Big Screen Berkeley: Hitchcock’s “Sabotage” still shocks

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“Sabotage”: From its opening shot of a dimming light bulb, the film defies expectations

According to the unattributed dictionary definition that prefaces Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage, the word sabotage means ‘wilful destruction of buildings or machinery with the object of alarming a group of persons or inspiring public uneasiness ‘. It’s an apt description of the effect the film must have had on 1936 cinemagoers, who surely weren’t prepared for Sabotage’s gut-wrenching denouement — a scene still likely to jar viewers today.

Based on Joseph Conrad’s novel ‘Secret Agent’, Sabotage (screening at Pacific Film Archive at 8:45 p.m. on Friday Jan. 11 as part of the series ‘Alfred Hitchcock: The Shape of Suspense’) is an overlooked highlight of the filmmaker’s career. Produced prior to Hitchcock’s arrival in Hollywood, it’s since been overshadowed by such US-made heavyweights as Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho. Familiarity with those films, however, has long since leeched them of their ability to shock and surprise — something that can’t be said of Sabotage.

From its opening shot of a dimming light bulb, the film defies expectations. According to 1930’s film grammar, a dimming light bulb signified only one thing: an execution. In the case of Sabotage, however, the bulb announces a widespread London blackout caused by the introduction of sand into a power station generator.

As station staff inspect the damage, Hitchcock cuts to a shot of star Oscar Homolka walking through the darkened streets of London. The Austrian-born Homolka would soon relocate to the US and embark on a career playing Middle European heavies, but in 1936 he’d recently arrived in the UK and was still largely an unknown quantity. Nonetheless, his thick eyebrows, permanent scowl and furtive behavior immediately suggest villainy.

As he traverses the streets, Homolka’s character, Karl Verloc, makes a startling discovery: as if in anticipation of the Blitz, Londoners have responded to the blackout with equanimity. Laughing, dancing, and lighting candles with matches purchased from street peddlers, people almost seem grateful for the diversion. The effect of Karl’s handiwork has, if anything, been the exact opposite of that intended.

The owner of the Bijou, a cinema nestled next door to a greengrocer somewhere in S.E. 5, Karl arrives home to find his wife (Sylvia Sidney) being hounded for refunds by disgruntled patrons. More interested in establishing an alibi for himself than turning a profit, Karl quickly agrees to give them their money back, while convincing Mrs. Verloc he’s spent the evening at home.

Grocer’s assistant Ted Spence (John Loder) isn’t so sure, however – in fact, he’s fairly certain he saw Karl on the street shortly after the lights went out. And Ted has good reason to be paying attention – he’s actually a police sergeant assigned to keep an eye on Karl, whose activities have (for reasons unexplained) attracted the attention of the authorities.

Ordered by his controllers to once again try to terrorize London, Karl is dispatched to an Islington pet shop (located at 465 Liverpool Road, just west of Highbury Corner) to pick up a special package of ‘fireworks’. The package is to be detonated at the height of a citywide celebration scheduled a few days hence, and – in what remains one of the greatest suspense set pieces in film history – Karl manages to complete his assignment.

With the possible exception of 1972’s Frenzy, Sabotage is Hitchcock’s most English film. Steeped in Big Smoke atmosphere and heavily informed by the director’s lower middle-class origins, the film features a fine array of UK talent, including William Dewhurst as the pet shop explosions expert, Martita Hunt as his shrewish daughter, Peter Bull as a bug-eyed co-conspirator, and a very young Charles Hawtrey, here delivering a hilarious disquisition on fish fertility. Thankfully bereft of any political context whatsoever, and entirely uninterested in the nature of the Verloc’s decidedly odd relationship, Sabotage is interested only in one thing: defying expectations.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. 

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