Cine-East Film Club Presents #46: 1936, Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock)

by George_East on May 13, 2014

When I first came to live in London in the late 1980s, the threat of terrorism was ever present.   The IRA campaign remained active and it seemed barely a week went past without mainline train stations in London being closed because of bomb scares.   Occasionally in the late 1980s and early 1990s there were actual bombs too – Harrods, Hyde Park, the Baltic Exchange, Canary Wharf etc.  Although in the immediate aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, the threat of terrorism seemed to have disappeared from the capital, it returned in spades with the attacks on the  public transport system of London of the 7 July 2005 (and the half arsed copy cat attempts a fortnight later).

Last week’s Cine-East Film Club presentation, The Long Good Friday is a film about a man’s incomprehension of his world falling apart told through the prism of an IRA take over from organised crime as the main gangsters in London.   This week’s Cine-East Film Club presentation is perhaps the best film about terrorism set in London of all, Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage.

Hitchcock’s British films made in the 1920s and 1930s (before his Hollywood debut with Rebecca in 1940) remain largely unseen.  The Master of Suspense made 22 feature films between his debut, The Pleasure Garden in 1925 and his British swansong Jamaica Inn in 1939.   Yet I would wager that even most film fans have not seen more than a handful:  The Lady Vanishes and The Thirty Nine Steps being by some distance the most well known and most seen, with perhaps the brilliant original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (far superior to the later Doris Day/Jimmy Stewart Que Sera Sera remake), and possibly The Lodger and Blackmail – the two Hitchcock silent films that are in the critical canon and are most frequently shown – making up a round 5.

Yet among the lesser seen Hitchcock films from this period are some absolute masterpieces – which can sit without embarrassment alongside his great and considerably more famous American films.

One of those is Sabotage.  One point of confusion that needs to be cleared up straight away is that Sabotage is based on the Joseph Conrad novel, The Secret Agent.  It has nothing to do with the Hitchcock film, The Secret Agent, which is a somewhat hammy adaptation of a Somerset Maugham novel, Ashenden.   If that makes sense.

Sabotage like The Thirty Nine Steps, The Lady Vanishes, The Man Who Knew Too Much and indeed The Secret Agent plays on the very real fears in Britain in the mid to late 1930s of the growing threat from the Axis powers in Europe.   They all concern conspiracies of one kind or another, whether through secret societies in the pay of an enemy power (The Thirty Nine Steps), political assassinations (The Man Who Knew Too Much) or espionage in far away countries about which we know little (The Lady Vanishes and The Secret Agent).

It is Sabotage though that brings this threat closest to the audience, as it concerns terrorism directed at the general population, rather than the political and diplomatic manoueverings of the ruling classes.   The word ‘terrorism’ is not used (the word not being in common usage in the 1930s) but it is terror that cinema owner Mr Verloc (Oskar Homolka) and his cohorts intend to instill in London’s population.

The opening sequence in typically bold Hitchcock style dissolves from a tight focus on a dictionary definition of ‘sabotage’: ‘the wilful destruction of buildings or machinery with the object of alarming a group of persons or inspiring public uneasiness’, to a montage of an electricity  blackout across London, a blackout which it is made clear has been caused by the sabotage of a Battersea Power Station.   A group of men standing around the broken generators speak the first lines in a staccato rhythm:

Man in power plant: Sand.

2nd Man in power plant: Sabotage.

3rd Man in power plant: Wrecking.

4th Man in power plant: Deliberate.

2nd Man in power plant: What’s at the back of it?

3rd Man in power plant: Who did it?’

The brilliance of Hitchcock here is that he never answers that question.  We know that the mousy scared looking middle aged Mr Verloc is one of the terrorists and we also discover that a bird shop owner (what is it with birds and Hitchccock?) in Islington, billed as The Professor, is the technical man – building the bombs that the group use, but we never discover who is behind it all or why they are doing it.  Terrorism pursued for a purpose that is not clear or a cause that is unexpressed,  must surely be the most terrifying of all – how do you stop it, what are the grievances that need to be addressed or at least understood?    A brief scene in the aquarium at London Zoo towards the beginning of the film in which Mr Verloc meets with a shadowy Mr Big, who demands an attack on the tube system, as the electricity black out only caused laughter, hints at Verloc and his immediate operatives being fairly far down the terrorist food chain.

The basic narrative glue of the film follows Mr Verloc’s much younger wife (played by the wonderful American  actress Sylvia Sidney) gradually falling for the florist who sells flowers outside her husband’s cinema.  Mrs Verloc knows nothing of Mr Verloc’s terrorists activities.  The florist, Ted (John Loder) is in fact an undercover cop who has Mr Verloc under surveillance, and who uses Mrs Verloc to find out information about Mr Verloc.

This love triangle story line, with Ted in the end also falling for Mrs Verloc, may have been seen a hundred times before, but Hitchcock strays as far from film narrative convention in Sabotage as he will do in a far more celebrated moment in his career when he kills off leading lady Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane 30 minutes into Psycho.

In Sabotage Verloc’s teenage brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester) is sent by Mr Verloc to deliver film cannisters across London to drop them off at Piccadilly Underground Station.   He is told that he has to get there by 1.30 pm and he cannot use public transport because nitrate film is highly inflammable (so inflammable that it appears from the film at least to have been banned form being carried on public transport at the time).   Stevie wends his way through the city on foot taking in street market hawkers and the Lord Mayor of London’s parade – Hitchcock brings to the screen a vivid sense of London life in the 1930s in this sequence.  However, what Stevie does not know is that the film cannisters contain explosives intended to detonate at Piccadilly in the middle of the Saturday shopping rush at 1.45pm.   Typically for Hitchcock, although Stevie does not know he is carrying a bomb, we do, serving to heighten the tension significantly as you watch.

As time ticks down, Stevie persuades a bus conductor to let him on the bus for the last part of the journey to Piccadilly.  The screen switches between Stevie on the double decker bus and the clock.  It ticks up to 1.45pm, as it does   so the image freezes on Stevie on the bus for a moment and then explodes, tearing the bus apart (an image eerily similar to the devastated wreckage of the bus on Southampton Row in the 7/7 attacks).   Hitchcock has not only allowed an innocent teenager to die, but also allowed the terrorist attack to succeed – there is no last minute derring do rescue by Ted and the police or technical failure to prevent the bomb going off.

Verloc and The Professor will end up dead and Mrs Verloc will get away with her husband’s murder, following the timely intervention of a fire at the cinema, Ted’s helpful intervention and a police superintendent’s memory lapse as to whether Mrs Verloc’s revelation that her husband was dead became before or after the fire.  However, the success of the terrorist attack and the lack of any revelation as to the reasons why the attacks were being undertaken, leaves the threat in place.   Hitchcock leaves the audience with a sense of unease   that another attack could take place on the infrastructure of London at any moment.  This is an unease that must have been all the more intense in late 1930s Britian as tensions in Europe ratcheted up in the long penumbra of war.

Sabotage is even more that the other Hitchcock presentation so far in Cine-East Film Club, Suspicion, an unfairly neglected masterpiece. Many of you will have, perhaps unwittingly, seen a small excerpt from it, as there is a brief clip of it used in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.  It is a mere 76 minutes long and there is not a wasted frame (take note Quentin).  It is a masterclass in economy and tense filmmaking.  It is a great introduction to the hidden brilliance of Hitchcock’s  British years.  Check it out.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: