Wednesday, April 01, 2015
Before The Deluge- Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage
From The Pen Of Frank Jackman
Sabotage, Sylvia Sidney, Oscar Homolka, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1936
The late suspense and thriller director Alfred Hitchcock (okay, okay, the late Sir Alfred Hitchcock since he pursued that title all his life) produced some genuine genre classics like Psycho and The Birds. But not all his work, especially his earlier work when he was as interested in framing a mood or doing clever cinemagraphic shots as scaring us half to death, reached that level. The film under review, 1936’s Sabotage, in a case in point. Frankly, the plot is plodding, the dialogue is stilted and the characters are if anything rather wooden. And while there are plenty of mood-creating facial shots and crowd scenes and some nice camera tricks this is strictly second-shelf Hitchcock.
Let me make my case. The lights go out, the lights in 1936 London which causes a certain initial panic although the plucky British wind up laughing about this modern inconvenience. However this caper was no accident since it had been touched off by a foreign agent, Mr. Verloc (Oscar Homolka), who is using movie theater ownership in the heart of London as a cover. The country that Verloc is working for is not identified but it does not take too much imagination to assume that in 1936 that country would be Germany as the war clouds were again beginning to form in Europe. Of course if the idea is sabotage, here to put fear in the civilian population, then laughter is not what had been expected by the agent who was handling Verloc. So another, scarier, caper would be necessary to do the trick, bomb planted somewhere where it would cause carnage and put that desired fear into the hearts of ordinary citizens.
But whatever the foreign network Verloc was working for Scotland Yard was on to him, had him covered by one of their top dog agents, Ted Spencer (John Loder) working undercover as a grocer’s assistant next to the theater. As the plot thickens Ted tries to see if Verloc’s wife (played by Sylvia Sidney) is involved in the plot so he takes her and her brother, Stevie, who is living with the Verlocs above the theater to dinner. She checks out clean. Along the way Verloc is making his preparations, connecting with a bomb-maker to do his dirty deed set for the Lord Mayor’s Day, a day when there will be throngs around town. A lot of the film is then set on the figure of Stevie who, Verloc being thwarted in his efforts to carry out the deed himself, becomes the sacrificial innocent lamb who will carry the bomb to its destination. The bomb goes off on a bus killing all, including Stevie. Mrs. Verloc is beside herself when she finds out Verloc had set Stevie up, had committed the deed, and kills him in a moment of anger and disgust. And she will go to prison as she is filled with remorse over her murder of her husband and tells Ted to take her in. End of story.
Well not quite end of story. See, two things happen to let her off the hook. First Ted in the process of getting to know her has fallen for her and is ready to stake all on them getting away, a not unusual cinematic and literary devise when love-smitten cops have to put their loved ones in gaol. Second the bomb-maker to cover his tracks goes to Verloc’s apartment to recover any evidence (especially a bird-cage, complete with bird, he had sent along the bomb in). But the cops are on to him. Cornered, he blows himself up with what today would seem an eerily current bomb-jacket thus destroying all the evidence of Mrs. Verloc’s crime. And the chastised pair set of into the sunset, or rather fog. See what I mean. The only guy who plays to form as a bad guy is Verloc who looks sufficiently like a primitive bad guy to do such evil work. Fortunately old Sir Hitchcock will do better as he goes along.