March 23, 2019
Sabotage – UK, 1936
On the eve of World War II, Hitchcock released what may be the most xenophobic film of his career. Of course, I say this with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, yet I have to believe that even at the time of its release, there must have been some people who watched the film and wondered why all of the villains had foreign accents. There’s even a family of terrorists, the head of which discusses the plot in front of his elementary school-age daughter, as if she were one of those fictional terrorist babies spoken of in the wake of the September 11 attacks. I suppose I would feel less offended by this is there were some overarching motive for the carnage they seek to inflict – a cause they support or a scheme they are part of, yet the film elects to employ an extremely bland and convenient explanation, one that excuses the absence of answers through a detective’s declaration that the suspects are the lowly pawns of a much more powerful and eternally elusive organization. How convenient.
Hitchcock was a master of suspense, yet occasionally he had the odd habit of revealing the baddie in the film’s opening moments, a tendency that often robbed a film of much of its intended tension. Sadly, Sabotage is such a film. In the film’s opening moments, a blackout hits London. Soon we see four investigators hunched over the scene of the crime, spouting a procession of one-word sentences. They begin with Sand and Sabotage and culminate with Who did it? Instead of leaving this question unanswered and thus creating a degree of tension and mystery, Hitchcock elects to answer it for us by spotlighting the face of Mr. Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka) and further removes any chance of him not being the villain by showing us the sandy residue he leaves behind after washing his hands.
The film continues its lethargy with its rapid revelation that Ted (John Loder), the friendly grocer who works next to Mr. Verloc’s movie theater, is more than first meets the eye. Early on, we see him annoyingly attempting to dissuade the disappointed theater patrons from getting refunds and then asking a series of suspicious questions about Mr. Verloc and his whereabouts during the blackout. However, before we even get a chance to wonder about his motives, the camera follows him from the grocer’s to an office downtown where his superior addresses him as Sergeant Ted Spencer of Scotland Yard. Perhaps Hitchcock had not yet mastered the art of the slow reveal at this stage in his career.
So, with both the scoundrel and his pursuer revealed so soon, there is little left for the film to do but introduce a third character, one whose involvement in and knowledge of the crime is still ambiguous. The character of Mrs. Verloc (Syvia Sidney) is given this role, and she remains a mystery for only about five seconds. After all, someone involved in a plot to terrorize London isn’t surprised by the presence of her criminal husband after the blackout. She’s must more likely to ask him if he’s sure he wasn’t followed. However, there’s an even greater indication of her innocence: She’s American and attractive.
The key question in Sabotage is whether authorities with learn the truth about Mr. Verloc before a second, much more deadly attack occurs. Just how do we know they’ll be one? Well, again the film tells us. And in what is supposed to me the film’s moment of suspense, we follow a boy and a parcel containing a bomb. How do we know that’s what’s inside? Take a wild guess. It says something that my mind began to wonder as I watched the film. I wondered what my daughter was doing, what was being talked about on CNN (the Mueller Report had been delivered earlier in the day), and what I would do the following day. And I wondered what film was being shown in the Verloc Theater. It was surely more entertaining than the one I was watching.
A better version of this story would have begun with the blackout, but shown it from the point of view of Mrs. Verloc. At least then there would have been the element of suspense. In that film, we would follow Mrs. Verloc as she responds to the odd questions posed by the grocer next door and begin to suspect that her husband was not who he said he was. This would at least have created suspense, especially when her younger brother is asked to deliver the package at her husband’s behest. (So much for the film’s attempts to make Mr. Verloc a torn, slightly principled villain.) In its current incarnation, we know what’s in the package, and we know why time is of the essence. Therefore, we watch somewhat impatiently as the clock ticks toward that moment of intended tragedy. Suspense gives way to predictability.
A more intriguing film would also have dispensed with the comic side characters. Just how is a film supposed to sustain apprehension when it stops its action to show an entertaining sidewalk salesman peddling a revolutionary kind of toothpaste? Unfortunately, this is just one of the many distractions that diminish the intended tension of pivotal moments, and the result is one of Hitchcock’s biggest disappointments. (on DVD)