Or, HONEY I BLEW UP THE KID.
Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE, based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (not to be confused with Hitchcock’s SECRET AGENT, or with Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR for that matter) features a terrorist bomb, intended for the London Underground, exploding on a double-decker bus. Ironically, this bizarre foreshadowing of the 7/7 bombings would have been greatly reduced had Hitch got his way and blown up a tram instead. The dispute over the form of public transport to be exploded, with Hitch arguing that a tram was more recognisably London, and producers Michael Balcon and Ivor Montagu arguing that a bus was, well, cheaper, resulted in Hitch never working with the two men again, which is a shame since they’d both been very helpful in the development of his career, and even his style.
The grimly ironic ad for THE DESCENT on the side of the London bus destroyed in the 7/7 bombings.
SABOTAGE begins, after a dictionary definition of the term (“All movies should begin with dictionary definitions of their titles,” declared Fiona), with a blackout caused by — “Sabotage!” “Wrecking!” “Deliberate.” “What’s behind it?” “Who’s responsible?” — a rhythmic exchange of lines, recalling the musical use of dialogue in MURDER! but quite a bit more sophisticated. Hitch then cuts directly to Oscar Homolka, pudging through the darkness. Quite a bold choice, to eliminate any question mark about his guilt, by way of a single cut. The device is lifted pretty directly from Fritz Lang’s SPIONE, showing how Hitch was adapting silent movie technique (Lang posed his question with an intertitle and answered it with a close-up) to the talking pictures. Oddly, rather than making his films seem old-fashioned, both then and now he looks more modern than most of his contemporaries. Possibly because, as Hitch believed, silent movie-making is true movie-making.
Michael Balcon had been busily grabbing American movie stars for Hitch, starting with the English Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, established Hollywood players who had to be lured back to Blighty, and continuing with Robert Young in SECRET AGENT. This time he scored Sylvia Sidney, who found the Hitchcock experience traumatic. Most accounts stress the unfamiliar approach Hitch took, working without establishing shots and assembling a scene from inserts, which disorientated the actress (you should always allow the actors to play the whole scene through, even if you don’t shoot it), although writer Charles Bennett reckoned Hitch wanted to “tame” or “break” a big Hollywood star. But we have to bear in mind Bennett’s bitterness towards Hitchcock (which is weird, because Bennett accepted a Hollywood contract ahead of Hitch — it was he who broke up the team).
Homolka returns to his home, above the cinema he runs with wife Sylvia Sidney, leading to this striking shot of her discovering him in bed, his alibi being that he’s been there all along. Hitch has established the cinema and the grocery stall next door (often invoked by documentarists seeking to illustrate Hitchcock’s father’s trade) and John Loder, the undercover cop posing as a grocer to keep tabs on Homolka.
As is typical of the British Hitchcocks, direct political context is shunned, so the terrorists in this movie are never identified with a specific nation or cause. Homolka’s boss is never apprehended, because that would raise too many questions. Loder’s boss has a speech about how the ringleaders will never be caught (why?), and what they’re after is the foot soldiers.
Homolka meets his cell leader at the London Zoo aquarium, leading to one of my favourite moments, where a fish tank dissolves into a screen showing Piccadilly Circus — the next target — which then collapses and liquefies in a stunning piece of mirror-magic. Another of the subjective effects Hitch is so keen on, but a really nightmarish and imaginative one.
Also in this scene we get an uncredited Charles Hawtrey, lecturing a girlfriend (!) on the sex life of the oyster. The presence of this campy yet infantile British comedy star leads me to a brief reverie about an imaginary Hitchcock CARRY ON film, with Kenneth Williams as a master criminal and Barbara Windsor as an icy blonde, but the moment passes.
Homolka, left, with William Dewhurst as the Professor.
Homolka visits the charmingly whimsical Professor, who runs a pet shop as cover for his work as explosives expert, then invites diverse hoodlums round to the Bijou to plan how the bomb is to be planted. Another memorable cameo here, from Peter Bull, his face like a sore balloon. Bull, who can also be seen as a heavy in an INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH film a few years later, seemed to get a lot of villain roles, despite his plummy, fruity demeanor which seems to suit him for comic roles, like the Russian ambassador in DR STRANGELOVE (keep an eye on Bull during Strangelove’s final speech, where you can see him visibly struggling to contain his laughter).
(My understanding is that Bull was Robert Morley’s lover: what a sweet couple! But I may be wrong.)
Loder scares off the heavies, and Homolka instead entrusts the bomb to Sidney’s younger brother, Desmond Tester (jocularly known to Hitch as “the testicle”). This leads to the film’s biggest suspense sequence, and what Hitch always described as a major miscalculation on his part — the death of the boy.
But Hitchcock’s verdict on the sequence was doubtless influenced by the barracking he received from critic C.A. Lejeune, who tore into him after the press show. And the killing is essential to the plot, as conceived by Joseph Conrad and redesigned by Charles Bennett. It motivates everything that follows. If there is a mistake, it’s perhaps in treating the build-up so lightly — the comic scene of the testicle being roped into a market toothpaste demonstration, ending with a sousing in hair oil and a brusque “Now bugger off, you little basket,” prepares the audience for a light-hearted solution to the crisis. They can’t seriously intend to blow up this boy after we’ve all been laughing at him?
They do — and Hitch cuts directly to Loder, Sidney and Homolka sharing a joke at the Bijou, their laughter striking a shockingly inappropriate note (Hitch is stealing from himself here, having previously used the cut-to-laughter device after Peggy Ashcroft gets slapped in THE 39 STEPS). Truffaut observed that threatening the life of a child amounts almost to an abuse of cinematic power… There’s no question that Hitchcock is taking his philosophy of “putting the audience through it” as far as he can, but does he take it too far? The comic set-up, followed by serious mayhem (not only does the testicle get exploded, but also an adorable puppy and a sympathetic bus conductor), followed by jarring laughter, is more like the kind of calculated outrage Robert Altman would perpetrate (Altman actually directed some of Hitch’s TV show, before producer Joan Harrison fired him).
Anyhow, even if the death of the testicle was an error, everything that follows it is incredibly effective. While Sylvia Sidney’s casting raises questions, what with her English brother (the testicle’s accent sounds like a juvenile Hitch) and vaguely foreign husband, her performance in the later scenes more than compensates for the unlikeliness of her turning up as a London cinema manager. Like Fritz Lang in FURY, Hitch seems to call attention to the idiosyncrasies of her face, with the impressively wide forehead, huge eyes and lips, and tapering chin. And as in FURY, Sidney turns suffering into something beautiful.
The use of the Disney cartoon which Sidney watches, laughing automatically and then collapsing into tears when the slapstick action reminds her of her brother’s death, deepens the film’s painful confusion of comedy and tragedy.
The cruelest tricks Hitch plays on the audience involve the appearances of the phantom testicle, popping up in jump cuts among the crowd, or charging joyously up to her before a perfect match cut reveals him to be a different child, barging rudely past. Hitchcock may be torturing the audience, but he’s also taking the bereavement seriously, and this film really captures that feeling of momentarily seeing a familiar figure who isn’t there. It’s the perfect combination of genre storytelling, film technique and poetic evocation of experience.
Sidney’s subsequent knifing of Homolka is another classic scene of domestic homicide, strongly echoing the famous “knife!” scene of BLACKMAIL, and the family scenes in THE LODGER. This is the scene where Hitch’s star became distressed that he was filming little bits and pieces of action without her having a sense of the whole scene. To Hitch, a close-up of didn’t require any explanation to the actress, or any real acting, so why couldn’t she just stand there and carve the meat? Of course, actors are like the rest of us: the despise doing anything without knowing the reason for it. Tell your best friend to change their shoes, but refuse to explain why. It’s going to take you a long time to persuade them. And that’s your best friend.
While a lot of the stuff about Hitchcock being down on actors is exaggerated, he must have felt some frustration at having to explain perfectly mechanical bits of business in terms of motivation. There’s that line he’s supposed to have uttered when he found a performer simply couldn’t perform: “I’ve put him on the floor, I’ve wound him up, but he won’t go!“
Nevertheless, the murder is a tour-de-force of both performance and film-making, with Homolka prompting his own death simply by being a grouchy husband at the wrong time — and something else: does he want to die? It sometimes feels like it. Though he shows no real remorse (his earlier expression of reluctance to cause death through his acts of sabotage is wonderfully perfunctory), there’s that fascinating moment when he walks right up to his knife-wielding wife and makes a little movement towards her. Hitch had liked Pierre Fresnay’s death scene in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, so he re-uses some of the idea here — that slight delay when we don’t know for sure what’s happened. Even Homolka doesn’t know he’s dead. An idea copied a thousand times! (Random nice example: Demme’s SOMETHING WILD.)
Homolka, with what Fiona calls his “great Slavic pudding of a face,” is pretty effective, even if his suspicious manner is a bit too suspicious. He could probably have afforded to go for slightly more sympathy. But he’s a striking presence, and I guess this is his closest to a leading man role. For years he would play stereotypical Russians — Ken Russell makes him wonderfully endearing in THE BILLION FOLLAR BRAIN.
Deus ex machina time: the bomb-making prof calls at the Bijou to retrieve an incriminating bird-cage, is cornered by the cops, and blows the place up, destroying the evidence of Sidney’s crime. As in BLACKMAIL, the heroine gets away with murder and is romantically united with the detective who was willing to protect her, and just as in that film, it’s an uncomfortable happy ending. Although Hitchcock doesn’t push the idea, a life with murder in one’s conscience, unable to confess, seems like a hard thing to bear.
John Loder’s casting as the hero is often regretted, especially as Robert Donat was once in the frame to play the role. He would have pulled off the humour much more stylishly. But it’s not really a star part: the cop doesn’t actually achieve anything — he doesn’t catch any of the bad guys, he doesn’t prevent the bombing, he doesn’t rescue Sidney and whisk her to the continent, as he promises. All he really manages is a nice meal at Simpson’s, a favourite eatery of Hitch’s (the Lion’s Corner House, which proved unsatisfactory in BLACKMAIL, is raised as a possibility but rejected out of hand). In a nice bit of throwaway characterisation, we realise Loder’s feelings for Sidney when he tears up the expenses claim for the meal he was going to submit at Scotland Yard.
Food is important in Hitchcock.
If Homolka hadn’t complained about his vegetables, he might have made it to the end credits unperforated.