aka The Woman Alone
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock adapts Joseph Conrad (The Secret Agent) in another fruitful collaboration with playwright and screenwriter Charles Bennett. The result is shorn of any overt political leanings – Oscar Homolka’s cinema owner is acting for an unknown foreign power with undefined goals – thus making all the more room for the director to crank up Sabotage's suspense of suspicion, concealed identity and, in the shocking centrepiece, whether and where and when a bomb will go off.
Hitch claimed to be dissatisfied with the result, although one might argue he was prepped to be negative by Truffaut’s dislike for the film. Contrarily, Pauline Kael suggested it “may be just about the best of his English thrillers”. It isn’t quite that, for several reasons relating to plot, motivation and character, but neither are its failings necessarily those admitted to by Hitch.
He and Truffaut made a big thing of the (mis) casting of John Loder as heroic detective sergeant Ted Spencer; Robert Donat wasn’t available and Loder “simply wasn’t the right man for the part”. I’d agree in as much Loder is rather stolid and undistinguished when called upon to deliver the straight romantic and heroic moves, but early on, when he’s posing as a grocer in order to spy on the Verlocs (Homolka’s Karl and Sylvia Sidney’s Mrs), he’s really quite winning in a chipper, patter-spinning way (trying to convince disgruntled patrons they have no right to a refund, delivering bad puns at lunch: “Poached egg here at Simpson’s? Why, that’s enough to make the roast beef swim in its gravy”). It doesn’t help his overall prospects either that Ted isn’t such a great detective, easily getting fingered by Verloc’s co-conspirators when he’s snooping (namely by Peter Bull, later the Russian Ambassador in Dr. Strangelove).
I don’t think this failing of character/casting is any greater than the one of attempting to locate just how it came to be that gorgeous Sidney (latterly memorable as post-deceased care worker Juno in Beetlejuice) came to be married to plodding hulk Homolka (perhaps best known as Colonel Stok in the two 60s Harry Palmer sequels). Sidney is never short of our sympathy, and Karl’s remoteness and indifference mean there is little tension in respect of her (daring) attraction to Ted. Verloc is curiously established, and one can’t help feel there was a missed opportunity here. Hitch has created suspense in other pictures whereby, even though we don’t want them to succeed, we’re pulled along with the villain in their scheming (Norman Bates and the car in the bog, for example). Here, it seems he would actually have gone even further in distancing us from Verloc’s humanity.
Early on, the character professes to draw the line at the loss of life when he meets the contact who refuses to pay him (his power cut “made London laugh. When one sets out to put the fear of death into people, it is not helpful to make them laugh. We are not comedians”). Yet we don’t hear another word on the subject once he is proceeding as instructed. Indeed, his reaction to the death of Sidney’s kid brother Stevie – Desmond Tester, a kind of precocious proto Rupert Grint; you can see the ginger bleeding through the monochrome – is about as indifferent as it gets, and ruthlessly practical to boot. “What would it have been if you had lost me?” he pleads, before falling on blaming Ted (Verloc sent Stevie with the parcel-wrapped bomb because the detective was snooping in the vicinity).
And then, when dinner is served, he grouches about it (“I don’t think I want any cabbage”) while Sylvia sobs. No wonder she stabs him! Hitch was concerned that, played wrong, this scene would fail to elicit audience sympathy; if it did not appear accidental, they would not be with her. I don’t know that this is entirely true. I think he underestimates the effect of the death of Stevie and the audience disposition against Verloc at this point (the actual danger would have been playing up her attraction to Ted).
The death of Stevie is a masterclass sequence, as the boy, also delivering reels of Bartholomew the Strangler – the cinema element of Sabotage gives the director the opportunity to include some nicely meta elements – is continually distracted, and we know a clock is ticking. Thus, the tension isn’t on whether Verloc will succeed, but whether Stevie will survive. That he doesn’t makes for an audacious shock (I know it’s consistent with the novel, but we’re talking movie conventions here). Hitch considered he’d made a mistake: “The boy was involved in a situation that got him too much sympathy from the audience, so that when the bomb exploded and he was killed, the public was resentful”. That assessment is highly instructive on how the director made his decisions, but as with his previous picture Secret Agent (where he had problems with Gielgud’s character’s motivation), I’d argue it’s the idiosyncrasies of his choices that don’t fit the usual template that make some of these earlier pictures that much more interesting.
Hitch claims he should have dealt with the problem by having Verloc kill the boy deliberately “but without showing that on the screen” and then having Sidney take revenge. Which feels like a much more rote option. Apart from anything else, it would rob the picture of that superlative set piece, the one that succeeds in making Sabotage memorable (not that it doesn’t have many fine other features). Another strong sequence is the one in which Sidney, having elicited a confession from her husband, stumbles into a cinema seat as a Disney short’s sickly refrain of Who Killed Cock Robin? rings in her ears, to peals of children’s laughter.
Curiously, given how self-critical he could be, Hitch didn’t voice any concerns over the ending, which makes for a spate of rather desperate contrivances. Ted attempts to persuade Mrs Verloc not to go to the police and instead run away to the continent with him (his inability to suppress his feelings in the face of her grief suggests he is only so much better a proposition than Verloc). Fortunately, salvation is at hand in the form of bomb-maker pet-shop owner the Professor (William Dewhurst). Who notes of his granddaughter, when Verloc asks if her father is dead, “I don’t know? Might be. Nobody knows. My daughter would like to know as well. We all have our crosses to bear”. Which is rather in keeping with Sabotage’s vague moral valuations. The Professor conveniently (but not for him) left the birdcage that transported the bomb at Verloc’s; he’s required to remember this and return to the scene. Where he obligingly triggers a bomber-coat and “kills” Verloc, so saving a confession from Sidney.
It’s rather an ungainly ending, even with the attending Plod self-editing her cry of “He’s dead!” to the moment after the bomb goes off rather than before. Hitch had reservations about Sidney (he was “not entirely” satisfied, but she had “nice understatement”), but to the extent that the picture works, it’s down to the emotional weight she carries. Sabotage is superior to Hitch’s “somewhat sabotaged!” verdict, but he’s right that it’s “a little messy”.
Also of note: while Charles Hawtrey may have finished his career with the peak team of Gerald Thomas and Pete Rogers, this was an era when he got to slum it with the likes of Pressburger and, yes, Hitch. “The bivalve’s rate of fertility is extremely high. After laying a million eggs, the female oyster changes her sex” his “studious youth” tells his date, who replies “Humph! I don’t blame her”.