A man in London tries to help a counter-espionage Agent. But when the Agent is killed, and the man stands accused, he must go on the run to save himself and stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information.
Mr. Verloc is part of a gang of foreign saboteurs operating out of London. He manages a small cinema with his wife and her teenage brother as a cover, but they know nothing of his secret. Scotland Yard assign an undercover detective to work at the shop next to the cinema in order to observe the gang.Written by
Col Needham <email@example.com>
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Opening credits are shown with a background of a dictionary page open to the definition of "Sabotage". See more »
A boy, an old lady, and a puppy on a bus. What could possibly be a sweeter film scene? Well, that is unless you're Alfred Hitchcock and the film is "Sabotage," in which case you get a trifecta of quite a different sort.
Playing with the rules was Hitchcock's forte, but never again until "Psycho" would he do so with the cold brilliance on display here. Unlike "Psycho," which hasn't dated a month since its 1960 release, "Sabotage" doesn't for a moment feel like it was made any later than 1936, in part because of its fuzzy sound quality (maybe just the versions I've seen) and in part because it's a very static film.
That's not to say "Sabotage" isn't good. In fact, it's brilliant. Adapted from the Joseph Conrad novel "The Secret Agent" but markedly better both in terms of its linear treatment of the thin central story and its sharper, more measured ending, "Sabotage" introduces us to Mr. Verloc (Oskar Homolka), the owner of a London cinema who sidelines as a secret agent for a mysterious foreign power, "the people you and I will never catch" as one policeman tells another. After causing a power outage that produces laughter rather than the desired fear, Verloc is assigned a more deadly job, to cause an explosion in Piccadilly Circus, "the center of the world," as Verloc's controller calls it.
It's impossible to watch the film now without thinking of 9/11 or the London subway bombings, a world of murderous, anarchic terrorism Conrad's novel and Hitchcock's film anticipated without quite comprehending. The film seems to stumble on offering a coherent "why," perhaps because there isn't one, then or now. But echoing a central point in Conrad's novel, "Sabotage" shows the terrorists' greatest fear is not retribution but indifference. "London must not laugh" is the order given to Verloc.
As played by Homolka with sleepy nuance, Verloc isn't quite a villain, just a weak, lazy man of no moral fiber who objects at the thought of murder but decides to go through with it in order to be paid. Sgt. Spencer of Scotland Yard is hot on Verloc's trail, but he's not exactly a hero, a bit of a bumbler rather who fancies Verloc's wife. Mrs. Verloc, played by screen vet Sylvia Sidney (she was the case worker helping the Maitlands in the afterlife in "Beetle Juice" 52 years later) is the closest we have to a rooting interest, though her concern seems less with the husband or the policeman who woos her than her little brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester).
Hitchcock's direction offers a little of the comic relief more prominent in his other films, and some arresting visuals for their time, especially that of a fish tank which morphs into a London street under attack. There's a very involving scene where a devastated Mrs. Verloc is reduced to tearful laughter by a Disney cartoon. (Verloc's owning a cinema may be a comment on the deceptively transformative power of cinema, or a wink in the direction of his sideline activity in the novel, selling Edwardian porn.) Mostly "Sabotage" is a film that grabs you by the throat and never lets go, making its 80-minute running time feel like forever going by in an instant.
It all comes down to the scene on the bus. Hitchcock apparently believed it was the biggest mistake in his career. It may have killed enthusiasm for "Sabotage," but it made clear to filmgoers that all bets were off as far as this young director was concerned. From then on, cliffhangers would be invested with a certain added dread that would make their resolutions seem less pat, and the movie thriller would be that much more thrilling. It took guts to make a film like that.
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