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SABOTAGE (director: Alfred Hitchcock; screenwriter: from the novel The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad/Charles Bennett/Jesse Lasky/Ian Hay/Helen Simpson/E.V.H. Emmett.; cinematographer: Bernard Knowles; editor: Charles Frend; music: Louis Levy; cast: Sylvia Sydney (Mrs. Verloc), Oscar Homolka (Karl Anton Verloc), John Loder (Det. Sgt. Ted Spencer, Scotland Yard), Desmond Tester (Steve Verloc, Mrs. Verloc’s brother), Joyce Barbour (Renee), Matthew Boulton (Scotland Yard Supt. Talbot), S.J. Warmington (Hollingshead, Scotland Yard), William Dewhurst (The Professor, A.F. Chatman Bird Shop Owner/Bomb Maker), Frederick Piper (Bus Conductor) ; Runtime: 76; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Michael Balcon; Criterion Collection; 1936-UK)
“Perhaps the best of the thrillers Alfred Hitchcock made in Britain before coming to the States.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: spoilers throughout.

Perhaps the best of the thrillers Alfred Hitchcock made in Britain before coming to the States. It was scripted by Charles Bennett among others and based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent; the film was retitled A Woman Alone in the US. The reason for the title change was not to confuse it with Hitchcock’s 1935 The Secret Agent. This one has Hitchcock at his most mischievously playful, but the plotline remains thinly drawn. Instead, it’s in the master’s attention to details that makes this thriller so fascinating.

It is set when Europe was at the brink of war. The film version shows that even a kindly gentleman but one with a thick foreign accent could easily arouse suspicion, especially, in a London experiencing a series of terrorist acts to frighten its citizens and divert attention from abroad. The film opens to a black-out caused by sabotage of the Battersea power station, and in the dark shadows we view the middle-aged European owner of a small cinema, the Bijou, Karl Anton Verloc (Oscar Homolka), sneaking through the shadowy unlit London streets back into his apartment in the rear of the theater. He lives with his young American wife (Sylvia Sydney) and her precious younger brother Stevie (Desmond Tester), who know nothing of his activities as a paid terrorist. When movie customers put up a cry for their money back, the ticket-taker wife tries to put them off until she can find her husband. But when she goes to the apartment he pretends to have slept through it all and when he says he was there all the time she sort of believes him despite having her doubts. Det. Sgt. Ted Spencer of Scotland Yard (John Loder) is working undercover as a grocer-seller at the next door fruit stand, as the police are suspicious of the cinema owner and are keeping tabs on him through this surveillance. Ted doesn’t believe Verloc was home, as he saw him leave but lost track of him entering the theater again. When Verloc leaves the next day, he’s followed by Ted’s partner (Warmington) to a zoo aquarium where he meets a well-dressed foreign gentleman who gives him an envelope and informs him his next mission will be as a bomber because the hearty Brits laughed off the last incident as a joke. After putting up a mild protest that he doesn’t do murder, the foreign agent reminds him how well-paid he is for the sabotage. Later Verloc is followed to a pet store, where a cocky bomb maker anarchist (Dewhurst) informs Verloc he’s to receive soon in the mail a bomb hidden in a cage with two canaries.

In the meantime, Ted has a crush on the petite Mrs. Verloc and takes her and her precocious brother Stevie out for a cheerful roast beef lunch to the fancy Simpson’s restaurant.

Back at the theater, when Ted spots three suspicious characters go to a secret back room meeting with Verloc, he is caught in the act of spying and identified as a policeman. Unable to leave without being followed, Verloc instead gives Stevie an order to deliver some packages and a movie reel of “Bartlomew the Strangler,” as one of the packages contains a bomb set to be detonated at 1:45 pm in the underground. Stuck in heavy traffic and delayed because of his child-like curiosity of the bustling London street-life and a passing parade, Stevie hops a bus after talking the conductor into letting him on with the banned flammable film material. This leads to a scene that viewed today can’t help but remind of the deadly suicide bombers striking the buses of Israel and killing and maiming the innocent people aboard. At the time, the grisly time bomb death of a boy and a dog and all the innocents on the bus caused a public outcry and an apology from Hitchcock.

When the shaken Mrs. Verloc learns of her brother’s death, the movie is showing Disney’s Who Killed Cock Robin?– a Silly Symphony cartoon.

Later, alone with the murderer of her brother, who now doesn’t seem that benign, the jittery Sylvia Sydney character stabs him to death with a carving knife after he makes more of a fuss over the food than of Stevie’s death. He coldly blames Ted for spying on him as the reason he had to use Stevie. Ted returns to arrest Verloc and finds him dead, as she admits killing him. But Ted has fallen in love with her and is willing to endanger his career to cover up her murder, even though she’s prepared to confess to the police. Ted goes unethical, and is trying to talk her into running away with him. But instead the pet store anarchist returns to the Bijou, at his harpy wife’s bequest, not realizing he’s been followed and the theater emptied by the police at his arrival, as he goes to retrieve the canary cage with the explosive device and instead meets his fate when the bomb goes off killing him. The police believe the bomb also killed Mr. Verloc, as Mrs. Verloc and her copper love have gotten a reprieve.

The film never tried to explain what the sabotage was about, which bothered more than a few critics at the time. It does however state in no uncertain terms that the act of murder for a cause or for money are equally unacceptable. It might be of interest to note that Hitchcock’s parents were green grocers and the shop used in the film resembled his parent’s. Also, in this film, Hitchcock doesn’t make his usual cameo appearance.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”