Sabotage (1936)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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Sabotage is very rough around the edges, due almost entirely to the limits of the technology at the time, but if you showed me this film and made me guess the year it was released, I might be inclined to say 1950, until I remember Hitchcock’s other films from around the same time which look much sharper, much crisper.

It’s pretty amazing how poor a film can look, particularly when it’s made on a shoestring budget, at any point in time.  Jim Jarmusch’s first feature, Permanent Vacation (1980) looks like it was made at the turn of the century, especially when you compare it with other films made at the same time, only using better equipment.  Even Woody Allen’s first (non-dubbed) feature, Take the Money and Run (1969) pails in comparison, technically, when you put it side by side with The Graduate, for example.

There’s no real point to this other than examining the differences between ultra-low budget films and studio financed films.  But looking at Sabotage, the poor technical quality of the film has nothing to do with Hitchcock or with the probable budget, it’s just what was available at the time.  And it’s incredible that he could pull of such tension and creepy performances even by today’s standards.

It’s also just kind of funny how something like The Man Who Knew Too Much can feel hard to watch when you’re used to very modern movies, in which everything is just about perfect, technically, but if you watch even just a handful of films from the 40s and before, suddenly The Man Who Knew Too Much, or Rear Window or any number of later Hitchcock films can feel amazingly sharp by comparison.

Anyways, Sabotage is a relatively short film, 77 minutes, about an imminent terrorist act in London.  Mr. Verloc, an owner of a small theater, helps orchestrate a blackout which begins the film, but he pretends to sleep right through it when his wife wakes him up, letting him know that the patrons are demanding their money back.

Right from the start there is something up with Mr. Verloc.  We’re not told explicitly that he had anything to do with the blackout, which is treated as a heinous crime from the outset (as if it’s impossible this could have happened due to an accident), but beyond the fact that Verloc lies to his wife, he is also just a creepy, dominating force throughout the picture.  Where so many other characters in this story come off as mostly undefined, just variations of “good,” Verloc is an enigma, clearly hiding something.

Mrs. Verloc is all that is good in the world.  She has a son, Stevie, who is not Mr. Verloc’s son, and Mr. Verloc seems to show the boy no warmth at all.  Mr. Verloc has his hands full, we quickly learn, because he’s part of a plot to set off a bomb the following Saturday in London.  When an undercover detective, Ted Spencer, catches onto him, Verloc begins to unravel.  Knowing he’s being watched, he gives the wrapped package containing the bomb to little Stevie and tells him to bring it to the designated location, though he of course doesn’t tell the boy what he’s carrying.

In one of the longest sequences of the film, Stevie carries the package through a crowded market place, is pulled in by a salesman trying to demonstrate the quality of a toothbrush, and then boards a small bus… on which the bomb ultimately detonates. Hitchcock really ratchets up the tension by stretching out this entire sequence to an almost comical degree.  And to make matters worse, we spend a lot of time with Stevie on the bus, worried he’s going to be late, while he interacts with a puppy onboard as well.  So you tell yourself the bomb’s not really going to go off, right?  And then it does, and boom, puppy and kid dead.

So the film becomes noticeably darker after this point.  Before the bomb goes off, there is some ambiguity between good and evil, only in the sense that the most “good” character, Mrs. Verloc is more closely aligned with the force of evil, Mr. Verloc, than with Ted Spencer, the ‘good’ guy.  Spencer even has some suspicion that the Verlocs might be working together.

When the bomb goes off, however, the line between good and evil is much more clearly drawn in the sand, and the characters only become more cemented in whatever they were to start.  That means that Mr. Verloc isn’t just creepy, he’s outright sinister, and that means that Mrs. Verloc becomes more perfect, and Ted Spencer no longer thinks she has anything to do with the attack.

In one scene, Mr. Verloc tells his wife that they can now have a kid of their own, and all she needs is a good cry.  He’s an absolute asshole, a monster now whereas before he seemed skittish and paranoid, likely having fallen into this plot rather than orchestrating it.  But in this scene he might as well be the mastermind of it all.  And more than that, he’s not even human anymore.  He feels like the devil.  He has no sense of himself and what he did, and it bothers him that Mrs. Verloc can’t get over her son’s death like he can.

She stabs him, eventually, in another drawn out, tense sequence, and the film ends with Mrs. Verloc and Ted Spencer, the love interest, running away.

Another title for this film is “The Woman Alone,” which focuses a lot more on Mrs. Verloc in act 3.  The poster emphasizes this version of the character, but she doesn’t even seem like the main character in acts 1 and 2.  So in a way it seems like this might give away more of the plot, letting you know how deep this story will go whereas “sabotage” only hints at what might happen but doesn’t spoil it.

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