Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: Sabotage (1936)

Sabotage is based on Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent. It’s not to be confused with Secret Agent, another Alfred Hitchcock film from 1936, adapted from W. Somerset Maugham. Or with Saboteur, which Hitch made in 1942. Also, Sabotage was released in the United States as The Woman Alone. Any questions?

Charles Bennett’s screenplay loosely follows Conrad’s book, shifting the focus from Mr. Verloc (Oscar Homolka), a foreigner in London who has allied himself with a group of terrorists, to Verloc’s gorgeous young wife Sylvia Sidney. This change facilitates, if not quite a happy ending, at least a happier one than Conrad’s. Sylvia wants to be loyal to her husband, but doubts are stirred by an undercover detective masquerading as a greengrocer (John Loder).

The previous year’s The 39 Steps is a film that simultaneously invents and perfects an entire genre. Hitch is up to similar tricks here, building the template thrillers still follow. He stages a meeting between Verloc and his handler in the London Aquarium that prefigures decades’ worth of clandestine rendezvous in public places. (Hitch ends the scene with Verloc’s dream of the city in ruins envisioned in the glass of a fish tank, a potent moment achieved with an ingenious use of stock footage.) He cleverly integrates the movie theater that Verloc owns into the proceedings, and builds a real feel for the bustling London of the period.

Sabotage is best known for the sequence that illustrates Hitchcock’s classic dictum about the difference between suspense (There’s a bomb on that bus! When is it going to – ka-BOOM!) and shock (ka-BOOM!) Audiences at the time were upset by this passage of the film, and Hitchcock later told Francois Truffaut that he regretted including it. The scene still works beautifully, so much so that the remainder of the movie feels muted. We know we’ve already seen the worst that will happen. And yet nothing in that storied sequence is as unsettling as a simple off-center close-up of Sidney’s extraordinary face, her eyes looking nervously to the left as her questions begin to grow.

Oh, and birds in Hitchcock movies? Always bad.