Things I read off the screen in “Sabotage”

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 —

sabotaimg004-1

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:

UNDERGROUND STATION

BIJOU

CINEMA

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).

sab5

LEDGERS

DUNLOP

BUSES AND COACHES STOP HERE / TO THE ZOO

BOVRIL / SCHWEPPES

SCOTLAND YARD

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.

LIVERPOOL ROAD

A.F. CHATMAN

TOMATO CATSUP

(“Mix a little tomato sauce with a little strawberry jam, and…”)

BOOTS LEFT DONE RIGHT

BARTHOLOMEW THE STRANGLER

SAB15

RADIO

DENTIST

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.

THURSDAY

FRIDAY

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 —

SAB14

More on this one later, probably Saturday. I’m still catching up!

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6 Responses to “Things I read off the screen in “Sabotage””

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    Great that we are getting at last to SABOTAGE, for me it’s one of Hitch’s best films of that period.

  2. Off-topic but of interest: Kirby Dick (Derrida, Twist of Faith, This Film is Not Yet Rated) is coming to the Edinburgh Film Festival with his latest Outrage. I told him to look you up.

    This film has become a major bone of journalistic conention in this country as a considerable number of “Mainstream” press outlets refuse to discuss its contents in full — specifically the names it names.

  3. I’m a “gentleman of the press” again this year so I can request an interview with him! This’ll be great! Thanks for mentioning me.

    As I said before, he has a real knack for choosing hot topics — and going the distance with them. I’m looking forward to the film enormously.

  4. Sabotage is the deepest and certainly darkest of the classic thriller sextet. I was blown away by it the first time I saw it. For me, most of the memorable stuff is associated with Hitch’s supposed “mistake” — killing the kid.

    I’m looking forward to next week’s Young and Innocent too, which I’ve never seen all the way through.

  5. Oh, how I love this film. I was reading some of Graham Greene’s movie reviews recently, and ‘Sabotage’ seems to have been the film that changed Greene (both a Buchan and a Conrad maniac) into a Hitchcock fan, after ‘The 39 Steps’ made him all sorts of angry.

  6. He’d like it because of the gloom. I gave up reading Greene because, although the thrillers were 95% pure pleasure, the remaining 5% was a kind of misery and horror that would follow me about for days.

    Sabotage is a bit closer to Conrad in plot terms, but actually alters the tone far more than 39 Steps — it’s bleak, but not AS bleak.

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