Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on rockin’ flatscreen.
It’s interesting to watch the early work of a great director. With some directors, you can see where they are headed long before they get there. With Hitchcock, for instance, a film like Sabotage (sometimes known as The Woman Alone) gives a clear indication of precisely where the man wanted to go with his films. While his films eventually became very dark at times, there was always an edge to them, and with this film, he goes very dark, indeed. While his themes would become more refined over time, Sabotage shows that he was steering in the direction he’d come to be known for even at this early stage.
The film is a modified retelling of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. A saboteur with a network of other agents in London essentially hides himself in plain sight by posing as a business man. It’s not clear where the man, Karl Verloc (Oskar Homolka) is from, but there’s a definite hint of Bela Lugosi in his voice. Anyhow, he and a few other men are planning a series of bombings in London. To avoid suspicion, they are posing as business men in a London district. Despite this, there is some suspicion, as Scotland Yard has posted an agent named Ted Spencer (John Loder) at a nearby grocery to keep tabs on the suspects.
Two people who don’t suspect him at all are his wife (Sylvia Sidney) and her kid brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester). After all, he’s been good to them. But, Verloc is most certainly guilty, and is responsible for a power outage throughout London at the start of the film. But a power outage really is little more than an inconvenience. He and his cronies plan a bombing on the Tube underneath Piccadilly for a larger impact on the greater London area. Even more nefarious, because of delays on his end, he puts the bomb in the hands of the easily distracted and rather slow-witted Stevie.
The last 20 minutes or so of the film are really the crux of the film, and rather than risk spoiling anything, I’m going to leave them alone. It’s the last half hour of the film that really makes the film what it is, though. While this is still rudimentary Hitchcock just getting his legs under himself in the directing business, there’s evidence of the man’s sense of creating tension and building suspense. We know (because he reminds us) that the bomb Stevie is carrying is going to go off at 1:45. And as Stevie unknowingly transports the bomb from one end of town to the other, we get constant reminders of exactly what time it is. Over and over, we see him pass by clocks, with time ticking down inevitably to the fateful moment when the bomb will detonate. It sounds pretty standard, really, but it’s quite gripping.
If the film fails anywhere, it’s in the person of many of the characters on screen. It’s the bad guys, particularly Verloc, who are the interesting characters here. Mrs. Verloc is timid and fairly tepid, not showing much in the way of emotion or personality until the film draws to its climax. Similarly, Stevie is a baby step or two above a complete halfwit. And the story has trouble hanging together as it should. There’s plenty going on here that doesn’t really fit too well, like Spencer’s conduct around the still-married Mrs. Verloc.
The good news is that Sabotage for all its pre-war message about vigilance against the red menace, is all about the visual style of the film. The reason is that even at this early point in his career, Hitchcok had a penchant for rough stories and brutal, unflinching looks at the stories he undertook.
Sabotage is not a film that anyone will consider adding into the pantheon of great films or even of top-level Hitchcock. However, as an artifact of something early in Hitchcock’s career, films like sabotage show the direction in which he was headed long, long before he ventured into the full thriller and intrigue set of films.
In other words, Sabotage does nothing to advance the portrayals of characters in the world of the cinema. It really is a great indication of the direction he was going in thanks to his dedication to the basic story of innocents hurt and killed for political reasons. I’m not ready to put this on a high pedestal; it deserves at least a little love.
Why to watch Sabotage: Is there a reason to avoid Hitchcock?
Why not to watch: His early work didn’t show the promise of his later career.