Skip to main content

He’s the quietest, most harmless, home-loving person.

Sabotage
aka The Woman Alone
(1936)

(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”. 










Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.