Sabotage, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s earlier movies before his trip across the Atlantic to America to make his more famous explorations into mystery, fear and guilt (such as Psycho, North By Northwest, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window) is a shocking movie by today’s standards. Made in 1936, it is possibly more shocking and appalling in its real life application now than could ever have been conceived at the height of the depression.
A disaffected and struggling cinema operator, Karl Verloc (played by Oskar Homolka), with the promise of fiscal reward, cuts out the power grid in London’s central district. Instead of terrorising the populace however the townsfolk treat it is a lark and enjoy the novelty of lighting candles while they wait for the power to come back on.
The international terrorist group that is supplying Verloc with his orders arrange a more daring mission that will ensure that no one laughs at their expense. It is here that the terror becomes real. With a build up that only Hitchcock and few others can match, we see Verloc’s teenage brother-in-law carry a package on a bus that has inside it a ticking bomb, set to go off at 1:45 PM. The boy, unaware of what is in his package, is held up enroute and fails to deliver it at the appointed place. The boy, the bus and all other passengers are blown to pieces in a devastating explosion. In this post 9-11 world such events like this are all too seared in our consciousness and to try and dissociate such violence on screen is nearly impossible.
While shocking and violent acts on screen are a regular part of a staple movie diet, they almost universally are unreal to our life experience and while grotesque, retain an element of fantasy. I do not fancy that many vets from world war 2 for example would view Saving Private Ryan with quite the same fantasy that I do.
Verloc’s wife (played by Sylvia Sidney), the boy’s brother, upon learning of his death is struck dumb. She does not speak for at least 5 minutes of screen time. Her stunned look conveys anger, sorrow, confusion, disgust and revenge. Verloc stands just as dumbly before her trying to convince her that he had no choice but to send the boy on what was his errand. He seems all to willing to try and forget the matter. This is a typical Hitchcock set-play where he explores the guilt of one of his characters.
In the second shocking denouement Mrs Verloc takes up the carving knife and stabs her husband. He dies but she is now guilty of his murder. The police, who have been trailing him for some time, have not had a chance to prove his guilt.
In a clever Hitchcock sleight of hand, another bomb explodes in the room where the body of Mr Verloc lies (this time killing only one more, one of the “baddies”) thereby absolving Mrs Verloc from prosecution.
Terrifying in a way that Hitchcock could never have envisaged, Sabotage is a well constructed mystery, full of engaging performances by both the main characters and the background city folk and directed by a man coming to the top of his game.