‘Secret Agent’, Alfred Hitchcock’s previous movie, was not based on Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’. Strangely, his follow up movie ‘Sabotage’ is. What are the chances of that?
This is a great little movie and returns to the taught and succinct storytelling of ‘Blackmail’ and ‘The Lodger’. The unlikely cinema owner Verloc (Oscar Homolka) is part of a network of spies based in London who are hatching some kind of terrorist plot. Verloc is low down on the terrorist hierarchy and soon realizes he’s in over his head. He vainly tries to backpedal out of the whole situation – too late.
I do like a dictionary definition, and this is the way the director chooses to begin the movie. There is a credit for Walt Disney for the ‘cartoon sequences’ amongst the standard stars’/filmmakers’ names and then we’re off. The opening image is one of a lightbulb burning bright, and this image will reoccur throughout the running time (the cinema setting in many scenes obviously lending itself to this motif). London is suddenly blacked out and there is a great short scene with some investigators investigating what has occurred at the power station:
‘Sand’…‘Sabotage’…‘Wrecking’…‘Deliberate’…‘What’s at the back of it?’…‘Who did it?’
Cut to Verloc stalking past camera in closeup against a dramatic theme.
We see the Underground ground to a halt, the passengers buying matches and having a right laugh – just like it would be today, but without the matches or any humour. Mrs.* Verloc (Sylvia Sidney) is under siege to cough up refunds to the cinema patrons, with the next door grocer (John Loder playing the undercover Detective Sergeant Ted Spencer – on the trail of Verloc) chipping in caustic playful remarks. Verloc sneaks in under cover of dark and washes his hands, leaving a residue of sand inadvertently in the sink.
These scenes are (obviously) dark and have a noirish quality to them – reminiscent of the sharp angular blacks and whites of ‘The Lodger’, but even moreso (and less crudely executed). There are London sequences throughout the film that stand with other great black and white depictions of the city – such as Jules Dassin’s marvellous ‘Night and the City’ (1950).
Mrs. V. finds her husband upstairs and shines a torch right into his face (and ours) – it feels like an interrogation right from the start, but he keeps his cool.
Within minutes the lights are back on and all is normal once again. Ted comes by to present a selection of lettuces and to slyly quiz Verloc on his movements, the foreign accented Verloc denying he has been out at all. Homolka is fine as Verloc but you can’t help feeling he’s a bit of a cliché baddie – his accent immediately gives him an outsider/sinister air and he’s all bushy eyebrows and feigned innocence. He may as well carry a big neon arrow above his pate with the word ‘villain’ blazing on it.
It’s great to see London in the 1930’s – Verloc visiting London Zoo at one point and elsewhere various shots around the city as they travel on buses and taxis. As Verloc gets briefed on a more explosive activity (the spies know that people laughed at their blackout stunt and want to up the ante) Hitchcock cuts to the aquarium and dissolves to an image of Piccadilly Circus in the frame and…he melts the film to suggest the imminent destruction! A great idea and really well executed.
Verloc visits a pet shop to meet with the owner who will supply the necessary explosive materials – they discuss the date and time of the attack right in front of the guy’s daughter and her child, a bit casual I think. We progress on to the fatal day with big captions THURSDAY…FRIDAY…LORD MAYOR’S SHOW DAY (the D-Day), captions that give a good build up of suspense. Stevie (the younger brother of Mrs. Verloc, played by Desmond Tester) points out to his sister that gangsters shouldn’t look like gangsters or else the police would catch them – and we see a looming high shot above Verloc’s starkly lit head as he slowly raises his eyes…
Ted sniffs around even more in the bowels of the cinema, eventually peeking through a high window at Verloc and his very dodgy chums – they spotting his hand and yanking him through the window to interrogate him. Stevie is ready with an excuse that gets Ted out of there – but one of the crooks recognizes him as a cop and the cat’s free of the bag. The crooks leg it, saying the plot is off, but Verloc gets a birdcage/bomb with a note stating ‘don’t forget the birds will sing at 1:45’. He spies cops lurking to spot him leaving so he gives the bomb (disguised inside a film can) to the innocent young Stevie – this ruthless wretch of a Verloc. Hitch builds the tension by having Stevie drag his heels to get going, Verloc finally shouting at him to get a move on.
The ensuing sequence stands with the very best of Hitchcock. Stevie sets off and, with a young lad’s curiosity, gets distracted by street activities just to push the time limit even further (at one point he gets his teeth cleaned by a salesman). Hitchcock uses dissolves to suggest the passing of time, a metronomic theme running under his slow progress, shots of clocks thrown in for good measure. He boards a bus clutching the film can for delivery and the tension is fantastic.
You really don’t want to see the little fellow buy it but Hitchcock doesn’t flinch. Stevie is confronted by the bus conductor who tells him off for carrying film on public transport (see note re. nitrate stock below) but the guy lets him stay on. Stevie plays with a small dog. Tracking shot across large clock face. Close up on the film can. A red light. A traffic jam. The music growing more frenetic until…the bus explodes!
OK, it’s a model – but wow! This is fantastic stuff and pretty darned exciting now – people must have been swallowing their pipe cleaners in the 1930’s (see misc. notes and the first looming appearance of Brian De Palma in The Hitchcock Project, Lord help us).
Ted finds the destroyed film can in the bus wreckage and he looks up with vengeance on his face. He’s about to get all bad on Verloc’s ass. Mrs. V. reads about the film can in the paper, faints and wakes up with a view of kids staring down at her – Stevie’s face jump cutting into the centre of the group and then disappearing – an abstract idea but, again, really clever.
The film becomes more about her and her plight, thankful rather than loving to Verloc (he had brought them to England from America and gave them a home and a living), amused by the audience’s laughter at the movie running (this is the Disney credit from the start) – then looking at the carving knife with intent (slightly reminiscent of Anny Ondra’s knife fixation in ‘Blackmail’). She eventually stabs Verloc – it looks almost an accident – and slowly walks away from his dead feet in the foreground, slumping on a chair in the distance, her whole life changed within a matter of minutes.
Ted comes to get her and plots how to get her out of trouble – they walk through the streets and Stevie appears again, this time turning out to be just another kid running along. Mrs. V. is dazed and confused, but Ted is strong, plotting that they can flee the country. But – and it’s a bit of a big but – the pet shop owner goes to the Bijou to retrieve the evidence of the birdcage, the police move in suspecting another bomb and boom! the whole place goes up – pet shop man, the dead Verloc and the whole shebang erased. She is free to be with Ted and live on happily – ahhh!
She is about to spill the beans to Ted’s boss just before the explosion but is saved by the bang. Shortly after, the slightly dazed Superintendent Talbot (played by Matthew Boulton) says ‘is that girl psychic – she said it before – or was it after?’
I really like ‘Sabotage’. It’s not high on the general pantheon of Hitchcock classics but is well worth a watch. It balances many of his favourite elements in a lean and mean story that doesn’t flinch when the time comes to blow up a child – if the lad had got away the whole thing would be appreciably weaker. It’s a tough story and stuffed full of sufficient directorial flourishes to move the plot along really well – and these do not get in the way or distract you, but only add to the narrative.
*why is it that there is way to write ‘Mister’ in full but no proper way to write ‘Mrs.’?
Brian De Palma. Brian. De. Palma. I am not a fan, and know that amongst many this may not be a popular opinion. One of the opening scenes of ‘The Untouchables’ (1987 – and one of his best pictures) uses the ‘blow up the little kid’ idea as the girl goes up with the corner diner. Elsewhere in the same film, De Palma uses the ‘camera move out of a plane window’ nicked from ‘Foreign Correspondent’ and in ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ he recreates the high shot umbrella sequence also from Hitchcock’s 1940 movie. ‘Body Double’ is so indebted to ‘Rear Window’ it’s impossible to know where to start. What is he doing, what is the reason for all this aping of shots/sequences (see the famed Eisenstein ‘Battleship Potemkin’ Odessa Steps sequence in ‘The Untouchables’ also and others too numerous to mention)? It’s so unsubtle and the shots he chooses to steal are so well known that it’s very distracting and embarrassing to watch. And in many cases the shots don’t really fit with the scene in the film he is making. When, for example. Steven Spielberg uses the ‘zooming-in-camera-whilst-tracking-back’ (or vice versa) shot from ‘Vertigo’ on the famous ‘Roy-Scheider-as-Brody-on-the-beach’ scene in ‘Jaws’ (1976) it makes perfect sense at that moment in the movie to do something as odd as this. De Palma would have Brody up atop Mount Rushmore clinging on to his (dyed blonde) wife and spotting the shark through a randomly placed pair of super-binoculars, the animal reflected in both lenses. I think he’s somewhat of a chump and makes mostly bad movies. Although I do like ‘Carrie’ and ‘Blow Out’ quite a bit. But ‘Dressed to Kill’? ‘Raising Cain’? ‘Femme Fatale’? ‘Snake Eyes’ (wow, a really long intricate opening shot, who gives one)?? I don’t even rate ‘Scarface’ that much, it’s just silly…I suppose ‘Carlito’s Way’ is pretty good though. OK, maybe’s he’s half good but just needs to make his own film without this shameless mugging and quite so much homage-hysteria.
Nitrate film stock is highly flammable – see wiki link here for the full story: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_base