Alfred Hitchcock committed a shocking murder in Sabotage (1936). Here, in one of the director’s darkest works, a child unknowingly carrying a bomb is blown to pieces in the streets of London. The death of Stevie is a deliberate attempt to shock an audience not accustomed to elaborately orchestrated deaths of sympathetic characters—especially children. The crime defeats expectation so decisively that it is virtually an act of cinematic terrorism.
Means: a saboteur scenario based on The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (not to be confused with Hitchcock’s Secret Agent, adapted earlier the same year from a different text, or Saboteur, a 1942 American production). Motive: the death is part of a larger meditation on evil, one in which every major character is killed, morally compromised, or both. Opportunity: with the popular successes of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935), Hitchcock could do as he pleased.
The saboteur’s first strike is a London power failure (Chapter 1). It’s eloquent, economical filmmaking: the flickering bulb, the quivering power meter, sand in the generator and on the hands of the guilty Verloc (Oscar Homolka). The boy, Stevie (Desmond Tester), is introduced as a butterfingered menace in the kitchen of the living quarters behind Verloc’s cinema. His lovable clumsiness later proves fatal. Stevie and his sister, Mrs. Verloc (Sylvia Sydney), are unaware of the saboteur’s double life. Undercover detective Spenser (John Loder) has suspicions.
Verloc receives marching orders for more serious mayhem at the Aquarium of the London Zoo. He visits the bird shop of bomb-happy Professor Chatman (William Dewhurst), who later delivers Verloc’s bomb concealed in a birdcage. Hitchcock had been using bird imagery since Blackmail (1929) but never before had birds been such explicit harbingers of death. Evil lurks behind the cinema screen itself.
Circumstances force Verloc to send Stevie to Victoria Station with the bomb amid a major public event, the Lord Mayor’s Show Day. The boy has strict orders to make it by 1:30, fifteen minutes before the deadly moment, but he’s detained by an aggressive salesman and at the Lord Mayor’s parade. Precious minutes tick away while these bits of comedy and spectacle transpire. Frequent closeups brutally build audience identification with the doomed child. As Stevie boards a public bus the final seconds stretch excruciatingly. The fatal moment of 1:45 arrives. No explosion. Will Stevie live? At 1:46—the horror.
We share the stunned disbelief of Spenser and Mrs. Verloc. She cannot even enjoy the innocent pleasures of a Disney cartoon without black irony pressing in on her. In the movie’s secondary tour de force she sits down to supper with Verloc and half-accidentally stabs him as the birds twitter. Spenser saves her from the consequences of her crime and the proof perishes with the Professor in one final blast.
Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune reviewed Sabotage under its American title, The Woman Alone. He spoke for most of the contemporary public when he wrote, “If your senses are easily shocked, you will find the photoplay frequently unbearable.” Gaumont recommended disparate publicity tactics for Verloc’s colleagues in British film exhibition: “A tie up with local transport might result in their providing a bus which could be used for a street ballyhoo,” one release gamely suggested. François Truffaut summed up the humane response when he told Hitchcock, “Making a child die in a picture is a rather ticklish matter; it comes close to an abuse of cinematic power.” Hitchcock—always eager to appease a powerful critic—agreed.
If Sabotage were nothing more than cinematic terrorism it would still be prophetic. But that description doesn’t do justice to a movie whose deeper message lies in the moral compromises of its three major characters: the family man who stoops to sabotage, the goodhearted wife provoked to murder, the detective who conceals the truth. Hitchcock’s villain is a reluctant one while his heroes feel the tug of the immoral. He plunges us into a new moral realism in which no one is innocent and no one wholly evil.
Hitchcock attributed his own dissatisfaction with Sabotage to the casting of John Loder as the detective. He would have preferred the physical and verbal grace of Robert Donat, who contributed to the success of The 39 Steps but could not star in Sabotage due to illness. With Donat to complement the nuanced performances of Homolka and Sydney, softening the lurking evil with his suaveness, Sabotage might have had greater appeal.
But the real trouble with Sabotage is that it arrived ahead of its time. The deaths of the boy and the saboteur are as fully realized as the notorious shower scene in Psycho—and much more meaningful. Today the visual virtuosity of Sabotage repays viewing after viewing.