Sabotage (1936, Alfred Hitchcock)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The police have a terrorist under surveillance as he and his cohorts plan an attack…

A young boy called Stevie (Desmond Tester) has been given an important errand. He’s been asked by his elder sister’s foreign husband, Karl Verloc (Oskar Homolka), to deliver a package to Piccadilly Circus. Stevie thinks the bundle is made up of just film cans – the family run a cinema, after all – but what he doesn’t know is that Karl has included a bomb. Mr Verloc is a terrorist, under orders from a shadowy network of foreign agents.

It’s a shame Homolka gives such a limp, unsure performance as Karl. The character should dominate the film: he’s the threat, he’s the danger. But the actor is so poor he sucks the life and tension out of his scenes. Around the time this film was made, Hitchcock worked twice with another actor from central Europe, Peter Lorre – and it’s difficult not to imagine him in the part, making Karl both scarier and more sympathetic.

As he travels across London, Stevie realises he’s running late. It’s the day of the Lord Mayor’s Show and the city is buzzing with crowds and the streets are choc-a-bloc with traffic. So he jumps on bus, using his cheek to get past the conductor who points out that celluloid is flammable and isn’t allowed on public transport. But the bus moves slowly, struggling through the throngs and past the shops and markets and parade. Stevie nervously taps his leg and repeatedly glances out of the window. We see his point of view as the bus crawls past various clocks hanging above shop fronts, emphasising how time is getting on.

He’s jittery because he’s going to be late – Verlock insisted that the cans are delivered by a specific time. We’re frantic with worry, meanwhile, because we know the bomb is set to go off at 1.45pm.

The editing gets quicker and more urgent and more intense. And then… boom. The bus is ripped apart by an explosion. All the passengers are surely killed, including innocent Stevie. It’s one of the more shocking moments in Hitchcock’s canon. In a morbid joke, the director then cuts to a scene of Stevie’s sister, oblivious as to what’s happened and laughing with her husband…

Hitchcock later said that he regretting killing Stevie – though not from any moralistic motive. It was because, he believed, that he’d fumbled the film’s sense of suspense. ‘That was a big error,’ he said 30 years after making the movie. ‘The bomb should never have gone off. If you build an audience up to that point, the explosion becomes strangely anti-climactic. You work the audience up to such a degree that they need the relief. One should have done the killing a different way, off the screen or something. I shouldn’t have made a suspense thing of it.’

However, it’s worth emphasising that Sabotage works so well precisely because a sympathetic character dies so horribly and in such a way that defies expectation. There are countless movies that set up a tragic death like this and then cop out at the last minute, allowing the kid to survive. Sabotage goes for the jugular. The explosion also motivates the remainder of the story: the character arc of Stevie’s sister, an American ex-pat played well by Sylvia Sidney, wouldn’t make sense without her devastated grief. As Hitchcock himself said, ‘The boy had to be killed for the sake of the story.’

The bomb sequence is also one of Hitchcock’s most stunning moments on a technical level. The director had recently been introduced to the wonders of Soviet montage – a revolutionary editing technique that had developed in Russia in the 1920s – by Ivor Montague, a communist writer who worked on several Hitchcock films as a kind of associate producer. It puts meaning not only into individual shots but, crucially, into the relationship and connection between them. Cutting to a new camera angle or a new scene or a new location is not just a matter of seeing something new: the edit also gives viewers extra information. In its simplest terms, if a movie cuts from one character looking longingly off-camera to an image of another character, we understand that the former is looking at the latter and is in love. We don’t need to see both at the same time nor we do we need to be told what’s happening. (Montage has become so mainstream it’s one of the bases of Western narrative cinema. But we must remember that the art form didn’t *need* to develop in this way.)

The cutting between innocent Stevie, the film cans, the bus, the crowds, the clocks, the traffic lights and all the rest leaves us in no doubt what’s about to happen – the sequence has real power. The technique appears elsewhere in the film too. After learning of Stevie’s death, his devastated sister sees taunting visions of him alive and well – a palpable and effective dramatisation of grief made possibly by cutting together different shots with real skill.

This awareness of cinema also extended to the film’s setting. The Verlocs live above an urban cinema, which allows Hitchcock to have some self-referential fun. One scene takes place behind the screen while a film is being projected; as discussed, the plot’s most shocking moment involves a boy carrying the film cans of a two-reeler called Bartholomew the Strangler. A clip from Sabotage was even reused 73 years later in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds: the moment when a bus conductor tells Stevie that carrying film cans in public is a fire risk features in an explanatory montage. 

Eight men crossing the road out of 10

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