Sabotage (1936) Review

Sabotage Director: Alfred Hitchcock (1936)


In later years, Alfred Hitchcock, when interviewed by Francois Truffaut, admitted regret for the film Sabotage and its downfalls. While it is not necessarily a major achievement, Sabotage is nevertheless an excellent thriller filled with all the genius and markings of an early Hitchcock picture. Today, it is still featured on lists among the greatest British films ever made.

Sabotage is very loosely based on Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. The story follows Karl Verloc as he becomes entangled in an organized crime group in London, presumably of Nazis (though the film does not specify). He lives with his wife Mrs. Verloc and her little kid brother, Stevie. Together, they run a small cinema.

The film opens with a jarring scene, spelling out the dictionary definition of “sabatoge,” followed by a dramatic scene in which Karl manages to cut the power throughout much of London. Unbeknownst to him, Scotland Yard is hot on his trail. Sergeant Ted Spencer quickly befriends Mrs. Verloc and Stevie in an effort to gain information about Karl (in the book he was named Adolf, however this was changed to avoid any direct relation to Nazi Germany). We are never given a clue as to what Karl’s motivations are engage in sabotage, or what his terrorist group’s ultimate plan is.

The most iconic scene in the film occurs when Karl asks Stevie, the young boy, to carry a box across for him with two of the reels from the cinema. The audience knows that inside the box is a bomb set to detonate at 1:45pm, but the boy has no idea. Karl tells him he must arrive promptly, however Stevie dawdles and is delayed by various happenings in the street. He ultimately boards a bus in a swirling scene of extreme tension, as Hitchcock cuts quickly between scenes of a clock and nervousness of Stevie. Ultimately, the boy does not make it in time and the bomb explodes and destroys the bus. Hitchcock later called this move “cruel” to the audience. It violated one of his tenets of suspense – always provide relief.

Unlike some of his later films, which focus on an innocent “everyman” who is falesly accused and sets out to prove himself right, in Sabotage, Hitchcock explores another narrative style, in which a wife slowly realizes the true nature of her husband. Much of the suspense of the film originates in this tension: when she will discover that her husband is a terrorist? In a rather cliche twist of events, the police Sergeant falls in love with Mrs. Verloc. he confesses his love to her, shortly after she kills her husband, Karl, with a knife upon discovering his guilt in the bomb plot. The Sergeant tries to protect her, and she nearly confesses to the police her guilt, but suddenly a bomb goes off in their house killing Karl’s bomb supplier and the evidence of Karl’s death. Right at the moment of the explosion she exclaims: “My husband is dead!” leaving it open as to whether she confessed before or after the bomb exploded. Thus concludes film.

Hitchcock would go on to make only three more films in England before permanently relocating to Hollywood. He was notably disappointed with the male actors in the film.

Sabotage is an excellent film, one to which I very nearly gave 5 stars. The suspense, camera angles, and themes are wildly entertaining, however there are a few holes in the plot -such as, what is the main character’s motivation for engaging in a campaign of sabotage? Why does the film continue after the death of Karl Verloc? Did we really just watch an explosion killing a young boy? These and other lingering questions leave the audience scratching their heads, a point which Hitchcock later acknowledged. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable, top shelf film.

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