Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sabotage (1936)

Film poster for Sabotage under its alternate title "The Woman Alone"

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

An unknown terrorist organization plotting attacks in public places of London is the central piece for Alfred Hitchcock’s motion picture Sabotage. Adapted from the Joseph Conrad novel “The Secret Agent,” the film is titled Sabotage to not be confused with Hitchcock’s earlier film The Secret Agent, deciding to instead title the picture after the definition of the act meant to be carried out. Of course, Hitchcock takes his liberties with the story as only this extremely creative director can.  Packed within its rather small 75 minute time frame is great suspense, creative editing, and inspired cinematography that craft this picture a formidable piece in the body of work for Hitchcock.

Sabotage is a suspense tale of a young woman that discovers her husband is a member of a secret terrorist group planning attacks on London. Karl Verloc (Oskar Homolka), an owner of a small neighborhood cinema, is a part of a secret band of terrorists from an unnamed foreign country setting up attacks on English soil. His young wife (Sylvia Sidney) is completely unaware of his intentions while befriending Ted, an undercover agent posing as a neighboring grocer. As Ted’s true identity is revealed and he cracks down on Verloc’s operation with fellow terrorists, Verloc finds it more difficult to carry out his mission. In his stead Verloc sends out Stevie (Desmond Tester), his wife’s dear kid brother, to unknowingly place the bomb, which Stevie believes is only film cans, which is set to go off at Piccadilly Circus at an exact time. Stevie becomes distracted causing the bomb to fail to destroy its target, but killing the boy. Verloc confesses to his wife of the bomb which killed her brother, and after a pause she mueders her husband. Ted, who has come rather fond and sympathetic to her, tries to keep her from confessing the murder to authorities, but in the act of confession all evidence of the murder is erased as a second bomb that goes off in the cinema destroys all evidence of the murder.

Through his mastery of taking inspirations of the original story and turning it into plot points and characters at that work in the medium of movies, Hitchcock creates a film that is highly engrossing and full of suspense. The story centers first on Verloc, then moves its attention to his young wife, to whom we become very sympathetic towards. In reality the audience is the overall omniscient being that sees all and is brought to the edge of their seats as we observe the events unfold on the screen. We know Verloc is guilty, but we watch curiously as he creates and shares alibis. We know Stevie holds a time bomb and we strain as an average boy he is easily distracted leading to his ultimate demise. We know Ted Verloc’s wife is an innocent young lady naïve to the actions of her husband, and we watch her become jaded by him, becoming a emotional train wreck as she discovers his true self and the actions that killed her brother.

Sylvia Sidney, an American actress seen in such films as City Streets and Fury, found Hitchcock too difficult to work with, never to star for him again. She holds the emotional core of the picture up until she is told of Stevie’s death. Then we transfer to Ted, played by John Loder, for the short conclusion of the picture. Loder’s character comes off as a usual male lead role in Hitchcock’s future films, playing the part of a man trying to play his way undercover to accomplish his task, though here we have little actual emotion connection to the male character. Oskar Homolka provides us with the villain. His thick accent and eastern European looks makes him a fine, easy target for audiences to dislike. On the cusp of what would be World War II, Homolka becomes the face of an enemy in the picture for a real life threat brewing up in Europe. Though never stated in the picture is obvious Verloc was German, though Hitchcock would change the character’s first name for the original Adolf as stated in the novel to Karl to avoid further allusions to the growing foreign enemy.

The picture has “stars” with the names of the actors, but the true star of the picture really is Hitchcock himself. Watching this film one would notice the fine tuning of his cinematography, something Hitchcock planned out to painstaking detail in storyboards, well before its wide use in filmmaking decades later. His framing explained emotions, from emptiness with wide shots on individuals, to inner struggle in close ups of the wife with very vacant eyes as she considers her revenge. He would move the camera more, while at the same time showing less, understanding that audience knows what is there and what the characters are doing or observing, but stays focused on the inner emotion of the characters than the actions that are carrying out.

Perhaps the finest moments of suspense in the picture is that of Stevie unknowingly carrying the bomb that is set to go off as the boy becomes distracted and slowed, leading to his death on a city bus while delivering the package. All within the same scene we are made aware of the package, its significance, and its time for it to go off. We fear for Stevie as he is continually delayed, first by his own accord, then by public events that stop him. Will he make it on time to deliver the bomb and get away? Or will he not make it? Will others be hurt? He is just an innocent boy doing innocent things, yet it is the most suspense in the picture as he just stops to look at a traveling salesman or gets caught behind a parade. It is also the most surprising moment in the film as he bomb eventually explodes, killing poor Stevie and all people on the bus. This moment was an adaption inspired by the original novel, but shocked critics for the gruesomeness of an idea. Decades later Hitchcock was said to have regretted the decision to make the scene as he did, wishing he did not kill the boy in the end.

On a small note is the appearance of a Walt Disney Silly Symphony “Who Killed Cock Robin?” Due to the film taking place primarily around a cinema, an aspect that Hitchcock changed to from the original book, it allowed him to allude to modern films. In it he makes note of audience’s fascination to murder mystery movies many times, but for a short time he shows this Disney cartoon. Disney was the top animation studio of the time in America and around the world, something not highly thought of in creative circles during the period, but was known for its quality. Here Hitchcock uses the cartoon as a moment to break the wife’s haze before clearing her thoughts as the cartoon starts to sing “Who Killed Cock Robin?” It may not seem like much, but it does link Hitchcock to Disney, and gives Disney an added sense of how much it affected people and the world with its animation. It might be looking into it too much to say so, but Disney was the small studio about rise to unknown heights very soon, and here we see a glimmer of how well the studio and its productions were received; at least in Britain.

Sabotage would in future years be somewhat of a lesser known film of Hitchcock, with him in coming years finally making his way to Hollywood and proceeding forward with cinema history. This picture is a fine example of the great understands the director had over his medium. He took a novel and nearly completely changed it, keeping only core ideas and still managed to make a wonderful film. The picture pulls you in and makes you feel suspense on a more intimate level. Clawing at your armrests you wait for something you know that will happen. This is a sign of a very well made picture.

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