis – all elements which frequently recur later in his career.
The opening of Sabotage is admirably economical – an act of sabotage which has brought a power cut to London, is discussed by a group of four men who, given one word each, introduce the main character, the saboteur Karl Verloc (Homolka). It’s a brilliant moment and the film proceeds apace with the introduction of Verloc’s wife, Sylvia (Sidney), who is trying to manage with complaints from the customers of the cinema which her husband runs. She is assisted by a local man, Ted (Loder), who, it transpires, is an undercover policeman trailing Verloc. Sylvia’s innocence of Karl’s actions weighs heavy on her husband who accepts a further assignment – to take a bomb to Picadilly Circus – purely for the money, despite his moral qualms about the taking of innocent lives. But when the appointed day comes, Verloc is unable to take the bomb and instead entrusts the task to Sylvia’s unknowing brother, Stevie.
The film guts the Conrad novel for its main characters and diverges wildly in terms of plot. The original is a pitch-black study of human desperation in the face of an almost abstract set of opposed powers. Hitchcock’s film turns this into a romantic melodrama in which the key figure of the wife is rescued from her distracted grief and subsequent act of murder by the stock romantic hero Ted – a weakly written and played character. The brilliantly argued central sequence between Verloc and his Tsarist employer is heavily cut into a short scene at an aquarium – we lose the wonderful line, “What is desired is the occurrence of something definite which should stimulate their vigilance…” For some reason, in my mind, I always hear Sidney Greenstreet savouring such dialogue. The character of the Professor is sentimentalised and that of Stevie is a lot less interesting in the film too – he’s just an ordinary teenage boy rather than a mentally handicapped child – and this makes the tragedy just a little less horrifying. In fairness, it is perhaps understandable that the in-depth psychological study of the book is replaced here by a police investigation – but it’s disappointing that we don’t get further inside the character of Verloc, though that’s no reflection on Oskar Homolka’s superb performance.
However, it should be noted that the best sequence in the film – Stevie’s bus ride to Piccadilly Circus – is very faithful to the equivalent scene in the book and its quite shocking impact is entirely true to Conrad’s intentions. Hitchcock’s use of montage here is quite stunning, turning the scene into a masterclass of suspense and his later rejection of it for breaking his rules of suspense seems more motivated by the critical disapproval which greeted the scene on first release. Viewed now, it’s an unforgettable scene and one of my personal ten best Hitchcock moments.
There are some interesting changes made to the original novel and the one which works best is the use of the cinema. Of course, Verloc owns a cinema and there are clever moments when a film-within-a-film is used to comment on the action. There’s an aptly ironic contrast drawn between the inherent escapism of the cinema and the use of a cinema as a base for activities which are anything but escapist. Finally, the cinema itself explodes. There’s also, in the investigative narrative structure, the opportunity for some moral ambiguity – the escape of the undoubtedly guilty and the idea of a policeman using his position to further his love life. The casting of Sylvia Sidney helps to render the last twenty minutes more effective than they might otherwise have been – she’s totally believable in everything she does and she deserves a more interesting partner than John Loder – the originally cast Robert Donat would have done nicely.
Hitchcock always claimed to dislike Sabotage but it’s perhaps significant that the darker mood of the film as compared to, say, The 39 Steps, is the one which recurs in some of his very best movies. Hitchcock was always at his most interesting when given the opportunity to explore cruelty of various kinds, particularly emotional cruelty, and it’s when he looks into the darkness that he finds something of his true self. In this respect, Sabotage is essential viewing – it’s also fair to point out that it’s far more interesting than Christopher Hampton’s much more faithful adaptation of the novel. Incidentally, if you’ve never read the novel you can find it on Project Gutenberg here.
Sabotage has been available on numerous discs since 1998 but the version under the review is available only as part of the Network Alfred Hitchcock: The British Years box set.
The film has been given a rather nice transfer, much better than the one I own on a UK disc from Waterfall Home Video. It’s certainly a little bit soft in places, but the shadow detail is surprisingly crisp, there’s a good level of contrast and print damage is minimal. The level of detail is more than adequate and the grain is suitably filmlike. The mono audio track is excellent without the hiss that mars Young and Innocent. Dialogue is very clear throughout.
The extras include a stills gallery, an introduction from the supremely uncomfortable Charles Barr and an episode of On Location in which Robert Powell supplements his income by wandering through some London locations which were used for the film. It’s a solid piece containing some useful information and comes in at just over eleven minutes.