Adapted from Joseph Conrad‘s 1907 novel The Secret Agent, Sabotage (alternately titled, The Woman Alone) focuses on the investigation into a series of terrorist attacks in London. A young woman, Mrs. Verloc (Sylvia Sidney), runs a movie theater with her husband, Karl Verloc (Oskar Homolka), and her younger brother Stevie (Desmond Tester). Soon after the attacks begin, a charming grocer befriends Mrs. Verloc. This grocer is undercover Detective Sergeant Ted Spencer (John Loder) of the Scotland Yard. As he slyly attempts to pry information from the innocent and oblivious woman, she starts to suspect that something is awry with her husband.
It’s no secret to the viewer that Karl Verloc is the saboteur, but things soon escalate beyond what he signed up for. The film opens with a city-wide power outage which plunges the people into chaos. By the middle of the movie, Verloc is asked to plant a bomb in the London Underground under Piccadilly Circus. He is hesitant to take lives, but agrees. Verloc is not blind to the fact that a new, handsome grocer has started working next to his theater and has been taking his wife out to friendly lunches. Unlike most men, who would have suspected an affair, Verloc suspects a policeman.
In an attempt to clear his name, Verloc takes advantage of Stevie, his wife’s much younger brother. At a time when he knows he will be in the company of others, Verloc asks Stevie to deliver a package and some film reels to a specific destination. He tells him they must be there by 1:45pm. This package is, in fact, a time bomb.
Since Stevie is like thirteen years old and super easily distracted (he watches an entire parade and lets a man brush his teeth in the middle of the street for god’s sake), he’s late. The result is that the bomb detonates on a bus, killing him and many others. While this happens, Verloc and Mrs. Verloc are speaking with the not-so-undercover Ted Spencer, thus exonerating Verloc of the crime…or so he thinks.
Well, it doesn’t take long for Mrs. Verloc to realize what her shit creeper husband did, and after a wonderfully meta scene where she watches part of Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935) as it plays in her theater, she stabs her husband to death. It’s great. I love it.
Anyway, Ted Spencer wasn’t all that fooled by Verloc’s dastardly plot. He returns later to arrest him, but finds Mrs. Verloc in a haze and Verloc’s dead body on the floor. She is determined to turn herself in, but Ted delays her just long enough to let a significant event clearing her of the crime.
I really enjoyed Sabotage! The Secret Agent is, in my opinion, a very important novel that is obviously relevant today (buy it for super super cheap on amazon and check it out). After 9/11 people were quoting it all over the place, and I can’t help but think that after the events of the Boston Marathon, people’s thoughts went to Conrad’s work yet again. That’s what keeps Hitchcock’s Sabotage so captivating today.
What is fascinating, and key to the film’s broad appeal, is that Verloc’s nationality is never revealed. It is suggested by his exotic accent that he might be German or Russian (Homolka was actually from Austria), but he’s never truly identified. He represents the inner workings of terror everywhere. And what makes this more interesting is that he humanizes it just enough for us to realize that there are real people behind this kind of thing. His hesitation at placing the bomb and taking lives reminds us that there is another side to this, not just an evil machine churning out pain. There are many people making decisions and using those weaker than them, and there are many opportunities along the way for those people to stop hurting others. It’s unfortunate that it rarely happens. In Sabotage, Verloc actually perpetuates the cycle by using Stevie in the same manner he is being used himself.
Mrs. Verloc is the bystander. The one who can’t believe her loving husband would be capable of such an act. She is the family of the Tsarnaev brothers. She is American citizens when innocent civilians are blown to bits across the ocean. It’s not until her brother is used as a pawn, and his life is brutally taken, that she begins to realize the ugly truth. It takes her being personally touched for her to take action. If she had investigated earlier, she might have been able to take precautionary measures.
This film was released almost 80 years ago, and the book was published nearly 110 years ago, yet these situations haven’t changed one bit. Frankly, I don’t think they ever will. Unlike the hilarious hijinks of mistaken identity, like those in The 39 Steps or North by Northwest (which today can be verified and eliminated in five minutes (unless you’re being catfished)), the plot of Sabotage will repeat itself over and over again. The elements of espionage, terror, betrayal, manipulation, and the brutal hunt for power — those are all represented in the film and still very relevant to current events.
Hitchcock took some liberties in the adaptation of Conrad’s novel, but unlike Suspicion, I found the plot to be solid. It fit within the context of the time, and the characters were consistent. Like The 39 Steps it doesn’t delve too deeply into the plot, but just skips us above the surface as events unfold. Even then, I found it very compelling.
It seems there were a few hiccups for Hitchcock concerning this film. He initially wanted Robert Donat (of The 39 Steps) to play Ted Spencer, but illness prevented it. Hitchcock was not a fan of John Loder‘s, and it is said that he had to rewrite dialogue for him because he thought he couldn’t handle what was already written.
It is also rumored that he and his leading lady, Sylvia Sidney, did not get along. This could be confirmed by the fact that they never worked together again. I very much enjoyed Sidney’s performance and thought her realistic style lent itself well to the thriller. I would have liked to see more collaborations between the two of them. The great thing is that she went on to have a wonderful career. What I know her best from is Beetlejuice, where she plays Juno, the case worker for Davis and Baldwin. She also had a turn at Fantine in the 1952 version of Les Miserables.
In addition to his talent troubles, Hitchcock was also chastised for his depiction of the bus scene, which he later expressed some regret about. He didn’t think that showing the bomb explode was appropriate in a suspense scene. Personally, I like that he shows the explosion. It brings the devastation home.
I give Hitchcock’s Sabotage an A and recommend that you check it out on Hulu Plus! Also, next time you watch Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds see if you can spot the reference to Sabotage. It’s an important plot device!