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Yesterday, we kicked off our Criterion Channel series Spy Games by sharing Graham Greene's review of Jacques Feyder’s Knight Without Armour, a highlight in the lineup. Today, we’re focusing on another title in the series, Sabotage, which marked “the first time”—and, as it turned out, the only time—that Greene felt the “appallingly careless” Alfred Hitchcock had really “come off.”
After Greene made a cameo appearance in François Truffaut’s Day For Night (1973), the two former film critics ended up arguing over Hitchcock. As Greene wrote in 1972, “Hitchcock’s ‘inadequate sense of reality’ irritated me and still does—how inexcusably he spoilt The 39 Steps. I still believe I was right (whatever Monsieur Truffaut may say) when I wrote, ‘His films consist of a series of small ‘amusing’ melodramatic situations: the murderer’s button dropping on the baccarat board; the strangled organist’s hands prolonging the notes in the empty church . . . very perfunctorily he builds up to these tricky situations (paying no attention on the way to inconsistencies, loose ends, psychological absurdities) and then drops them: they mean nothing, they lead to nothing.”
But Greene singled out Sabotage, Hitchcock’s 1936 version of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, as the exception that proves the rule. Below, read his review of the film, originally published in The Graham Greene Film Reader: Reviews, Essays, Interviews & Film Stories and reprinted here by permission of Applause Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard LLC.
By Graham Greene
I have sometimes doubted Mr. Hitchcock’s talent. As a director he has always known exactly the right place to put his camera (and there is only one right place in any scene), he has been pleasantly inventive with his sound, but as a producer and a writer of his own scripts he has been appallingly careless: he has cared more for an ingenious melodramatic situation than for the construction and continuity of his story. In Sabotage for the first time he has really ‘come off.’
Sabotage is not, of course, Conrad’s Secret Agent. That dark drab passionate tale of Edwardian London could never find a place in the popular cinema, and only M. Jacques Feyder, I think, the director of Thérèse Raquin, could transfer its peculiar qualities—of madness and despair and four-wheelers and backstreets—to the screen. But Mr. Hitchcock’s ‘variations on a theme’ are on a different level from his deplorable adaptation of Mr. Maugham’s Ashenden. The melodrama is convincingly realistic, perhaps because Mr. Hitchcock has left the screenplay to other hands.
The story retains some of the ruthlessness of the original. Mr. Verloc, no longer an agent provocateur but a straightforward destructive agent of a foreign Power, keeps a tiny independent cinema in the East End, and the film opens with his secret return home during a sudden blackout. (Mr. Hitchcock has not overcome in these sequences the difficulty of lighting a black-out. How far a little candle throws its beams!) Mr. Verloc has succeeded in getting sand into the Battersea generators, but his employers are dissatisfied; he is told to lay a bomb in the cloakroom at Piccadilly Circus on Lord Mayor’s Day. Mr. Verloc’s friends fail him, he is himself closely watched by the police, and he has to entrust the bomb to his wife’s small brother, who, delayed by the procession, is blown to fragments with a busload of people. Mrs. Verloc, after hearing the news, passes through the little cinema to her living-room. A children’s matinee is in progress and Walt Disney’s Cock Robin is on the screen. She is pursued by the children’s laughter and the diminishing repetitions of the song, ‘Who Killed Cock Robin? Who Killed Cock Robin?’ This ingenious and pathetic twist is stamped as Mr. Hitchcock’s own, but unlike so many of his ideas in the past it is an integral part of the story: it leads on to the admirably directed scene when Mrs. Verloc, serving dinner to her husband, finds herself against her own will continually picking up the carving-knife—to serve the potatoes, to scoop up the cabbage, to kill Mr. Verloc. The happy ending, of course, has to be contrived: Mr. Verloc’s body is plausibly disposed of: a young detective is there to marry her: but this is all managed with a minimum of offense.
Mr. Hitchcock has been helped by admirable dialogue, written by Mr. Ian Hay and Miss Helen Simpson, and a fine cast, a cast with only two weak members. Mr. John Loder as the detective is unconvincing, and as for Master Desmond Tester’s prep. school accent I feel an invincible distaste (it glares out at you, like a first fifteen muffler, from every disguise). Mr. Oscar Homolka, a slow, kindly, desperate Mr. Verloc, and Miss Sylvia Sidney, as his innocent wife, raise the melodrama at times to the tragic level, and Mr. William Dewhurst gives a superb performance as the Professor, a soapy old scoundrel who supports his shrewish daughter and her bastard child with a bird business, concocting his explosives in the one living-room, among the child’s dolls and the mother’s washing.
The Spectator, December 11, 1936