To most moviegoers, Alfred Hitchcock is best known for a handful of his later films. With the exception of Psycho, these iconic mid-fifties and early sixties films were photographed in luscious Technicolor with gorgeous stars who are furnished in lavish locales and have haute culture wardrobes on top of sinister worlds. This tends to get him pigeonholed as a singular director who stayed in a similar mode of which Pauline Kael unfairly accused him.
In over fifty years of filmmaking, Hitchcock has attempted and by and large succeeded at making spare dramedies, gothic thrillers, taut espionage dramas, broody dramas, and yes escapist fare with more intelligence than most high-minded movies. He remained very curious, willing to try new things.
Before Alfred Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood in 1940, he directed 24 feature films in Europe. Most of his British films have a cheekier and more laid-back pace than his intricately plotted scenarios of his American output. I find the overall structure of several of his early works problematic because the first two-thirds are leisurely encounters between the protagonist and the romantic interest and several of the supporting players and then, in the last fifteen minutes the movie rushes to solve all the loose threads of the crime.
One of the better British films is Sabotage (1936) (Not to be confused with the lackluster 1942 Saboteur), about a 30s Guy Fawkes-like attempt to bomb London. It’s grimmer and more pre-code social realist than most of his British films. Hitchcock shrewdly cast Sylvia Sidney, who at the time was the go-to actor in Hollywood, to play the sweet and sensitive waif in glum Depression dramas. (She once quipped that Hollywood paid her by the tear). She plays a similar role here as an American woman who marries a European cinema owner (Oscar Homolka) and moves to London due to the lack of economic opportunities in the States, but she is able to display tenderness and gentility without being saccharine.
Apparently, the director and star did not get along as Sidney wasn’t fond of his “cattle treatment” of actors. This is too bad as she embodies the quintessential qualities of a Hitchcockian actor. Her sad and soulful eyes make for many marvelous close ups that rival the intensity of silent stars like Lillian Gish or Gloria Swanson.
Like its title, Sabotage is a narratively and stylistically lean 75 minute film that follows a matter-of-fact chain of events. It cuts to the chase from the get-go with a pre-credit intertitle of a pointed dictionary definition of the word followed by quick shots of London’s power being shut down (one particularly well directed bit is the precision of the authority figures speaking in single sentences after the attack).
In contrast to many of Hitchcock’s films that employ noticeably innovative uses of sound, Sabotage has remarkably memorable moments of silence. There’s one scene towards the end where Sidney angrily approaches Homolka and a slow, deliberate stylized jerkiness in the actors’ movements is reminiscent of German Expressionism acting.
Hitchcock’s master of suspense is revealed in the famous bomb sequence in which Homolka’s character callously gives his young brother-in-law (Desmond Tester) an explosive device. The devastation starts with the teenaged boy being unwillingly humiliated by a street bath and body demonstrator, symbolizing the larger theme of being screwed over by adults in a darkly humorous way. The last fifteen minutes are agonizingly dragged out by the boy being derailed to deliver the package by the police, a common Hitchcockian motif, guarding the parade. Superimpositions of clocks with his innocently smiling face heighten the sense of urgency and of time running out.
Oscar Homolka is suited to playing the husband, playing him in a grave and detached manner. Sidney’s and Homolka’s age difference and lack of screen chemistry adds to the film as it gives the subtext that this is more a marriage of convenience, and makes it believable that she has no idea of her husband’s criminal activities. The co-conspirators are highly average-looking people, unlike many of Hitchcock’s other films where the villains are suave, mysterious characters.
Hitchcock was dissatisfied with the casting of John Loder as the Policeman investigating the saboteurs, preferring the more prolific Robert Donat. Loder being less accomplished fits the role of the moral authority as a boob well. This is part of a trend of lesser actors cast as the good guys, diminishing the preachy message for morality and giving Hitchcock’s films an extra subversive factor in his morally ambiguous films that still make them stand out today.
For some reason, Hitchcock dismissed Sabotage. While he only remade one of his British films, The Man who Knew Too Much (first in 1934 then 1956), many of his American films rework plot elements from his 30s movies with the bonus of a better conceived third act. In terms of aesthetic style Sabotage is the cousin of Shadow of a Doubt (1943), one of Hitchcock’s most underrated films and one of his personal favorites. There are strong similarities between the two female protagonists and their trajectory from happy-go-lucky innocence to a hardened wisdom from having a murderer in their family. The two films share a sobering tone of the ramifications of murder.