Sunday, October 2, 2016
(December 1936, U.S.)
It's sad to say that today, we live in the tragic post 9/11 world of terrorism and the fear of terrorism, in which our only current hopes of resolve lie within two incompetent idiots named Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton (Heaven help us all!). Eighty-years later, Alfred Hitchcock's British film SABOTAGE remains perfectly relevant today. Back in 1936, the words terrrorism or terrorist attack were hardly common language. As the film begins, we're shown a dictionary meaning of the word "sa-botage" as the "willful destruction of buildings or machinery with the object of alarming a group of persons or inspiring public uneasiness". By today's standards of violence, it's a rather lame interpretation, I must say. Nowhere is the prospect of human casualty mentioned in such a definition. Even as England was nearly on the brink of its involvement in World War II, the idea of sabotage and the saboteur(s) who committed them was seemingly intended to be the act of disruption and inconvenience, at best.
In an interesting sequence of shots, Hitchcock sets up the opening moments with shots of London suddenly losing its electric power. Immediate investigation (Immediate? Really? Con-Edison and PSEG Long Island never worked that fast!) discover that the use of sand was the cause of this act of sabotage. The man behind the malicious act is not meant to be a secret from us; this is, after all, not a whodunit. We're immediately shown the rather sinister face of the saboteur, Karl Verloc (played by Homolka) as he steps out of the dark shadows into our light of vision...
Any attempt of "alarming a group of persons" or "inspiring public uneasiness" is unexpectedly squashed because, as it turns out, the people affected by the blackout throughout the city find the entire event amusing and laughable, clearly not what the saboteurs intended. Verloc soon meets with his contact at the local Aquarium where he's told, the next time, people will not laugh. He’s instructed to meet with a bomb maker whose front, a pet store, sells birds (Hitchcock's prerequisite to THE BIRDS?). Although insisting he wants no part of the loss of life, Verloc agrees to the task, nonetheless, in order to get paid. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard suspects Verloc's involvement in the plot and assigns Detective Ted Spencer (played John Loder) to investigate him. Spencer poses undercover as a grocer next to the cinema owned by Verloc and his wife (played by Sylvia Sidney), and also befriends her dimwitted younger brother, Stevie (played by Desmond Tester). While Ted is unsure of Mrs. Verloc's involvement with her husband's activities (she's not), he's still falling in love with the married woman, just the same. Before Ted can have the chance to question his man, Verloc instructs little Stevie to deliver a film canister to a place at Piccadilly Circus no later than 1:30 pm. However, Stevie is unknowingly carrying the bomb Verloc received and it's set to explode at exactly 1:45 pm. These two periods of time are important set-ups for Hitchcock's plan of maintaining suspense with his audience. Although Stevie knows he has a deadline to meet, his mindlessness doesn't stop him from getting distracted and sidetracked by several situations in the city, delaying him. Finally, Stevie manages to talk himself aboard a bus, even though it's against the law to transport flammable nitrocellulose film on public vehicles. Hitchcock repeatedly shows us the clocks of the city and the bus moves along, clearly telling us that we're running out of time and that the bomb is going to explode on the bus. When it does, at 1:45 pm on the button, little, innocent and helpless Stevie is one of the many victims of this collateral damage.
Confessing his crime to his wife, Verloc hardly seems remorseful, citing others to blame for the crime, including Scotland Yard itself. Once again, Hitchcock sets up the suspense of wondering whether or not Mrs. Verloc will take action against her husband as she hold the carving knife against the meat that sits on the table for dinner. When Verloc is killed with the knife, it seems more an accident than anything else because it would appear that in the end, Mrs. Verloc would not have had the courage to commit murder, even as an act of vengeance for her brother, whom she clearly loved above all others. Still, was it murder, or was it, perhaps, an unconscious decision of Mr. Verloc's to conveniently fall into her knife in order to redeem his guilt or simply evade capture? Regardless, in the end, the act of falling in love serves its (perhaps unrealistic) purpose of saving the frightened damsel in distress even as she's committed possible murder because Ted is determined to protect and shield her from the police.
Throughout the film, we're clearly meant to like the boy Stevie, despite his simple-mindedness, which makes his death by act of sabotage (terrorism today!) all the more tragic and uncomfortable to process. Hitchcock's film remains a very strong and very relevant tale of destruction because of the powerful and suspenseful scenes he sets up for us. One can't help but wonder what Hitchcock would have thought of the world of terror we live in today. Even more, how would he have expressed his art form in such a world? Considering the relevance and meaning of SABOTAGE even in a modern (and sick!) world as ours, perhaps he wouldn't have changed a thing.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Detective Ted Spencer (trying to calm crowd down demanding their money back after a power outage): "It's an act of God, I tell you!"
Member of Cinema Crowd: "And what do you call an act of God?"
Ted Spencer: "I call your face one, and you won't get your money back on that!"