Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Tag Archives: Robert Donat

Hitchcock’s suspense and terrorism in ‘Sabotage’


Movie review Part II

Here’s a link to Part I:

Halfway through Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 suspense film Sabotage, the villain, Karl Verloc, played by Oscar Homolka, is contemplating the bombing of London’s busy Piccadilly Circus intersection with untold loss of life. 

At the same time, undercover police sergeant Ted Spencer, played by John Loder, is buying lunch for Mrs. Verloc  (Sylvia Sidney) and her school-age brother who lives with the Verlocs.  She’s telling Spencer what a peach of a guy her husband is.  Unaware of her husband’s part-time job as a terrorist, she says he has been very kind to her and her brother. “Very kind” sounds like the way you’d describe a benevolent aunt.

John Loder, as Sgt. Spencer, chats up Mrs. Verloc, Sylvia Sidney.

“He’s the quietest, most harmless, home-loving person,” she says.

Her description is slightly at odds with Homolka’s Verloc whose heavy-browed, malevolent facial expressions and short temper seem to dominate their home, an apartment at the rear of the theatre Verloc operates.

When the movie was filmed, Homolka was 38, Sidney 26, although they seem even farther apart, Homolka’s Austrian accent adding to his menace, especially in pre-war England.

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

Later while Spencer watches the theater from his one-man command post in a street-front vegetable stand, he sees several suspicious characters enter, not to see a film, but to visit Verloc. The sergeant snoops inside the theater  and we’re given a behind-the-movie-screen view.  But in his awkward eavesdropping  Spencer is exposed as a cop, scaring off Verloc’s potential accomplices.

Verloc confers with the next-door greengrocer who admits to permitting the detective to use his shop for surveillance. Verloc asks the store owner if he knows what the police are looking for.

“You must have been showing some funny sort of films, I daresay,” the greengrocer tells Verloc. “You know, perhaps a bit too hot.”

Deserted by his fellow saboteurs, Verloc realizes he must now transport the bomb himself.  When the bomb is delivered to Verloc at the theater the next day in a brown paper parcel, an attached note tells  him it’s  set to explode at 1:45 p.m. that afternoon.

The last thirty five minutes of the film is a dash to the end while putting the leading characters at peril. It includes the most suspenseful ten minutes of this film and perhaps of any Hitchcock movie. Writing on, Jeff Stafford calls the scenes “a visual tour-de-force, employing montage to powerful effect and presenting a breathtaking example of Hitchcock’s emerging technique.”

Stafford also questions whether the climax “blurs the line between the director’s typical use of suspense versus shock.”

I think it combines both elements. It’s an amazing sequence. But Hitchcock has more in store besides the anxious ten minutes, and the ending is a mixture of noir bleakness with hope for a little Hollywood-style happiness.

Oscar Homolka, husband, movie theatre operator, terrorist

According to Stafford, Hitchcock expected Robert Donat and Peter Lorre to be the male leads, but wound up settling for Loder and Homolka. Although Lorre was a master of disreputable and downright evil characters, Homolka’s Verloc is sufficiently ominous. Loder overplays his undercover role becoming a jolly, garrulous and inquisitive vegetable vendor but partially redeems himself with a passing moment of despair late in the film. Donat would have been ideal for the part, and in fact, had just completed The 39 Steps for Hitchcock the year before.

But I’m a fan of Donat and The 39 Steps.  I think it’s the best of Hitchcock’s early works. I’m a sucker for the scenes of Donat handcuffed to co-star Madeleine Carroll as they check into a country inn posing as newlyweds to escape foreign spies.

But I digress.

Possibly of greater interest to film buffs, Sabotage is packed with suspense and offers a blueprint for many Hitchcock films to come.  It also reminds us that terrorist bombs are not a 21st century creation.   The film receives a 100% rating from 11 critics on Rotten Tomatoes and a 7.1 rating on

The film is available for streaming on Amazon Prime for $1.99 or $3.99 for an HD version.  It’s not available on Netflix, but no surprise.  I’m not sure they understand the concept of noir. A free, although slightly grainy version of Sabotage is available from BjgTjme Free Movies (correct spelling) via YouTube.

– – – – – – – – –

Free version of Sabotage:

Jeff Stafford’s article on Tuner Classic Movies:

%d bloggers like this: