Friday, December 4, 2009
Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage is best known for a plot device that Hitch himself regretted using, a suspense sequence that the Master of Suspense later deemed a failure in his oeuvre. Indeed, the film is dominated by this particular set piece, a lengthy scene in which a young boy carries a package across London, not knowing that there's a bomb beneath the unassuming brown paper wrapping. The boy is Stevie (Desmond Tester), the younger brother of Sylvia (Sylvia Sidney), and he was given the deadly package by his sister's Eastern European emigré husband, Verloc (Oskar Homolka). Verloc is a saboteur, working against the British war effort at the behest of shadowy employers who urge him towards increasingly horrible crimes. When his initial acts of sabotage, like disrupting London's electrical power for a few hours, are deemed "laughable" by his superiors, Verloc is instructed to deliver a bomb instead.
The sequence in which young Stevie carries this package across town for his sinister brother-in-law is a typically masterful Hitchcockian suspense set piece, despite Hitch's later disavowal of the scene. The tension builds steadily as Stevie is continually delayed in his journey. He was told to get his package to a cloak room by a certain time, but obviously not told why or what was inside, so he doesn't really feel the urgency of the mission. Instead, he dawdles along the way, admiring the goods at an open-air market, getting pressed into a toothpaste demonstration by an aggressive street hawker and stopping to watch a parade that prevents him from crossing a street. Throughout the sequence, Hitchcock frequently cuts back to the package that the audience knows carries a sinister cargo, and also inserts shots of clock faces to show the passage of time as the minute of the bomb's detonation ticks slowly closer. It's a harrowing scene, and by the end each stoplight, each delay that keeps the boy from his destination, only makes the pulse pounder harder and faster. As the final moment draws closer, the cutting accelerates, faster and faster, until the economical final montage: a few quick shots of the package in the boy's arms, followed by a shot of the tram he's on exploding.
This shocking denouement destroys the audience's expectation that a filmmaker would never kill off an adorable kid so callously — especially after really jerking on the audience's heartstrings by having a cute little puppy playing with the boy in his final moments. It's a startling and horrifying scene, and in fact Hitchcock was probably right to disown it despite its undeniable power; it unbalances the film, elevates its stakes to a level that it would be pretty much impossible for a light thriller to justify. In the aftermath of this scene, the film struggles to find its feet again, and never quite does. Actually, Hitchcock is never really able to conjure up much credible drama here at all. Verloc is being investigated by the Scotland Yard detective Ted Spencer (John Loder), who poses as a vegetable seller and constantly hangs around outside the cinema Verloc owns. Ted takes an interest in Sylvia, who's married to the older Verloc not out of love but because he's good to her brother and provides them with stability and security. It's a familiar 30s story, the romantic triangle of the young woman, the handsome man her own age, and the older man who she respects and feels indebted to, here given a twist by making the older husband a sinister, criminal figure.
The plot is relatively inert, since from the beginning the audience knows that Verloc is a saboteur working for a foreign power, that Ted is a detective, and that by the time the film is over Sylvia will have to realize what's going on with her seemingly harmless husband and switch her affections to the other man. With not much happening on the story level, Hitchcock gets as much as he can from the pure visual storytelling possibilities of the situation. In fact, at times the film seems to consist of little besides exchanges of charged glances and slowly tracking dramatic closeups. Hitchcock encodes the drama in alternating closeups, focusing on the eyes: Sylvia looking suspiciously at her husband, wondering what's going on with him as strange men meet with him in the cinema's back room; Verloc glaring, his heavy brows arched as he contemplates his next devious and desperate step.
This approach reaches its apex in the climactic dinner scene after Stevie has been killed in the explosion. Sylvia knows what happened and about Verloc's role in it, and as Verloc cravenly tries to act as though everything is normal, Sylvia's eyes are burning holes in him. Hitchcock accentuates the tension by patiently drawing out the moment, capturing that look of hatred and rage in Sylvia's eyes, and honing in on the details that reveal what's going through her mind. Hitchcock's camera pinpoints her fingering her wedding ring, thinking about what it now represents, and eyeing the knife she's using to serve dinner, thinking about what other uses it could be put to.
Despite the dark material, Hitchcock also still finds some space for comic relief and humorous asides. Sometimes these diversions come in the form of offhand jokes, as when a couple walks by during Verloc's rendezvous with an enemy agent at an aquarium, and Hitchcock takes the opportunity to toss in a joke about oyster sex changes. But there's also the character of the bomb-maker A.F. Chatman (William Dewhurst), who disguises his real profession behind the front of a pet shop and quarrels with his bitter daughter (Martita Hunt), implicitly insulting her right to her face. It's deliciously funny, naughty material, and Dewhurst delivers a juicy performance in a small role, clearly having fun with this nebbishy terrorist. Indeed, the performances in general — excepting perhaps Loder's thankless role as the bland Ted — are strong, from Homolka's vaguely foreign evil to Sidney's wide-eyed innocence, reminiscent of fellow Hitchcock heroine Nova Pilbeam. The film falls apart after Stevie's death, struggling to find the proper tone and ultimately finding that there is no way to salvage a lightweight thriller after such a devastating event. But even so, Hitchcock's keen eye for entertaining performances and subtle visual storytelling keeps the film interesting even when it's not wholly satisfying.