Sabotage - 1936
Director(s): Alfred Hitchcock
Writer(s): Charles Bennett (screenplay) / Joseph Conrad (novel)
Cinematography by: Bernard Knowles
Editor(s): Charles Frend
Cast: Sylvia Sidney, Oskar Homolka, Desmond Tester, John Loder, Joyce Barbour, Matthew Boulton, S.J. Warmington and William Dewhurst
I grew up being a fan of Alfred Hitchcock; his style captured my imagination and the way he manufactured tension within any story always amazed me. Since I started this website, I've only tackled one of his films, Vertigo, and it didn't go as I expected, so I wanted to go back to his early days and picked one Hitchcock considered to be one of his weaker films, 1936's Sabotage (alternate title: The Woman Alone). Let's talk about it.
The story follows a theater owner, Karl Anton Verloc (Homolka). He is involved with a terrorist organization, and he just caused a blackout to the entire city of London. Scotland Yard his involvement in the sabotage and placed an undercover agent in the grocery store next to the theater, Ted Spencer (Loder). Spencer sees Verloc's family as his way in and flourishes a relationship with his son and his wife (Sidney). As the pressure starts to mount on Verloc, he makes mistakes that quickly unravels his plans, forcing Spencer to rethink his investigation.
While I can see why Hitchcock is not a huge "fan" this film, it had a lot of production issues, and he did not get the actors he wanted for the roles, it is a far cry from being considered a weak entry in his film catalog. The story is a straightforward thriller with multiple tensed filled sequences that only Hitchcock could've pulled off. Charles Bennett's screenplay is an adaptation of a denser novel, so he stripped off all the subplots and especially the Nazi references, and streamlined the events focusing on Spencer's relationship with the family, the plans of Verloc, and Mrs. Verloc dealing with her world crumbling before her eyes, making for an easy and quick watch for fans of thrillers.
Hitchcock's use of music, editing, and manipulation of the audience's expectation to manufacture tension are on full display, with my favorite sequence being the package delivery task Verloc gave his son. Hitchcock is fully aware the audience knows Verloc is a saboteur under investigation, so we connect the dots that he is using his kid as a cover. When Verloc expressly says to his son that the package has to be delivered by a certain hour, the ticking time bomb element (literally) is introduced to all the events we see as the kid is walking around London. Tension naturally builds on the audience as we see the kid getting distracted and falling behind his delivery, and the music swelling and the rapid editing between the kid sitting on the bus and the click reaching its dreaded minute is a master class of filmmaking.
Sabotage is a quick fun thriller, that takes a few turns I was not expecting and showcases just how talented Hitchcock was from a very young age. While it doesn't reach the heights of his better-known works, there is still enough for fans of the director and the genre making it a worthwhile watch.
Sabotage is Glass Half Full.
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