Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Tag Archives: Oscar Homolka

Hitchcock’s ‘Sabotage’ – A look back at terrorism

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Movie review Part I

Alfred Hitchcock preferred suspense to shock. Shock, he said, was a bomb going off killing people yet producing only a few moments of surprise for an audience. But, he said, tell the audience that a bomb was going to go off and they would be held in suspense for as long as the film director pleased.

Creating suspense, according to Hitchcock, was letting the audience know more than the protagonists know. In his 1936 film, Sabotage, he does that with nail-biting precision.  Despite its age and the technological limitations of film in the mid-1930s, the movie still retains the admiration of critics and Hitchcock fans. More about that later after a look at the plot.

The Verlocs, Oscar Homolka and Sylvia Sidney. A happy couple?

Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka) runs a small movie house in London. He lives in an apartment at the rear of the theater with his wife (Sylvia Sidney) and her school-age brother.  Verloc is a terrorist, a saboteur.

Before he sabotages power generators throwing London into temporary darkness at the beginning of the film, Verloc is already under police surveillance. Detective Sergeant Ted Spencer (John Loder) poses as a clerk in a greengrocer next to the theater. With a winning smile he chats up Mrs. Verloc in front of the theater during the blackout.  Amid the confusion , Spencer sees Verloc return to the theater, something Verloc later denies, claiming he was home all afternoon.

Later that evening, Spencer visits Scotland Yard and his boss tells him to find out whatever he can about Verloc as the government has become concerned.

“Now listen, Spencer, the Home Office have been on, and they’re scared something worse than tonight’s job may happen.”

“What’s the idea, sir? What’s the point of all this wrecking?”

“Making trouble at home to take our minds off what’s going on abroad.  Same as in a crowd. One man treads on your toe. While you’re arguing with him his pal picks your pocket.”

The next day Verloc meets a shadowy figure in an aquarium. As the two men stand in the dark, staring at fish tanks, Verloc’s contact tells him the blackout produced only laughs from Londoners. He tells him he will not be paid until he accomplishes a job that will put the fear of death in people, not make them  laugh.

The title was changed from ‘Sabotage’ when the film was released in the US.

“I once read a sign in Piccadilly Circus calling it the center of the world,” the stranger says.  “I think you’d better pay a visit there in a couple of days’ time, and leave a small parcel in the cloakroom at the underground station.”

Verloc says he won’t be involved in deaths so his contact urges him to get help from friends. The contact then tells Verloc to visit a bomb maker.  “He’s a very nice old gentlemen, and he makes lovely fireworks.”

As the stranger leaves, we get a close-up of Verloc, his lower lip slightly extended as he peers out from below the shadow of his hat brim. He stares into an aquarium tank and instead of seeing fish, he imagines the bustling streets of Piccadilly Circus with buildings collapsing as if they were melting into a pit. The vision has an obvious effect on him as I suspect this early cinematic special effect had on audiences 86 years ago. 

Next time, a non-spoiler discussion of the film’s jolting climax and information on where you can find the movie today.

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