Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Sabotage (1936)

Sabotage was the first of Hitchcock's British films that I had the opportunity to see, though it was not a film that I especially sought out for itself. Instead, I came across it rather by chance. In the days of VHS, the local Best Buy had a shelf consisting of nothing but the "Hollywood Classics" tapes from Madacy home video. Madacy was notorious as perhaps the worst of the bargain-basement video dealers at that time, with cassettes mastered from sub-par elements in the low-quality EP speed. Their selection of public domain titles littered the shelves at numerous video stores I frequented.

Still, as a budding cinephile on a tight budget, their affordable price tag (about $5 a pop, if I recall) made them an attractive option, especially for films that were not out in any other edition, and I'd frequently check out their selection on trips to Best Buy. Scouring the shelf on one such trip, I came across Sabotage, which caught my attention because it was a Hitchcock film, and I was making it a point to see all the Hitchcock films I could find in order to check them off my list. I knew little about Sabotage, other than that it was one of his early, British films, a period of his career with which I was woefully inexperienced. Watching the film in that low-quality, blurry tape, I was nonetheless gripped by the suspenseful plot, and impressed by the imaginative techniques (especially in the editing) that appealed to me as an aspiring filmmaker.

Later, as I read more critical appreciations of Hitchcock's body of work, I was surprised to learn that Sabotage had its detractors, including Hitchcock himself, who had misgivings about his decision to include what would become the film's most memorable and suspenseful scene, involving a young boy who unknowingly carries a bomb onto a London bus and is blown to bits. That particular scene is indeed deeply disturbing, all the more so as it is followed immediately by a shot of other characters laughing at something unrelated, which still cannot help but leave a sour taste, as if the whole incident is being treated as a sick joke (Hitchcock used a similar device to greater effect in The 39 Steps). But it is also so expertly handled, such a tour-de-force of editing and structure, that I couldn't help but marvel at the sheer brilliance of its execution. I studied Hitchcock's shot selection and editing, watching the scene multiple times.

It is certainly one of Hitchcock's darkest films, both in terms of its subject matter but also in terms of its shadowy, claustrophobic atmosphere, and a sense of despair hangs over the characters, who seem trapped in a humdrum existence that borders on the oppressive. Mrs. Verloc's marriage to the much older, emotionally distant Mr. Verloc (Oscar Homolka) isn't exactly an unhappy one, though it's certainly not conventionally happy, either. It seems to be more a case of mutual dependence. Mrs. Verloc also takes care of her awkward, gangly adolescent brother (Desmond Tester), with whom she moved from America to England some years before, ostensibly to look for better employment opportunities, but hinting at something more complicated.

As the film opens, London is in the midst of a blackout, the result of an act of sabotage perpetrated by Mr. Verloc. It is unclear whether Mrs. Verloc is genuinely oblivious to her husband's involvement in the blackout, or whether she might be in denial about it, but in any case, Mr. Verloc the attention of a Scotland Yard detective (John Loder), who uses Mrs. Verloc as a conduit to investigate her husband's activities. In the end, Mrs. Verloc loses her brother, and is betrayed, or at least deceived, by both her husband and by the young detective (though the latter does stand by her and protect her in the film's final moments).

While it is an uncharacteristically grim film from Hitchcock, the mood never feels artificially imposed, and it makes for an interesting contrast with the director's usual approach. There is only one scene that employs Hitchcock's playfully morbid sense of humor: after learning of her brother's demise, Mrs. Verloc, in a state of shock, wanders into the cinema, where a Disney cartoon ("Who Killed Cock Robin?") is playing on the screen, and whose plot offers an ironic commentary on the events of the film. Hitchcock excels in his juxtaposition of the familiar with the sinister.

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