Hitchcock’s darkest 30’s picture is also one of his most tightly wound, its central set-piece a masterclass in ticking tension. Offering many parallels to his late silent period (most notably Blackmail in its denouement), character and exposition are delivered as much through Hitchcock’s images as they are through Charles Bennett’s mostly perfunctory script.
Whilst pre-figuring Psycho in its readiness to kill off a major character half way through the film, Hitch was regretful of his decision not to spare the young boy in the bus explosion Sabotage masterfully builds towards, feeling that he’d lost the audience in betraying their trust in the character’s fate. The extended sequence that leads up to the fateful moment is up there with Hitchcock’s best; the boy carrying a package he believes to contain rolls of film across London, generating suspense from the audience’s knowledge that it’s in fact a bomb, scheduled to detonate at 1.45pm. Cutting between the package and a series of clock faces as he dawdles through town, alternately held up by a parade and a market demonstration, the tension builds to breaking point as he finally boards a bus in the final moments. Hitchcock takes no prisoners, throwing in a scene with a tiny puppy right at the end, just before the cuts accelerate and the bomb explodes. Even when you know what’s coming it’s a shocker, ruthless in its willingness to exploit the audience’s trust to the last beat.
At a swift 76 minutes there’s little fat on Sabotage, this despite the lack of balance between the blandness of the romantic lead, Ted (John Loder, an undercover Scotland Yard detective), and the pantomimic villainy of his target, Eastern European saboteur Verloc (Oskar Homolka). Sylvia Sidney fares much better as the sister of the young boy, unaware of her husband’s activities. She has a great scene in the cinema she runs with Verloc, falling into a seat as the realisation of his involvement in her brother’s death creeps across her face. Hitchcock cuts between her and the Disney cartoon playing on the screen, it’s chirpy soundtrack in stark contrast to her emotional trauma.
Verloc’s comeuppance at his wife’s hand is handled through a successive series of nerve-jangling glances and gestures, her fate in the film’s final moments offering a strong echo of that of Anny Ondra at the end of Blackmail. Despite her guilt and willingness to give herself up, it’s left to someone else to take the fall, albeit hardly an innocent this time around.
There’s a great sense of 1930s London in Sabotage, its use of London landmarks and locations include a furtive meeting in the London Zoo aquarium and there’s a bustle to the real and reconstructed street scenes scattered around town. If the characters (Sidney aside) are broadly drawn, and our knowledge of Verloc’s true identity from the outset means we’re simply waiting for the heroine to catch up with us, there’s enough around the edges to keep our interest until the centrepiece sequence and its fallout kick in. Sabotage may not soar to the heights of the previous year’s The 39 Steps, but in streamlining the narrative and consistently flexing his technical expertise, it remains one of Hitchcock’s tautest pictures of the period.
Sabotage - 1936 - United Kingdom - 76 mins - Alfred Hitchcock