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Mark S. Bacon

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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.

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Free version of Sabotage:

Jeff Stafford’s article on Tuner Classic Movies:

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


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.

Thriller Novel Preview: ‘Nation of Enemies’


By H.A. Raynes

Chapter One

April, 2032
London, England

So, this is freedom. No sirens pierce the air. Buildings in the distance are whole. Yet the ground beneath his feet feels no different. Dr. Cole Fitzgerald glances past their docked cruise ship, to the horizon. The sky blends into the ocean, a monochromatic swatch of gray. A chill in the air penetrates him, dampens his coat and makes all the layers underneath heavy. When they left Boston, pink-tinged magnolia petals blanketed the sidewalks, blew across overgrown parks and the burnt remains of brownstones. He’d reached up and touched a blossom, still hanging on a limb. It’s remarkable to see beauty amid war.

The din of discontent is constant. On the vast dock of England’s Southampton Cruise Port, a few thousand passengers stand in line, all on the same quest to flee the United States. He’s heard that three million citizens emigrate annually. But no one documents whether those people are more afraid of the lone wolves and militias, or of their government bent on regaining control. Cole isn’t sure which is worse. But London is a safe place to start again. They have family here, built-in support. No point in dwelling.

Beside him, Lily’s usual grace and composure are visibly in decline. He reaches out and gently strokes the nape of his wife’s Nation-of-Enemiesneck, where pieces of her dark hair have strayed from her ponytail. The coat she wears can’t hide her belly, now twenty-nine weeks swollen with a baby girl. Cole wishes he could offer her a chair. Instead she rests on one of their enormous suitcases.

Their son Ian sits cross-legged on the asphalt and reads a paperback. Throughout the journey, he’s gone along with few complaints. Ten years ago he was born the night the Planes Fell, the night that changed everything. Living in a constant state of fear is all he’s ever known. The joy and devastation of that night was so complete. To become parents at the same time terrorists took down fifty passenger planes … there were no words. It was impossible to celebrate while so many were mourning.

The mist turns to rain as night comes. Every fifty feet or so instructions are posted: Prepare left arm for MRS scan; Citizenship Applications must be completed; Use of electronic devices prohibited. Finally they cross the threshold of the Southampton Port Customs and Immigration building. The air is sour with sickness and stress and filth. Dingy subway tiles cover the walls of the enormous hall. Ahead, above dozens of immigration officer booths, a one-way mirror spans the width of the wall. Cameras, security officers, judgment. Cole’s skin prickles. Continue Reading →

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