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.


Sam Juliano said...

Yes, yes that set piece is indeed lamentable, and yes I do remember reading Hitch's displeasure, indeed 'disavowel' as you assert. The comic relief as you note is present in SABOTAGE, but the tone here can't be compromised all that much. It's not one of the master's better films, (and that's an understatement) but I can't say I have never enjoyed much of it nonetheless. It's the rarest of Hitchcock's that doesn't rivit in some capacity. As always, magnificent review.

Ed Howard said...

Sam, even Hitchcock's lesser films are usually, as you imply, at least worth seeing. This one's no exception, and even the much-hated bus scene is actually wonderfully constructed and powerful when viewed in isolation; it's just that its effect on the film as a whole is deadly.

Patrick Murtha said...

How can you presume to discuss this film without even mentioning its source, Joseph Conrad's great novel "The Secret Agent"? Hitchcock didn't follow the novel slavishly, but much of the distinctive tone of "Sabotage" (including the amazing scene you wrongly deride) comes out of the intersection of Conrad's preoccupations and Hitchcock's. You're giving film criticism a bad name by not dealing with the most basic basics.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for stopping by, Patrick, but I could do without the nasty tone. I haven't read the Conrad novel and thus obviously can't comment on it. Not that it matters: film criticism should be concerned, first and foremost, with the film itself rather than whatever source it was derived from. It's what is actually on screen that matters.

Patrick Murtha said...

I really disagree with you on that. So much of what seems to puzzle you about the movie would become much clearer if you would take the trouble to study its basis before commenting on it. Hitchcock certainly did! Film is a medium fed by a lot of sources, all of which bear investigation.

My harsh tone was not unintentional. Hitchcock is one of the most commented-upon directors of all time, both in general criticism and specifically within the blogosphere. If you are going to post on Hitchcock, you had really better do your homework and have something new to say; otherwise you're just adding to the unnecessary verbiage of the universe. "The Secret Agent" is a starting point for any understanding of "Sabotage," and as a consumer of criticism I can't and won't excuse a critic from doing the most basic work. I wouldn't accept a critic of a Shakespeare film who hadn't read the Shakespeare play.

Troy Olson said...

I should stay out of this -- it's not that you need any help on this Ed -- but this is an entirely unwarranted attack on you, of all people, considering you are one of the most intelligent, erudite film bloggers around.

I'm going to guess that you'd have the support of a majority of film critics on this one -- film CAN be taken on its own, regardless of its source material.

Still, it would be one thing for Patrick to add some useful information on Conrad's novel and Hitchcock's appreciation of it, as that can help us understand more about the film -- But it's the holier-than-thou attitude and quick brush-off of all you wrote that immediately has me dismissing his comments out of hand, good or not.

Jason Bellamy said...

If you are going to post on Hitchcock, you had really better do your homework and have something new to say; otherwise you're just adding to the unnecessary verbiage of the universe ... as a consumer of criticism I can't and won't excuse a critic from doing the most basic work."

Fair enough. If this review doesn't provide what you're looking for, then you can go elsewhere for your criticism. That said, to suggest that one must provide something "new" in order for criticism to be worthwhile is curious. Ed's review shows his personal experience with the film. To suggest that his criticisms are invalid without the prerequisites you mentioned is to imply that no one can understand the film without those prerequisites and thus suggests that the film cannot stand as art on its own two feet.

I certainly agree that "film is a medium fed by a lot of sources, all of which bear investigation." But I don't believe this review suggests in any way that it's providing a comprehensive examination of Sabotage and all its influences and effects.

All of which brings me to the point of this comment: Though its worthwhile to research the origin of any film to interpret its intent, it is the responsibility of the filmmaker to reveal their intent through their film. For example, "The book says that X happened" doesn't mean that a film is successful in showing the same. That's why I wholly agree with Ed that it's "what's on the screen that matters." If Sabotage requires one reading Conrad to understand it, Hitchcock should have handed out the book in the lobby and waited for people to finish it before activating the projector. Deciding that the influence of a film defines a film eliminates the need for a film to be made. If reading Shakespeare is the only way to understand his work, why watch film adaptation, or go see a play for that matter?

Art doesn't happen in a vacuum. That's absolutely true. Tracing influences and intent is indeed a crucial part of criticism. But it isn't the only part, nor is it the main part. To repeat a Scorsese quote used by Matt Zoller Seitz earlier this week in a discussion of criticism, "Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out." Being aware of what's outside of the frame is valuable, but it doesn't change what's actually there.

Ed Howard said...

Patrick: Troy and Jason have just expressed my point very well, namely that even though Conrad's novel certainly might add something to a discussion of the film, it isn't, or shouldn't be, necessary to understand the film. If the point of Hitchcock's film isn't "clear" to those who haven't read the source novel, then Hitchcock has not done his job as a director and adapter. I firmly believe that it can be enlightening to go back to the source and consider its relationship to the film; on the other hand, I also believe that this is far from necessary, and that the best films stand on their own. To say that one shouldn't even dare to review Sabotage until one reads The Secret Agent first is to suggest that film is a medium that can't stand up on its own, that's totally tied to its origins in literature, as though Hitchcock's only job is to faithfully convey what Conrad wrote. In fact, some of the worst criticism I've ever read has been slavishly devoted to a source novel, unable to consider the film on its own merits.

Also, Troy is right. If you have something useful and interesting to add about Conrad's influence on Hitchcock, by all means say it. Your contributions here have mostly just been insults thus far.

Troy and Jason, thanks for stepping in with some very insightful remarks.

Patrick Murtha said...

You can defend your ignorance all you like, but the bottom line is that critics are expected to do more work than audiences if their work as critics is to be taken seriously. Of course "Sabotage" has to stand on its own in the theater, but if you are providing commentary you had better know most everything about the film that there is to know. Reactions aren't criticism. Charles Barr's wonderful book "English Hitchcock," which considers Hitchcock's early work very closely in relation to its sources and influences, is a model for the kind of truly useful criticism that I'm talking about.

As for illuminating the connection between Conrad and Hitchcock: the original of the bombing incident that you claim derails the film is in the frigging book, is indeed its raison d'etre. So when I read your post, what irritated me immensely was that you were attempting to talk about the film in a knowledgeable tone, although it was clear that you didn't know the first thing about it. It's not solely a matter of reading the novel or not -- every competent piece on "Sabotage," including the Wikipedia article on it for goodness sake, points out that Hitchcock was uncomfortable with the bombing scene later but had *been strictly faithful to the novel in including it.*

If film bloggers mostly agree with your attitude, as I suspect they do, the film bloggers need a swift kick in the pants.

Ed Howard said...

Patrick, I don't care if the bombing incident is in the book or not. In my opinion, as Hitchcock presents it here, it causes the film to fall apart. Taken on its own, it's a great scene, as I discussed above; a formally compelling set piece in which Hitchcock builds the tension solely through editing. But after it's over, the sister's reactions are a tonal mess, and the romantic denouement seems especially sour. The rest of the film — which is typically fleet-footed and entertaining British Hitchcock — is completely out of sync with the horror of that central scene. I fail to see why I need to read the book to argue that Hitchcock fails to incorporate this scene convincingly into his film. I'm not writing a book on Hitchcock here, and I've never claimed to be an expert on Hitchcock by any means. I'm simply writing a relatively brief review of one film.

And that's the last I'll have to say on the matter, since it's growing clear that for some reason you're only interested in arrogant attacks.

Sam Juliano said...

I noticed immediately that Patrick was looking to come off as a Hitchcock expert. It's ironic that he attacks one the very best writers in the blogosphere.

I like that "My harsh tone was not unintentional."

You would have been well within your rights to dispatch this pompous charletan right off as Allan would have!

But Ed, Troy and Jason all have handled themselves exquisitely.

Sam Juliano said...

"If film bloggers mostly agree with your attitude, as I suspect they do, the film bloggers need a swift kick in the pants."

If you taught in my school Patrick and promulgated this wise ass I-know-way-more-than-you attitude you'd be getting much more than a swift kick, that much I assure you.

Joel Bocko said...

"The Secret Agent" is a starting point for any understanding of "Sabotage,"

Just to respond to the central point here, though I've said I agree that consideration of the source expands the discussion, I very much disagree with this statement here. The starting point for any understanding of "Sabotage" or any other movie is, exactly as Jason states, what's on the screen. After that come considerations of the director's other films, various contexts including social, aesthetic, historial, etc., and also source material if there is any (that might even come after those other considerations). To return to your Shakespeare example, must one read all the old English legends before venturing to discuss King Lear? This kind of "homework" has no end. It's important, it can add to the discussion, it may even be necessary to establish a "utility" for a piece on a much-discussed movie. But a "starting point" it is not.

Joel Bocko said...

(This was written before the previous comment but was held up for some reason):

First off, I find this statement bizarre to say the least: "I wouldn't accept a critic of a Shakespeare film who hadn't read the Shakespeare play."

Shakespeare was a playwright, and his works were written to be performed. One doesn't need to read the text to criticize the performance. Even if one accepted your larger point, this was a rather poor demonstration of it.

As for the rest of the disagreement:

Most of the commentators have already defended Ed's perspective admirably; particular note goes to Jason Bellamy stating the case succinctly and effectively.

Oddly enough, I don't disagree with what seems to be Patrick's larger point: that discussing a film's source material adds a great deal to the commentary, and that much blogging could theoretically be seen as "just adding to the unnecessary verbiage of the universe." But that's basically what blogging is, or rather it's a component of blogging: the conversational aspect, rather than the essayistic.

Ed bills his blog as a "viewing diary" - it is neither "published" nor "official". To my understanding, he discusses most films he watches. As such, he is not going to have time or space to offer comprehensive takes on every film; what he will write will be more or less his impromptu reactions, incomplete but hopefully insightful.

His readers find this approach interesting (those who don't usually go elsewhere, instead of lobbing sour grapes). They use the posts as starting points for discussion, much as a film society or informal cafe group might use a talk or program notes as a starting point. Blogging tends to be more "commentary" than "criticism" in my opinion, though it can be both (and I think Ed has offered his fair share of each).

Patrick, your poor manners are not excused by the arguable validity of some of your points - points which nonetheless should not be taken for granted, but should be discussed in the terms I laid out above. In our corner of the blogosphere, disagreements are usually genial - and even when they aren't, the firestorms seldom come from strangers but people who have been reading or discussing regularly. To pop up on a blog out of the blue and deride the blogger with a nasty tone is seen as being out of line - perhaps even engaging in trollery. That's why you're getting the reaction you've been getting and why the conversation has become less interesting than it would be if you'd taken a more constructive approach.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for stopping by, MovieMan, and for the usual perceptive comments. Although Patrick's tone was regrettable and unnecessarily nasty, I do agree that the meta issues raised by this conversation are interesting and certainly worth talking about. I agree, like you, that discussing source material can add a great deal to an understanding of a film, and I wish Patrick had come here to discuss the ways in which Conrad's novel informs Hitchcock's film, instead of insulting me for not providing that information myself. I just don't agree that reading the source is somehow essential to understanding the film. I believe the evidence on screen is the primary text, and the only one that's *really* essential, and that everything else is secondary. Of the other factors you mention, certainly knowing about the other films of a director (particularly a director with a strong auteur personality) is more important than knowing about whatever novel he happens to be adapting for a particular film.

And yes, to state the obvious, my blog is not "official" in any way. I do indeed write here about nearly every film I watch. Of course I hope my writing provides some insight, something to think about with regard to each film I review, but I've never claimed to be offering an exhaustive commentary about any film. I love when people stop by to correct me, or add info, or provide their own differing opinions and interpretations. More of that, please, and less drive-by snark.

David H. Schleicher said...

I have to disagree with those who say the “scene” doesn’t work. I think it works splendidly – suspenseful and gut-wrenching, as do the follow-up scenes where Sylvia Sydney’s character confronts her husband (who is as cold as ice concerning the boy’s demise). I do think the romantic closing is a bit hokey, but overall I really like the film and thought it was anchored by Hitch’s direction (of course) and Sydney’s performance, which along with her performance in Fritz Lang’s FURY, makes her my favorite actress from this era.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comment, David. I do actually agree that the bombing sequence works as a self-contained thing; it's a taut, well-crafted suspense set piece, as good as any Hitchcock ever did. It just seems so tonally distinct from everything else in the film that the film seems to fall apart in its wake. I found Sylvia Sydney's reactions afterward, for instance, to be totally inadequate to conveying the horror of the situation, though obviously you disagree. Still, all this furor is probably obscuring the fact that, basically, I found it an interesting if flawed film on the whole.

Nicholas Reid said...

As an ardent fan of the novels of Joseph Conrad, and especially of "The Secret Agent" upon which "Sabotage" is based; and as an equally ardent fan of Alfred Hitchcock (I have seen ALL his films from "The Pleasure Garden" to "Family Plot", many of them several times); and as a long-time film-reviewer, I have to say that Hitchcock's disavowal of the death of the boy in this film is disingenuous. Yes, the audience was (and sometimes still is) shocked by the outcome of the explosion, but (in both novel and film) the death of young Stevie is absolutely essential for the rest of the plot to make any sense. It motivates Winnie's killing of Verloc and the whole outcome of the story. It does not "unbalance' the film - it is an esential component of it.