Sabotage: Willful destruction of buildings or machinery with the object of alarming a group of persons or inspiring public uneasiness.
It’s not exactly a titillating introduction but since this is precisely where this 1930s Hitchcock thriller commences so will I.
Again, Hitch is collaborating with Charles Bennet and of course Alma Reville (his wife) core members of his team by this point. I do find it funny that it came from a novel called The Secret Agent, the name of one of Hitchcock’s earlier entries, only to be changed to Sabotage. But it only goes to show how throwaway some of these titles were because they are hardly reflective of the genuine satisfaction in partaking in what is trying to be accomplished.
The inciting incident of the entire film involves the power grid going out all across the city. Some people assume it’s a freak event but those embroiled in national security and connected with Scotland Yard know there are far more ominous intentions. There are men looking to undermine the nation through systematic acts of sabotage and ultimately terrorism.
From our perspective, these were obvious arbiters of impending world war. In that climate, they were probably quite close to home. This film occupies itself with a single individual as he’s tailed by a government agent with his adopted family (Sylvia Sidney and Desmond Tester) acting as his convenient alibis because he’s been nothing but good to them.
One telling statement comes from the little boy when he’s talking aloud excitedly about gangsters and the like. Because gangsters look quite ordinary, just like you and me and it’s an offhand comment but he doesn’t know how right he is. This is another textbook Hitchcock scenario because this is by no means a mystery. We know from the opening shot who the perpetrator is. But Hitchcock uses that modicum amount of knowledge to grab hold of his audience.
Similarly, he uses the tried and true example he mentioned in his dialogue with Truffaut. Having two individuals talking before a bomb blows up isn’t inherently suspenseful but if you show your cards early you’ve instantly ratcheted up the tension. He does that here immaculately aboard a double-decker bus.
Although even then it would be hard to favor Sabotage over some of his other works even those that are part of his thriller Sextet. It’s really a fairly minor addition and though Sylvia Sidney is as candid as ever she’s hardly meant for a Hitchcock film. Oskar Homolka and John Loder aren’t bad per se but they’re hardly as compelling as a Peter Lorre or Robert Donat.
Though the terrorists might look slightly different and their motives are more political than any other, there’s this uneasy sense that there is very little that is new under the sun. It’s telling that Bennet’s screenplay was loosely adapted from a Joseph Conrad story which was itself focused on sabotage in the late 19th century perpetuating this idea that certain stories are truly timeless.
Reading Walt Disney’s name in the opening credits might be a pleasant surprise for some and as might be expected, since this story does take place partially in a cinema, they show a cartoon short, seeming to be a harbinger for Sullivan’s Travels (1941) except in this story the main character gets shot with an arrow — very much a Hitchcockesque spin on animated cartoons if there ever was one. There can be humor but it’s always underlined by a sizable dose of dread.