As noted elsewhere on the pages of this blog, Alfred Hitchcock started out as a director during Britain’s silent film period. He continued making films in Britain during the 1930s, before making his move to Hollywood around 1940. In 1936, he directed Sabotage, a Gaumont production based on the Joseph Conrad novel The Secret Agent. (Rather confusingly, in the same year Hitchcock also directed a film called Secret Agent which in turn was based on a novel titled Ashenden.)
By the mid-1930s, the tense European political situation was reflected in a spate of British films about spies and international criminal networks. Although Conrad’s source novel was published in 1907, and its plot is set in the 1880s, Hitchcock had little difficulty in adapting the storyline for a contemporary audience which was, again, concerned about German expansionism.
In Sabotage, a couple called Mr and Mrs Verloc run a cinema in central London. Mr Verloc is of unidentified Eastern European origin, whereas Mrs Verloc appears to be British. With them lives Stevie, Mrs Verloc’s teenage brother. Mr Verloc hides a secret from his wife – he is part of an international terrorist gang which is planning a series of attacks to disrupt British society. Scotland Yard have their eye on Mr Verloc, and undercover agent Ted Spencer is keeping a close eye on the cinema from a vegetable stall across the road.
Mr Verloc’s gang plan to blow up Piccadilly Circus underground station with a bomb hidden in a film reel tin. As Verloc suspects he’s being watched, he sends Stevie to drop off the package at the station’s cloakroom. Stevie, however, gets waylaid on the way to the station and the bomb goes off while he is still on the bus, killing him and all the passengers. When Mrs Verloc realises that her husband is responsible for her brother’s death, and he starts threatening her too, she kills him with a large kitchen knife. Ted Spencer, who by now has fallen for Mrs Verloc, shields her from arrest at the film’s end.
The sequence of Stevie travelling to Piccadilly Circus with the bomb is the most-discussed – and indeed, often the only discussed – part of Sabotage. Stevie is unaware of the real contents of the parcel he is carrying, he simply knows he needs to leave it in the luggage collection point in Piccadilly Circus station by 1.30pm. The audience knows that the bomb will go off at 1.45pm. Sabotage heightens the tension by a series of close-ups alternating between the parcel of explosives, Stevie, and various clocks which he sees on shop fronts along the way. As the clocks inch closer to 1.45pm, the individual shorts become shorter and shorter, culminating in an extreme close-up of the hand on a clock moving to 1.45pm. The bus spectacularly explodes, and Stevie and all the other passengers are killed in the blast.
Critics of Sabotage have pointed out that the rationale for Mr Verloc’s criminal gang is not defined. At the start of the film, the gang causes a mass electrical failure in London which causes widespread disruption. Their planned bombing of Piccadilly Circus would not just cause great material damage and loss of life – Piccadilly Circus was the symbolic centre of London, England, and the British Empire. When its underground station was completed in 1928, it was hailed as a feat of engineering. London Underground even produced a poster depicting the station’s tunnel network as the ‘stomach’ and digestive system of London. The motivation of the criminal gang, then, is to disrupt society, to cause unrest without providing a clear enemy against which people can direct their anger. The threat of destabilisation was keenly felt in 1930s Britain, as people watched great social change in Germany, Italy and elsewhere unfold. Many films of the period feature shady and undefined foreign criminal networks, including Laburnum Grove (1936), Midnight Menace (1937), and Bulldog Jack (1935).
The cinema is extensively used as a location in Sabotage. Mr and Mrs Verloc live in a flat situated behind the auditorium. To enter the flat, one has to go through the auditorium, and characters are frequently shown to pass through here whilst patrons enjoy the screening, apparently undisturbed. During his investigations, Ted Spencer is able to approach the flat unseen because the cinema audience is engrossed in a farcical comedy film. Spencer then enters the space behind the screen, in which there is a connecting window to the Verlocs’ living room. Spencer uses this window to eavesdrop on Verloc’s conversation, without the cinema audience being any the wiser.
After Stevie’s death, Mr Verloc tries to justify and explain himself to Mrs Verloc. Following this conversation, Mrs Verloc walks out of the flat and into the cinema auditorium, where a children’s showing of Disney’s Who Killed Cock Robin? is in progress. The children’s laughter prompts Mrs Verloc to first grimace in despair, before she turns to the screen and sits down to watch the show. Despite the centrality of its cinema location, this is the only time any of Sabotage’s main characters actually takes the position as audience member.
Engrossed in the cartoon, Mrs Verloc starts to laugh through her grief. She is unable to process the enormity of her emotions and uses the film as a welcome distraction. The distraction is all too brief: the cartoon bird gets shot, which plunges Mrs Verloc back in despair. This breaks the spell of the cinema for her, and she gets up and walks back through the auditorium with determination to see things out with her husband. Soon after returning upstairs, Mrs Verloc stabs her husband to death. After the spectacle of the bus explosion, the killing of Mr Verloc is understated. Mrs Verloc picks up a knife to carve dinner. She then pauses to look at it for a minute whilst an idea seemingly dawns on her. When Mr Verloc stands next to her to speak to her, she turns around and sticks the large knife in his abdomen. It is a murder which originates from a deep despair, rather than from anger or a desire for revenge.
Immediately after the murder, one of Verloc’s associates sets the flat on fire. Ted Spencer meets Mrs Verloc outside; although she confesses the murder to him and wants to give herself up to the police, Spencer tells his superiors that Verloc died in the blaze. Because Mr Verloc was a foreigner set to disrupt British society, and he stooped so low to use a child as an unwitting assistant to his plans, Mrs Verloc is allowed to go unpunished for her crime. Her insistence that she should give herself up to the police only serves to set her out as even more deserving. One perspective on Sabotage is that it argues that as long as British citizens are willing to make personal sacrifices, they can collaborate with the police to successfully neutralise foreign threats; and it is their duty to do so.
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad can be read for free via Project Gutenberg.