Saturday, August 13, 2022

Stubs - Sabotage

Sabotage (1936) (aka The Woman Alone) Starring: Sylvia Sidney, Oskar Homolka, John Loder Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Charles Bennett Based on the novel The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (London, 1907). Produced by Michael Balcon Run Time: 76 minutes United Kingdom Thriller

While Alfred Hitchcock is usually remembered for his Hollywood films, he had a successful career in England before David O. Selznick signed him to a contract and brought him stateside. Some of his better films from this period include The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), Blackmail (1929), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Sabotage.

One night, London suddenly goes dark and loses all of its electricity. There is a commotion at the Bijou theater, with people demanding their money back. Meanwhile, investigators determine that someone has put sand in the generators, causing them to malfunction.

We see a man leaving the scene and getting on public transportation.

Mrs. Sylvia Verloc (Sylvia Sidney), the wife of the Bijou’s owner, tries to placate the crowd. She tells them that it is not the cinema’s fault that the electricity cut out, but they’re not buying it.

Ted Spencer (John Loder), who works at the greengrocer next door, inserts himself, taking Mrs. Verloc’s side, even though she doesn’t want his help. She turns over the crowd to a savvier ticket taker and goes to find her husband.

Meanwhile, the man we’ve been following, Mr. Verloc (Oskar Homolka), enters the back entrance to the theater, washing his hands in the sink, leaving behind the same sand they’d found in the generators. Mrs. Verloc is surprised to see his hat and coat and goes up to their room.

Mr. Verloc pretends that he was in all night and had fallen asleep while reading the newspaper. When she tells him what has been going on and that the patrons want their money back, he instructs her to return the money to the customers because he has "some money coming in." As the money is about to be disbursed to the customers downstairs, the lights go back on.


Mr. Verloc (Oskar Homolka) meets his contact at the zoo.

The next day, Verloc goes to meet his contact at the zoo. It is revealed here that he is part of a terrorist plot. An unnamed European country is planning a series of attacks in and around London. The motives are never made clear, however.

Verloc’s contact tells him that headquarters has declared the previous night’s operation a failure, citing headlines that proclaim “London Laughs at Black-Out.” Verloc’s superior demands something more substantial if Verloc wishes to get paid. He instructs Verloc to place a parcel of “fireworks” at the Piccadilly London Underground station. Verloc tells him that he’s not comfortable with killing people but he needs the money to supplement his meager income from the cinema.

Scotland Yard is, by now, certain Mr. Verloc is involved in the terrorist acts but doesn’t know if Mrs. Verloc is complicit or not. Detective Sergeant Ted Spencer, still working underground as the greengrocer’s helper, is instructed to befriend Mrs. Verloc and her little brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester), who lives with her. Ted treats them to a fancy dinner. His cover is somewhat blown by an overly friendly waiter who remembers his preferences, even though he’s told Mrs. Verloc that he’s never been to the restaurant before.


Detective Sergeant Ted Spencer (John Loder) befriends Mrs. Sylvia Verloc (Sylvia Sidney).

After their meal, he is convinced that she doesn’t know anything about her husband’s activities and tells his superiors. He is also falling in love with Sylvia as well.

Meanwhile, Verloc goes to a pet shop to meet his contact, who is also a bombmaker. The contact tells Verloc the time and place where he must deliver the bomb – all Verloc has to do is place the bomb at Piccadilly Circus tube station on Saturday. It is a time bomb and will be set to explode at 1:45 p.m. that day.

Later that night, the associates of the terrorist group are having a meeting in Verloc's living room, which is located behind the screen of the cinema. With Stevie’s help, Ted is allowed back there and tries to eavesdrop on the meeting. Propping open a transom, Stevie listens in but one of the terrorists sees his hand and pulls him through. Talking fast and with Stevie backing up his story, Ted pretends he was just looking around and leaves with everyone’s apologies.

However, one of the men in the room recognizes the detective, who apparently had arrested him. The men decide to end the meeting and split up, calling off the next assignment. Verloc tells his wife the police are investigating him, and he confirms with the greengrocer that Spencer is with Scotland Yard.

The next day, the canaries are delivered to Verloc, and he tells Sylvia they are a present for Stevie. The bomb is located in a drawer under the cage.

Meanwhile, Detective Spencer shows up with Stevie and tells Mrs. Verloc of Scotland Yard's suspicions that he is involved in sabotage. Verloc sees his wife and Spencer talking and becomes nervous. He knows he’s being watched.

Verloc asks Stevie (Desmond Tester) to make a delivery for him.

So, in order to make the delivery, Verloc asks Stevie to deliver film canisters to the cloakroom under Piccadilly Circus by 1:30. He’s told not to be late and promises he won’t be. Along with the two canisters, Stevie is given a box containing the bomb, which he takes outright past Tom.

With Sylvia watching, Tom questions Verloc.

After he’s gone, Tom, with Sylvia in attendance, questions Verloc, pretending that he’s trying to get information on some of his associates.

Stevie gets caught up by The Lord Mayor's Show Day procession.

Meanwhile, Stevie, unaware he’s carrying a bomb, gets caught up by The Lord Mayor's Show Day procession. Knowing he’s running late, he talks his way onto a bus, even though it is forbidden to transport flammable nitrocellulose film on public vehicles. Making him even later, the bus gets caught up in traffic.

Stevie on the bus has no idea he's carrying a bomb that's about to explode.

As he passes one clock after another, we see time pass as it gets closer and closer to the time the bomb is supposed to detonate. When the clock strikes 1:46, the bomb explodes, killing Stevie and others on the bus.

In the remnants of the bus, Tom finds part of a film canister.

Tom is one of the detectives assigned to investigate the explosion. He finds in the wreckage the remnants of one of the film canisters Stevie had been carrying.

Back at home, Verloc confesses to his wife but blames Scotland Yard and Spencer for Stevie's death, saying that they were the ones who prevented Verloc from successfully carrying out the bomb delivery himself.

He tries to make it up to her, even suggesting that she’ll forget about her pain when they have children of their own. But that is the last thing Sylvia wants. She walks out into the theater and gets caught up in the Disney cartoon playing. Momentarily, she forgets her troubles and laughs. But when it turns out to be about Who Killed Cock Robin, she feels bad again.

The moment Sylvia decides to kill her husband.

Verloc has sat down to dinner and she decides to join him. She’s using a big knife to cut the meat. You can see in her eyes what she’s thinking and then Verloc has the same thought. He tries to get up calmly but before he can grab the knife, she takes it. When he tries to get close to her, she stabs him. When he falls down, she walks out and sits in the next room.

Sylvia after killing her husband.

Arriving to arrest Verloc, Tom finds Sylvia and then the body. She confesses to killing her husband but he tries to protect her. Locking the door, he escorts her out of the cinema. She wants to go to the police but he wants them to run away together, figuring they had time to get away before the body is discovered.

Meanwhile, the bombmaker’s wife forces her husband to go back and retrieve the birds from Verloc and he’s followed by the police.

Seeing the commotion, Tom and Sylvia go back and talk with the police inspector, Tom’s superior. She tries to confess to him but Tom stops her.

Seeing that the police are surrounding the cinema, the bombmaker tries to find Verloc. His wife is fearful that the birdcage will incriminate her husband. He sneaks into the cinema and breaks down the door to the dining room.

The inspector asks Sylvia if she could talk to her husband and get him to surrender. However, as soon as she says she can’t because her husband is dead, the bombmaker explodes the vest he’s wearing in case he gets caught. The resulting explosion destroys all of the evidence.

Tom is instructed to take care of Sylvia and they leave together. Later, the inspector is confused and wonders aloud if it was before or after the explosion that she told him, "My husband is dead!"

The film ends with Tom and Sylvia disappearing into the crowd on the street.

Sabotage has many of the characteristics we’ve come to expect from Alfred Hitchcock. The thriller sequence, in which we know the bomb will go off, is one of the director’s better scenes. We’re forced to helplessly watch as young Stevie’s life, and those aboard the bus, are about to end. Hitchcock doesn’t provide for a last-second miracle either. Innocent Stevie is going to die.

Another great example of Hitchcock’s art is the scene in which Sylvia kills her husband. We can almost see the idea flash across her face and then his. While, at first, she seems to be fighting the urge to kill her husband, she pulls herself back. Verloc tries to be too cute about his grab for the knife, going all the way around the table, as if trying to hide his intentions. While the murder seems to come as a surprise to both of them, there is still a little wish fulfillment on Sylvia’s part. But she also seems to immediately regret it as she walks to another room and sits down.

Some of the best scenes in the film involve Oskar Homolka’s Mr. Verloc as he conspires with his terrorist colleagues. The Austrian-born Homolka began his career on stage at first in his hometown of Vienna and later in Berlin. He would transition to films and appear in at least 30 silent films in Germany before migrating to talkies.

When the National Socialists came to power, Homolka moved to England. His first film there was Rhodes of Africa (1936), where he appeared opposite Walter Huston, the same year he would make Sabotage. When he moved to Hollywood the next year, he would often play villains such as Communist spies and Soviet-bloc military officers or scientists. His role in Sabotage was probably an audition of sorts for these roles.

Sylvia Sydney is perhaps best remembered by a certain generation for her role as an afterlife caseworker in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). She made her first film appearance in Broadway Nights (1927), now lost. During the Depression, Sidney appeared in a string of films, often playing the girlfriend or the sister of a gangster, such as City Streets (1931), Ladies of the Big House (1931), and Pick-Up (1933). She would also appear in An American Tragedy (1931) which was later made as A Place in the Sun (1951) starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters.

She is okay in this role, even though, except for one scene, her demeanor doesn’t seem to change much throughout the film. We do see her laugh when she’s watching the cartoon short. It’s hard to blame an actress, since she was, of course, being directed and no doubt, trying to give Hitchcock what he wanted.

Of the three main actors in the film, John Loder may be the biggest disappointment, especially to Hitchcock. The director wanted to cast Robert Donat in the role of Detective Sergeant Ted Spencer. The two had already worked together on The 39 Steps. However, Alexander Korda, to whom Donat was under contract, would not release him. In his interview years later with Fran├žois Truffaut, Hitchcock complained about Loder. "The actor we got wasn't suitable, and I was forced to rewrite the dialogue during the shooting."

It should be noted that Desmond Tester, who plays Stevie, is pretty good in his small but pivotal role. He would appear in a few films as a child before emigrating to Australia after World War II, where he worked in radio, theatre, and television. He would work at that country’s Channel Nine as the head of children’s programming.

A contemporary review by Frank S. Nugent in the New York Times was very complimentary. His February 27, 1937 review starts: “Alfred Hitchcock, that sturdy yeoman of the Gaumont-British guard, has whittled a pitilessly melodramatic segment from Joseph Conrad's 'The Secret Agent' and, calling it 'The Woman Alone,' has placed it on exhibition at the Roxy as a masterly exercise in suspense.”

Sabotage is not the best Hitchcock film but it is still well-made. The story keeps moving forward and even if the acting isn’t all that he wanted, the relationships Hitchcock set up in the film still come through. If you’re a fan of his work and haven’t seen this film, then you should. The seeds of this film will find their way into his other work, perhaps most notably Saboteur and Foreign Correspondent.

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