The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: 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 assigns an undercover detective to work at the shop next to the cinema in order to observe the gang.
James: So, what did you think of Sabotage? This is probably the third time I’ve seen it, and I don’t think I like it very much. Or rather, it’s not one of Hitch’s best. I like the idea of it, but it doesn’t quite work. I’m sure there’s some deep thinking we can do with this one, I’m sure the movie-theater setting means something, and I’m sure we could say that each character has some sort of moral dilemma, but this one was a bit flat. I liked the story and I liked the idea, but there just wasn’t enough for me to really care.
Jason: How interesting, the ways we’re differing on some of these movies! I really enjoyed Sabotage, enough so that I want to watch it again. Yes, there were elements that I think could have been stronger. But overall, this film kept my attention much more than Secret Agent.
James: I remember really enjoying this film the first time I saw it. Maybe not as much as you did, but much more than I did this third time. I think I didn’t like it this time because there’s no real main character. It’s not really told from anyone’s point of view, and we as an audience don’t get to root for anyone. No one is wholeheartedly good. I like the undercover policeman, Spenser (John Loder), but he just wants to get the girl and fool the police, and he’s never in any danger, which makes for a lack of suspense. Heck, the public is never in any real danger until the end (aren’t we supposed to be worried about the people of London?), but for me, it was too little too late. The relationship between Spenser and Mrs. Verloc (Sylvia Sydney) doesn’t work, either. I mean, the two never have a chance to really become romantically involved to a point that matters.
Jason: You’re right, I didn’t completely buy Spenser’s attraction to Mrs. Verloc, but it does continue Hitch’s obsession with infidelity. Hmmm, I didn’t think much of John Loder, the actor who played Spenser. But I would say Mrs. Verloc is definitely the main character. I didn’t find her incredibly attractive as a Hitch lead (she’s got a kind of Betty Boop thing going on), but she’s the one with the moral dilemma in the movie. I don’t think the budding romance in the film is all that important. I almost got the feeling that it’s reluctant on her part, and really felt only by Spenser, who turns out to be a pretty ineffectual cop. The focus of the drama is Mrs. Verloc, who becomes aware that her husband Mr. Verloc (Oscar Homolka) is a terrorist and has killed her brother Stevie (Desmond Tester). And wow, I didn’t expect that bus to blow up. Good god! That must have caused a stir back in the day. I mean, I loved the suspense of the kid carrying the bomb toward central London, and the quick cuts between him and the clock, and the swelling music, but I fully expected him to be saved. But damn! The whole bus explodes! Brilliant! I can imagine 1936 audiences gasping. I kept thinking that kid would come back, having been saved at the last minute.
James: I remember reading that Hitch learned a lesson after killing that boy. Apparently, it’s like killing a dog. You just don’t do it. Audiences apparently got upset and this film bombed because of it. At least, that’s what I remember reading. I guess it’s bad to have the villain take out such an innocent person. But I’m with you. I thought it was great. I thought the film really picked up at that point . . . at least, the main part of the film. This is where it all comes together and we learn more about the characters.
Jason: I really liked the way we’re introduced to Verloc. We know the identity of the villain immediately, and I was intrigued from the start. Again, Hitch is falling back on his silent and expressionistic roots, using dialog-free passages to set the scene, using extreme close-ups and creative editing to introduce the main players. I’m reading all about those German roots in the bio I’m reading: He really was the most German of British filmmakers. There’s a little throwaway humor as Verloc returns home from causing the power outage. He tries his light at home, forgetting that he’s cut the power, and he smirks. And we narrow in on the cinema to meet Mrs. Verloc, who’s selling tickets, just as Mabel does in The Ring. And like you mentioned, the whole movie-theater setting got me interested right away: Was Hitch making a comment about watching films? About violence in films? I’m not sure I totally got his message there, but he means something by it. Loved the line from one of the patrons: “I paid for my seat!” followed by Mrs. Verloc saying, “Yeah, and what about the one you put your feet on?”
James: Yeah, the movie theater. Did Hitch say, “No, I want them to own a theater”? Or did he say, “I think I can add a theater here so this or that theme can be hammered home”?
Jason: I’m sure Hitch did think something to the effect of, “Let’s place the action in a movie theater so that I can put in a message about movie violence.” Sure he did.
James: But c’mon, would she really start laughing inside the theater, after learning about Stevie’s death? She’d be distraught.
Jason: When Mrs. Verloc laughs in the theater, I think something very important is happening, as far as Hitch’s filmmaking goes. It might not make total sense within the story, but I think it’s saying something symbolic. I really would like to watch Sabotage again to get deeper into the whole movie-theater setting. Hitch is trying to say something there, something about laughing at violence? That seems to be one of his age-old themes, right? Look at the way he appears in trailers for his films later. Or the way he introduces his TV shows. Maybe this is one of the first powerful instances of it. And anyway, I can see her laughing a little as an escape mechanism. Movies as escapism—there’s another possible interpretation.
James: I do think there’s more to the movie-house setting in this film. I’d be interested to watch it again just to see if death or thoughts of murder are preceded by a shot of the movie screen. Perhaps her laughing after the boy’s death ties it all together. Movie watchers are always laughing at the screen and the murder there, then Mrs. Verloc is laughing at the screen murder and in a way, at her brother’s murder.
Jason: This stuff is fascinating to me. Hitch obviously had a reason for including that scene, and for paying money to Disney for that particular cartoon she laughs at, and I love trying to figure out why.
James: I’m not sure what to make of the film’s ending. First, the part where Spenser wouldn’t let Verloc’s wife turn herself in—wasn’t that exactly what happened in Blackmail?
Jason: The film does end abruptly. It’s a bit unsatisfying. You’re right, it’s practically the same ending as Blackmail. It seems a cop-out for the detective to mutter, “Is that girl psychic? She said Mr. Verloc was dead before the explosion. Or was it after? I can’t remember.” Come to think of it, Spenser reminds me a lot of Frank Weber from Blackmail. And the theater blowing up has the same kind of convenience as the train wreck in Secret Agent, letting the pieces fall where they may and wrapping things up easily.
James: The whole knife-to-the-stomach scene is vague, too. I guess Hitch didn’t want a killer set free even if she had the right, but still, I’d like to have seen her do it instead of it being ambiguous about whether she did it or if he pushed himself on her.
Jason: Come on! That dinner sequence is superb! I actually watched it twice. She’s standing there, knowing that her husband killed her brother. She’s serving that meat, with the big carving knife, just like the one in Blackmail. She’s agonizing over whether to pick it up and use it as a weapon. Verloc sees her and stands up, walks toward her as if to help her. It’s almost a suicidal motion, the way he practically walks into the knife. And the whole thing is done silently, no dialog or music, just with the creak of his walk across the floor. Wide eyes, expressionist close-ups. Holy crap, what a great scene.
James: While I certainly enjoyed it, I think it would’ve been nice to have another one or two scenes to build this up. I would’ve liked to see more of Mrs. Verloc’s questioning of her relationship and her husband. I mean, she didn’t know him at all. She had no idea he was a terrorist.
Jason: I don’t think the actual terrorism (or “sabotage”) of the plot was supposed to be very meaningful. I think we have another MacGuffin here. It’s more central than the MacGuffin in The 39 Steps, but in the end, Hitch doesn’t care about the political aspect of it. He just cares about the domestic situation between the Verlocs.
James: You seem to think that the whole terrorism thing is the MacGuffin, but if that’s true, then this film is a disaster. In order for the MacGuffin to work, we need to be totally immersed elsewhere. Yes, we feel for Mrs. Verloc’s domestic problems, but that’s nothing compared to the way we feel for most other Hitch stories. It’s not that I didn’t care about her, it’s that there was no focus. Part of that stems from the fact that we aren’t with Mrs. Verloc the whole time, or maybe it’s because she isn’t the one making the discoveries. If she’s the main character, she certainly doesn’t have enough action. Things happen to her throughout, but only once does she do anything, and that’s very vague to boot.
Jason: I’ll agree that I didn’t feel incredibly involved with Mrs. Verloc’s story. There’s a distance there that I’m sure Hitch got better at later. But even though she’s not in every scene, I still think she’s the focus of the story. A little more time with her would probably have benefited the film. But I don’t think Hitch has any hard-and-fast rules for the MacGuffin. I don’t think we need to be “totally immersed elsewhere.” As I said, I think the MacGuffin in this film is slight. I might even be seeing something that isn’t there. I’m just saying the film isn’t really concerned about anything political, as compared with Secret Agent, which was mostly concerned with that. This seems to be a return to Hitch’s method of being ostensibly about sabotage/espionage but really being about what happens to the main characters.
James: Did you notice the film was only just over an hour long? I think that was a beneficial element to the terrorism storyline, but a detriment to the relationship development—not just with Spenser but between the entire family. Overall, I think Sabotage would have benefited from a few extra scenes and a longer story.
James: There were several technical things I really liked about this film. The first is the aquarium scene where Verloc imagines those buildings burning/melting. That was cool.
Jason: I also enjoyed the scene in the aquarium. That hallucination of the buildings crumbling is startling. It’s effectively done, in an understated way, and has an unnerving sound effect with it. The scene in which the two terrorists are talking is also very well done: They’re facing away from us, and we can barely hear them. I actually found myself leaning forward a little to catch what they were saying.
James: The trick with the boy appearing in the crowds after his death was nice.
Jason: I, too, loved the sequences of Mrs. Verloc hallucinating, seeing Stevie in the crowd when she wakes from her faint. Loved the increasing close-ups of the kid as Mr. Verloc tries to explain himself. There’s a well-edited bit where Mrs. Verloc sees Stevie skipping toward her, and she catches him, and it’s some other kid. Good stuff. But the fact that he’s killed—great! A bit I liked is that great slow pull-in on Verloc, with Stevie delivering a great monologue: “Mr. Spenser says gangsters aren’t nearly as frightening as you would think. Some of them are quite ordinary-looking, like you or me or Mr. Verloc. Perhaps he’s right. After all, if gangsters looked like gangsters, the police would soon get after them.”
James: I wrote down the same quote.
Jason: Did you notice the strange way that Stevie was introduced? He’s like this total buffoon, breaking a dish, burning his mouth with food, getting tied up in an apron or something . . . ? That led me to think that when he had the bomb, he might detonate it by accident. This also makes me wonder, Why ask the boy to deliver the package? It does seem like merely a setup for the suspense. Just as Verloc hands him the package, the kid is already making a show of taking his time. I admit that felt contrived. Incidentally, I read in the Hitch biography that the actor was 17 years old!
James: Good stuff, but for me, the fact remains that this film was flat, as I’ve said. But you know, we should add birds to our list of things to watch for. This is like the third film to have birds in it.
Jason: The whole movie seems like some elaborate experiment in suspense and symbolism. And yeah, the biggest thing that struck me throughout is the bird imagery. We’ve seen this before—again in Blackmail, that annoying bird in the apartment following the murder. And of course, birds play a role in later Hitch films like Psycho and, obviously, The Birds. I never knew birds were such a big thing in Hitch’s films, reaching so far back. I mean, there are birds all over this damn film. There’s the bird store, which is a front for a bomber. There’s Stevie watching the birds in London. There’s Verloc buying birds for Stevie, then sending him to his doom. There’s Verloc telling Stevie to “kill two birds with one stone.” There’s the note: “The birds will sing at 1:45 on Saturday.” There’s the Disney cartoon, in which birds kill each other. Mrs. Verloc watches this right before she kills her husband. So what do birds symbolize? Murder? Death? Chaos?
James: But if so, do birds always mean those things, or is that what Hitch made them mean? I’ve always struggled with symbolism like that. I mean, I can understand someone putting a bird in a scene every time there’s a murder. But beyond that, I don’t get it.
Jason: I get the feeling that Hitch just latched on early to birds as a symbol for something ominous, maybe even in that very first appearance in Blackmail, when the bird was tied with his first use of sound. I wouldn’t be surprised if the power of that—the early symbolism plus the onset of sound—established birds as a career-long symbol. So at first, in Blackmail, that damn chirping bird was a throwaway or subconscious detail, but it ended up being so powerful that he kept using it, more and more consciously.
James: Do you think he thought that immediately? I mean, at what point in the creative process does one take that leap?
Jason: I don’t think bird symbolism is something he made some grand statement about. I think it just developed naturally, almost unconscious at first and then more forcefully later.
James: See, that’s my problem with this type of thing. In English classes, I grew tired of hearing, “The amazing author intended this to mean blah blah blah” or “This talented artist used the object to symbolize blah blah blah.” I’ve always heard and read about such things, but it’s always told that it was the creator’s intention from the get-go and I never believed that. But I do believe that Hitch, for example, could decide to use a chirping bird, then start to see themes and symbols as he went and decided to add weight to those elements. That I can buy. I don’t buy that anyone throws stuff in there just to be symbolic (or rather, rarely does).
Jason: Yeah, I don’t imagine a “leap,” but more of a maturation of the symbol through repeated use.
James: I didn’t notice a Hitch cameo in this film. There was no train or church. There was some infidelity and I think there was some drinking, although it might’ve only been in Verloc’s offering. And I want to say that there were references to sex or lingerie, but I can’t remember them right now. There certainly weren’t any blatant shots of half-naked women.
Jason: I didn’t catch a Hitch cameo, either. But in the aquarium, did you catch the overt lesbianism? A lesbian couple walks right in front of the camera, saying something like “ . . . female changes her sex . . . I don’t blame her . . .”
James: That risqué conversation in the aquarium was the one I was thinking of. It’s essentially the “lingerie shot” of this film.
Jason: One thing I noticed, as I’m reading this Hitchcock biography, is the parallel between Ted’s cover occupation (a grocer) and Hitchcock’s own family business when he was growing up.
James: I might need to pick up a biography as well. It’s funny that I can understand all of your thoughts on this film, but for me, they just didn’t carry as much weight. The bottom line for me is that Sabotage lacked tension to be a good action/thriller flick, and it lacked emotion to be a good MacGuffin story. However, I wish I could go back in time and remember what it was like the first time I saw it. I’m sure I was at least blown away by the bus explosion.
Jason: I haven’t seen Sabotage three times, but I feel like I would take more from it on successive viewings. Especially the symbolism. I enjoyed the hell out of this film.
James: See, now here’s a question I’ve always had about films, books, and just about any piece of art. What makes a good film? Is it the first impression based on the overall experience? Is it how much discussion can be produced from the interpretation? The reason I ask this is because I didn’t take much from the film itself, at least not on this last viewing. But I can tell you without blinking an eye that I watched it solely on the surface of things. I was tired, and although I paid attention and soaked it all in, I still just watched without thinking overly much. But after reading your thoughts and considering my own and then looking back on the film as a whole, I can appreciate it more. I may not have liked it, but I certainly see more.
Jason: I think a “good film” does both the things you mention. It has an engaging “top story” that entertains and keeps you involved with its characters. It also has some kind of underpinning that rewards on subsequent viewings. I happened to enjoy this film in both ways, probably more so when I considered below-the-surface stuff.
James: One thing I have noticed while watching his movies is that I constantly make comparisons. Sure, I evaluate each film on its own merits, but I keep thinking about Hitch’s other works . . . and here, I said to myself that he had done it better elsewhere.
Jason: I understand about making comparisons. I think we’re going to be doing a lot of that. But for me, it’s just interesting to see him use some of his same tricks and plot devices over and over again. I bet Hitch borrows from himself a lot in his career.
James: I think Hitch blatantly borrowing from his other films is bad. I’m all for similar themes and symbols and whatnot, but using endings that are so similar? I don’t like that.
Jason: I was surprised to learn in Hitchcock/Truffaut that Truffaut didn’t like the film, and that seemed to affect the flow of the interview. Then, in the Spoto book, the film is declared a near-masterpiece.
James: Sounds like Truffaut is pretty smart. But man, a near-masterpiece? I don’t buy it.
Jason: This film was retitled The Woman Alone in the states. That seems to support the idea that Mrs. Verloc is the main character.
James: It certainly makes her the main character, but it makes it even more important for the film to delve into her relationships. There simply wasn’t enough of that to make it work. I totally liked that lunch at the steakhouse . . . we got a glimpse into her life. Then, later (or was it earlier?), again over dinner, we got another glimpse. But I wanted more. I wanted to see how sad she was in more than one or two scenes.