Sabotage (not to be confused with Hitchcock’s 1942 film Saboteur) is based on Joseph Conrad’s classic novel The Secret Agent (not to be confused with Hitchcock’s last film The Secret Agent). Continuing his trend of spy-thrillers, Hitchcock draws from the mounting political paranoia of the period as Europe skirted around the edges of another World War.
Mr. Verloc (Oscar Homolka) manages a small cinema as a cover for his involvement in a gang of foreign saboteurs. His wife (Sylvia Sidney) and his nephew (Desmond Tester) know nothing of his secret, but a Scotland Yard detective (John Loder) goes undercover at the grocery next door to keep a close eye on the gang.
As with many of Hitchcock’s spy films, Sabotage has been accused of xenophobia, but the depiction of the foreign saboteurs (or terrorists as we would call them today) has some sympathetic touches. Verloc himself is clearly in way over his head and has to deal with consequences he never fully anticipated. But Hitchcock takes care to show that, misguided or not, Verloc’s actions are still devastating. It’s more an exploration of personal mistrust and unintended consequences than it is xenophobic.
Indeed, it’s the full weight Hitchcock gives to these consequences that makes the film brutally effective. Without spoiling anything, one of Verloc’s sabotages goes horribly wrong and boosts the emotional stakes of the film.
Hitchcock later regretted how this scene played out; saying that he felt audiences were unhappy because weren’t given a release from the suspense. But that’s precisely what makes the scene so effective.
The moment where Sylvia Sidney’s character learns the news of this disaster is sublime. She wanders in a daze into the cinema which is screening Disney’s Silly Symphony Who Killed Cock Robin? After a few seconds she finds herself hysterically laughing along with the audience before her sadness kicks in. It’s a brilliantly unsettling portrayal of a mind struggling to cope with tragedy.
When we come to the violent climax, still rather shocking even today, it unfolds in silence. No music, no dialogue; just cold, mechanical revenge.
It’s a tense, emotionally-driven thriller without any of the humour and wit from The 39 Steps, but with buckets of atmosphere and powerful moments. For anyone who prefers Hitchcock’s more “serious” films over his lighter romps, Sabotage is a must-see.