Sabotage (1936)

I still have 21 Hitchcock DVDs to watch, only 3 of which I’ve seen before, so I’m going to be quite fearful of repeating myself in some respects throughout this review, prior ones, and the ones to follow. I suppose some measure is inevitable, but I tend to write it off as reasonable in recognition of the fact that few people actually read all of my reviews. There’s neither rhyme nor reason to which ones I own, being as they come from boxsets primarily, so some I’ve only heard by name, and others not even that. I’ve certainly heard of Sabotage, but knew absolutely nothing of it beyond its director.

Mrs. Winnie Verloc (Sylvia Sidney) is the wife of cinema owner Verloc (Oskar Homolka, the thickly-accented Austrian who would later play Mr. Sardonicus’ assistant Krull–and an Oscar nomination for I Remember Mama), who is not entirely happy in her marriage, with her younger brother Stevie (Desmond Tester) living with them behind and above the theatre itself. A blackout strikes London and leads to a demand for returned ticket fees by their audience, which Verloc waves away to Mrs. Verloc’s confusion, as he only suggests that an alternate form of money will come in. Greengrocer Ted Spencer(John Loder) attempts to help quell the demands for Mrs. Verloc, but is almost more interested in Verloc’s whereabouts during the blackout. Verloc visits a man at the aquarium where he beams at his blackout achievement, but the mysterious man who assigned to him the intent to terrorize London is unimpressed and assigns Verloc to a bombing. Ted is none-too-subtle in his curiosity and is revealed as an undercover officer who is stationed to watch Verloc’s activities. It’s only when personal involvement touches Mrs. Verloc that she begins to believe Ted and determine whether to act on her suspicions.

I was not aware of two things as this film very first opened. First, that films used on-screen definitions of their titles as early as the 1930s to open, and, second, that sabotage once referred to what is now known as terrorism (where my more modern understanding had been that it only related to activities which would disrupt normal workings–not that terrorist acts wouldn’t do that, but a sort of unspoken understanding that such workings should be more the mechanical or political sort than the emotional sort). Thus any preconceptions I had of the film’s intent were quickly erased, as there would be no plot of a company sabotaging another’s factory or any such nonsense. Disruption of society was the order at hand, and with undertones of war-time motivation that are apparently far more subdued than Joseph Conrad’s original story (known as The Secret Agent, and bearing no relation to Hitchcock’s near-contemporary film of the same name).

Technique is usually the fascination with Hitchcock’s work (especially when one is reminded of his rather disparaging comments about actors), and it is about this, primarily, that I find interest in this film. As usual (and similarly to Orson Welles’ work on Citizen Kane) it’s a danger to watch for these things, because they’re typically well hidden in an emotionally engaging film, used pitch-perfectly to their intended effect and never announcing themselves, just as they shouldn’t. It’s the difference between a scene where you think, “Wow, that was really neat,” and “Wow, I wonder how they did that,” or even between the latter and “Oh gosh, I hope he doesn’t do it!” You are not ejected from the film’s world in service of masturbatory technique on the part of the director, and are instead shown something that, while innovative, is only an innovation made to serve the story–not itself. In this instance, there are fascinating scenes of double-exposure again, and clever usage of non-specific imagery (like grinding gears) to convey the tone of a scene, especially suspense. Probably the most interesting is a scene late in the film between Mr. and Mrs. Verloc, which is thoroughly enhanced by subtle actions on the parts of both Sidney and Homolka that are magnified by extreme close-up and a very smart placement of focus. I’d prefer not to go into plot details here, but the effect is pretty stunning and well carried off.

I was about to comment on the sadness I feel at never seeing Sidney act again, as I was very impressed with her performance–except I decided to check out what there might be to look into in the future and was stone-cold shocked to find she was Beetlejuice‘s Juno (“your caseworker”). I like her even more in light of this–a range of performance from this rather demanding one to an amusingly off-kilter and amusing one that shows she had some kind of sense of humour (heck, apparently she was in Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To, even!). Homolka’s presence is always heavily inflected by his accent, which seems to be impossible for him to drop, but always adds a slightly foreign (naturally!) note to his performances, something that clearly sets him away from the other characters. I’m of a mind to wonder if this is intentional on the part of anyone or simply a happy coincidence. His rather inept, greedy but not terribly awful Verloc is almost sympathetic, yet disgusting to the right degree when necessary.

Suspense is a difficult thing for me, what with the decades of film that followed and crossed my path (plus I was falling asleep when I first chose to watch this, out of sheer exhaustion and mis-timed understanding of the film climaxing), but I can see it in action even if I can’t feel it. I’ve yet to doubt Hithcock’s skill in this respect, and I find more to respect without being drawn too thoroughly into that, as I’m able to step enough outside to more easily recognize those aforementioned-subtle devices.

A very good film.

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