Hitch announced that his 1936 thriller SABOTAGE would contain “more of the real London” than any previous movie. To modern viewers, this may seem an odd claim to make for a film that reproduces nearly everything, including the Lord Mayor’s Parade, in the studio —
I love how the giant photo is positioned flat, with the crowd lined up diagonally, creating a false perspective. It’s quite convincing in the film, mainly because it would occur to any of us that they’d go to all this trouble rather than shoot on location.
But studio filming was standard practice then, and Hitchcock’s preferred method (although he was quite capable of departing from tradition if the film seemed likely to benefit, and had worked extensively on location in his first two films). Anyhow, one result of the desire to capture the feeling of a bustling metropolis is that SABOTAGE is more full of writing than any previous Hitchcock film, since every modern city has become a gigantic concrete novel, its text writ large on street signs, marquees, billboards and buses. Here are a few of the messages inscribed upon the surface of Hitchcock’s London:
PRICES OF ADMISSION
TOM MCGURTH IN “TWO-GUN (incomplete)
I wish the cowboy hero of the movie playing at Verloc’s Bijou Cinema had been called Tom McGuffin, but McGurth is still hilarious. Oddly, despite the ad, the only films we see playing there are an unpromising British comedy, a Disney cartoon, and possibly BARTHOLOMEW THE STRANGLER (we hear a scream from the auditorium at one point).
BUSES AND COACHES STOP HERE / TO THE ZOO
BOVRIL / SCHWEPPES
Signs reading “Scotland Yard” appear in nearly all of the classic thriller sextet Hitch made towards the end of his British period, and signs reading “Bovril” are very common too, given how often he used Piccadilly Circus as an establishing shot for London. In this movie it has a plot function too, replacing the Greenwich Observatory of Joseph Conrad’s novel as the target for the terrorist outrage.
(“Mix a little tomato sauce with a little strawberry jam, and…”)
BOOTS LEFT DONE RIGHT
BARTHOLOMEW THE STRANGLER
This sign pops up as a reminder of the slain boy, recently seen participating in a street market demonstration of Salvodont toothpaste.
YOUR HEALTH (incomplete)
In addition, Hitch uses intertitles to count down to the day of the big atrocity, a device he seems to have borrowed from THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, another movie on which his wife Alma had worked as scenarist.
LORD MAYOR’S SHOW DAY
And on top of that, since this is a tale of covert action, pitting an undercover cop against a secretive terrorist organisation, much of the story is carried forward in written communications, as it had been in SECRET AGENT, with all those telegrams from “R”.
LONDON LAUGHS AT BLACKOUT
DON’T FORGET THE BIRDS WILL SING AT 1.45
And, most spookily —
More on this one later, probably Saturday. I’m still catching up!