Thursday, February 18, 2016

Alfred Hitchcock | Sabotage

a dark and dangerous place
by Douglas Messerli 

Charles Bennett (screenplay, based on The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad), Ian Hay and Helen Simpson (dialogue), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Sabotage / 1936

Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage is set in a run-down movie theater run by the anarchist Verloc (Oscar Homolka) to hide his real avocation even from his wife (Sylvia Sidney) and her young brother who lives with the couple. That location, indeed, offers Hitchcock the opportunity to explore the cinematic issues of dark and light as people come and go through the small auditorium where movies are being screened.

Indeed the film begins with a “blackout”—Verloc having tossed sand into the nearby Battersea power conduit—the cinema-goers, with true Hitchcockian wit, demanding their money back. Mrs. Verloc and the theater ticket-seller try to hold the angry crowd off, fearing that if their loose the night’s take, they business will go bankrupt. Even the next-door grocer’s assistant gets in on the action by explaining to the crowd that the event was not the theater’s fault, the theater being protected by law. But when Mrs. Verloc finally discovers her husband home and in bed, pretending to sleep, he tells her to refund the money, which she is ready to do when the lights suddenly are restored, the customers now able to continue viewing the movie.
      In this scene, not only do we discover Verloc’s duplicity, but come to perceive the threats of mob violence. Evil lurks everywhere in the London of Hitchcock’s story, ready to be unleashed at the flip of a switch. Many of the films shown in this small cinema, indeed, seem to be horror films, and even in a Disney cartoon (from Silly Symphonies) features the murder of “Cock Robin.”
      If Verloc is dangerous, those above him are brutal, willing to blowup a busy train station. Verloc is forced to visit a local pet store owner, who will provide him with the bomb, buried in the bottom of a bird-cage, which is set to “chirp” at precisely 1:45. In what appears as an act of great kindness, Verloc gives the birds to his wife’s brother.
     We soon discover that the next-door green-grocer is a government plant, and after the agent takes her and her brother to an expensive lunch in an attempt to get information, Verloc becomes suspicious, perceiving that he is being watched. Unable to take the bomb to the proper location, Verloc hands over its delivery, along with a few reels of film to the young brother-in-law. The boy is delayed temporarily by a parade and, after, is held back by a street peddler who uses the boy as a stand-in to sell his toothpaste, both events creating a nearly unbearable tension as we begin to realize the child’s fate. Suddenly the entire streetcar explodes, killing everyone within, including the child and a cute puppy.

      In retrospect, Hitchcock felt that the boy’s death was a critical mistake, in not permitting the audience a release from the building tension. Certainly the event, while brilliantly filmed, does dim anything in this film that might be associated with light. Indeed, after that event it is difficult any longer to care what might happen. And Mrs. Verloc is suddenly forced, in her bitter grief, to take up a carving knife and kill the man whom she previously described as being so kind. 
      Her act, moreover, seems to put her in jeopardy, even though she and the agent knows what has been behind her murdering of him. Another explosion—this one destroying the movie house, presumably by Verloc cohorts—allows her to escape any suspicion, while, as in Blackmail, the policeman keeps silent about the woman he will surely now marry.     
      Accordingly, this film leaves a somewhat bad taste in one’s mouth, with all the villains, except Verloc, still on the loose, while the tawdry London Hitchcock has created remains a very dark and dangerous place.

Los Angeles, February 18, 2016


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