SABOTAGE (1936): “Who killed Cock Robin?”

SABOTAGE (1936) – Gaumont-British – Rating: ★★½

B&W – 77 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Oscar Homolka (Carl Verloc), Sylvia Sydney (Mrs. Verloc), John Loder (Police Sergeant Ted Spencer), Desmond Tester (Stevie), William Dewhurst (The Professor).

Produced by Michael Balcon & Ivor Montagu

Screenplay by Charles Bennett, based on the novel The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

Photography by Bernard Knowles

Edited by Charles Frend

Continuity:  Alma Reville

The movie opens on a close-up of a dictionary page, with the definition of “sabotage” prominent.  Then Hitchcock demonstrates that even at this early point in his career, he has mastered the economical set-up of a film:  close-up of a light bulb; fade to busy city street at night; back to light bulb, which flickers and goes out; close-up of a voltage meter which drops sharply; back to busy street scene, lights go out, over sounds of cacaphony; three quick jump cuts take us into an electrical plant; three men hunched over some equipment.  “Sand.”  “Sabotage.”    “Who did it?”  Over this question, we cut to a  man walking into frame, with a sinister look on his face and a sinister musical cue to match.  In about one minute the film has been set up.

And who is our saboteur?  Carl Verloc, who runs a movie theater, and lives with his wife and her younger brother in a flat adjoining the theater.  His family is not aware of his criminal activity, but a man who works at the fruit stand next to the theater is very interested in Mr. Verloc’s activities, and he’s even more interested in Mrs. Verloc.  This man is no fruit seller, he is an undercover policeman, sent to keep an eye on Verloc.

Verloc is very proud of his act of sabotage, plunging the city into darkness.  His overseer, however, is less than impressed.  They meet at an aquarium, and the other man tells Verloc that a bigger event is required:  namely, a bomb, and the deaths of innocent people.  Incidentally, the movie never tells us which country or agency Verloc is performing his acts of sabotage for, it is “they” who ask these things of him.  This is often the case in Hitchcock’s films;  the specifics of the espionage are inconsequential, it is the action that matters, for this is what advances the plot.

Verloc is instructed to visit a man called the Professor, who will build a time bomb for Verloc to leave in Piccadlly Circus.  As Verloc is visiting the Professor,  the police inspector is getting rather cosy with Mrs. Verloc and her young brother Stevie.  Clearly the inspector’s intentions with the married woman are more than professional.

Finally the fateful day arrives.  The bomb is ready.  But that dreadful police inspector is always hanging around.  How is Carl Verloc to leave the theater undetected to deliver the bomb?  Perhaps young Stevie could be convinced to do it for him.  This sets in motion the final act of the film, which will have tragic consequences for the Verloc family.  (For a detailed analysis of this final act, read the “deconstruction of a scene” segments below.  If you haven’t seen the film, be aware that all major plot points are discussed.)

Performance:  Most of the performances in this film leave something wanting.  Sylvia Sydney does quite a good job as Mrs. Verloc, but she has absolutely zero chemistry with John Loder, who plays the police sergeant.  Loder was not Hitchcock’s first choice.  Hitchcock wanted Robert Donat, with whom he had made The 39 Steps just one year prior, but Donat did not take the part.  Oscar Homolka does a decent job as Carl Verloc, but he is one of the few Hitchcock villians with whom the the audience never sympathizes, and this limits his character.  William Dewhurst is entertaining as The Professor, but overplays his part.

Source material:  It has often been remarked that the works of Joesph Conrad do not translate well to the big screen, and in most cases this has been proven out.   The reason this film does work fairly well is because Hitchcock eliminated most of the psychological and political overtones in the book, leaving just the primary action.  There were many changes in the jump from page to screen.  In the book, the bomb prematurely goes off in Greenwich Park. This is based on an actual incident that occured there in 1894.  Gone from the film version is Mrs. Verloc’s mother, who plays a fairly big role in the early part of the novel.  There is not even a hint of a romantic relationship between the police inspector and Mrs. Verloc in the novel.  Stevie is described as a feeble-minded young man in the book, whereas in the movie he is younger, and there is no hint of mental deficiency.  The book has a much darker ending (Conrad loves to kill off major characters at the end of almost every novel).  Also, in the book the Verlocs run a seedy pornographic store, selling “photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls” and “a few books, with titles hinting at impropriety.”  Certainly that would not do for a movie made in the mid-1930’s;  Hitchcock has the Verlocs running a movie theater.

A Disney/Hitchcock connection?  Yes, there is a connection between Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock.  The cartoon which is being viewed in the theater near the end of the movie is the 1935 Silly Symphonies cartoon “Who Killed Cock Robin?”  In the opening credits of the film, there is a special thanks to Walt Disney for his permission to use the cartoon.

Recurring players:  Matthew Boulton (Superintendent Talbot) also appeared in The 39 Steps.  S.J. Warmington (Hollingshead) had small roles in Murder, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and The 39 Steps.  Frank Atkinson had small roles in both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much and Young and Innocent.  Pamela Bevan, Mike Johnson and Albert Chevalier also appeared in Young and Innocent.  D.A. Clarke-Smith was in the original The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Clare Greet (the Verloc’s cook) appeared in Number 13, The Ring, The Manxman, Murder, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and Jamaica Inn.  Aubrey Mather (greengrocer) was also in Jamaica Inn and Suspicion.   Frederick Piper (bus conductor) also appeared in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent, and Jamaica Inn.  Torin Thatcher had small roles in Young and Innocent and Saboteur.  And Jack Vyvian can also be seen in the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much and Young and Innocent.

Legacy:  In 1996, Christopher Hampton directed an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel.  Hampton’s version stays very true to Conrad’s source material, so his movie has few similarities with Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation.  This later version features Bob Hoskins as Verloc, Patricia Arquette as Mrs. Verloc, and Christian Bale as Stevie.

Where’s Hitch?  He isn’t!  I have often heard and read, from a variety of sources, that Alfred Hitchcock made a cameo in every movie from The Lodger onward.  It turns out this is not true.  If he is in this film, he’s so well hidden as to remain unrecognized.  There are a couple of sources (one of them being Wikipedia) that do cite a cameo in this film, but after scrutiny of the scenes cited I can say with some assurance they are not Hitchcock.  I would agree with the majority of Hitchcock books and websites, that he is not in this film.

Deconstruction of a scene, part 1:  There are two scenes in this film that are essential for understanding how Hitchcock used the techniques of editing and montage to generate tension, and he did it in two very different ways.   Lets watch the clip above.  How do the editing choices enhance the dramatic tension?  In this very short clip, there are 37 editorial cuts, an average of one cut every 3 1/2 seconds.  Hitchcock essentially shows us 4 things, over and over:  the boy interacting with the dog;  the package with the bomb; traffic scenes; and most importantly, the faces of passing clocks showing the progression of time.  Time is compressed considerably here;  the first clock face we see says 1:31, the last one we see is turning from 1:45 to 1:46.  So we have about 15 minutes of story time compressed into just over 2 minutes of movie time.  Note the music, which  has a clocklike, metronomic percussion.  Note how the music increases in intensity throughout the scene.  Also, each time Hitchcock shows a clock face, it is larger in the frame.  The last clock we see is in extreme close-up of the hand turning.  The focus on time is important because we as viewers all know the bomb is set to detonate at 1:45.  We have knowledge that the characters do not.  At the moment of detonation, Hitchcock does three rapid cuts, showing the package with the bomb from three different angles in the space of just over one second.  Also, note how he chooses to finish the scene with a jump cut from the exploding bus to Oscar Homolka, laughing.  This rather jarring cut serves to keep the tension going for a few seconds longer.  Even after killing a child and a puppy, Hitch couldn’t let his audience off easily!

Deconstruction of a scene, part 2:  In the Verloc murder scene, Hitchcock creates tension in a very different, and much more original way.  This scene is early Hitchcock at his absolute best.  First of all, note the soundtrack.  Music was an essential component of the earlier bus explosion scene, but here it is the complete absence of music that creates tension.  Hitchcock was never afraid to use silence where many other directors would have used a dominant musical cue.  It is a shame that directors today tend to shy away from this (with one notable exception being David Fincher).   Perhaps it is best to let the master himself describe this scene:  “When Sylvia Sydney brings the vegetable platter to the table, the knife acts as a magnet; it’s almost as if her hand, against her will, is compelled to grab it.  The camera frames her hand, then her eyes, moving back and forth between the two until suddenly her look makes it clear that she’s become aware of the potential meaning of the knife…The wrong way to go about this scene would have been to have the heroine convey her inner feelings to the audience by her facial expressions.  I’m against that…I must try to convey this woman’s frame of mind by purely cinematic means.”

Now that the viewers, as well as the Verlocs, are aware of the knife and its implications, something fascinating happens.  After a series of very rapid editorial cuts,  Hitchcock changes it up.  Rather than cutting to Mr. Verloc in close up, he holds the camera on him, and has Verloc rise from his chair and walk into a close up.  Hitchcock said he wanted the viewer to “recoil…be pushing back slightly in his seat to allow Verloc to pass by.”   This is a very effective use of the camera.  Next Hitchcock cuts to Mrs. Verloc, looking vulnerable, seen from her husband’s point of view.  Note the astonishing shifting of perspective in this scene.  At first we are inside Mrs. Verloc’s mind, as she thinks of her dead brother and what she can do with the knife.  Then we are viewing the scene from our own perspective as Mr. Verloc approaches us with menace.  Then we are viewing the scene from Mr. Verloc’s POV as he approaces his wife.  Three different perspectives in under a minute, done through masterful cutting.  During the stabbing, the camera stays on their upper bodies, allowing for a moment of moral ambiguity:  does she stab him on purpose, does he thrust himself on the knife, is it an accident?  The implication is that she has killed to avenge her brother, but the action is not directly shown.  Conrad is more specific in his novel:  Mr Verloc sees the knife in her hand, but does not have “…the time to move either hand or foot.  The knife was already planted in his breast.  Into that plunging blow…Mrs. Verloc had put all the inheritance of her immemorial and obscure descent,  the simple ferocity of the age of caverns, and the unbalanced nervous fury of the age of bar-rooms.”  (How’s that for a Conrad sentence?)    And in this scene’s final, often-imitated image, Mrs. Verloc walks away into the light,  leaving us in the dark, with the corpse of Mr. Verloc nearby, only his feet visible in the foreground.

What Hitch said:  He said that this movie is “somewhat sabotaged!  Aside from a few scenes, it was a little messy.  No clean lines about it.”  He also thought that showing the murder of Stevie “was a grave error on my part.”

Definitive edition:   This is one of many early Hitchcock films that has been part of the public domain for quite some time, which means there are many cheap versions available on DVD, either as a stand-alone title or as part of a box set.  Most of these public domain releases feature very shoddy prints, with poor visual and audio quality.   MGM/Fox acquired the American rights to this title, and seven other early Hitchcock films in 2008, and made them available for purchase individually or in the “Premiere Collection” box set.  This is far and away the best quality version of Sabotage available for purchase today.  (This movie has yet to be released on blu ray by any distributor.)  Unfortunately, both the individual title and the box set are already out of print, but they can be found at a reasonable price online.  It is well worth the price for any serious Hitchcock fan or collector;  while this may be a minor film in his canon, it has never looked or sounded this good.  The MGM/Fox DVD contains a commentary track by Leonard Leff (author of the book “Hitchcock and Selznick”), a 25-minute audio interview with Peter Bogdanovich and Alfred Hitchcock, a short restoration comparison, and a stills gallery.

In the following clip from the Dick Cavett show, Hitchcock explains why he thinks he made a mistake with the bus explosion scene, and he also talks about the Russian theory of montage, which is essential to understanding Hitchcock.