Early Hitchcock, by Rich Paschall
The 1936 Hitchcock thriller, Sabotage, could be a story for the present day. Foreign saboteurs are planning terror attacks on a big city. No one is sure who these people are or why they are planning these things. In this adventure the city is London and the time frame is “the present,” in other words the mid 1930s. It is loosely based on a story by Joseph Conrad, Secret Agent. Hitchcock released another film in 1936 named Secret Agent. It is no relation.
In Sabotage London experiences a blackout which most take in good humor. At a local theater, patrons are demanding their money back, and when the wife goes to see if her husband, the theater owner, is home he claims to have been there all along. We have seen that he has just returned. He is the saboteur.
Oskar Homolka, the Austrian actor, plays the theater owner. You are left to guess what European country or group he may be working for. Sylvia Sydney plays his wife, apparently an American, while her younger brother, played by Desmond Testor, sounds rather British. Homolka as Karl Verloc does not come across as particularly evil, but rather caught up in the plot.
Scotland Yard is suspicious of Verloc and has Detective Sergeant Spencer on the case. He is undercover as a grocer assistant at the business next to the movie theater. He ultimately befriends Mrs. Verloc and her brother to get information.
Unhappy with the results of the blackout, the saboteurs want Verloc to plant a bomb that will terrorize London. It is to go to the station at the Piccadilly London underground at a busy time of day. Verloc does not want to coöperate with anything that may cause loss of life, but is threatened by his contact who apparently has some hold over him.
The film was released in America in 1937 under the title The Woman Alone. I guess you could say Mrs. Verloc is alone in this story. She is unaware of her husband’s activities and seemingly has no one else. Well, no one else until the concerned Scotland Yard detective comes along. He obviously becomes fond of her as the story progresses.
Although early in his career, the film shows some of the aspects of the great Hitchcock films. As we build to what is supposed to be the big moment of the terror plot, we see the rapid fire cutting of scenes, to take in not just the faces of the people around the bomb, but the clock as we watch the time move faster and faster to when the bomb is supposed to explode. Things are not unfolding as planned, and then they take a Hitchcock style plot twist. We will leave the rest to you in case you wish to track this down.
It is not going to land on the top 10 Hitchcock movies. It is just an interesting early work of a director who will ultimately become a master of this type of intrigue and suspense. This certainly is not very satisfying when compared to later Hitchcock fare.
The 1930 drama, Murder, is also an early Hitchcock piece that exhibits some brief moments of Hitchcock style, but basically contains all the elements of bad early “talkies.” It does not contain much to hold your interest. I fear its great reviews of more recent years are based on the reputation of the master of suspense, and has little to do with this work.
The plot starts out like Twelve Angry Men, but does not go down that road for long. Written by Hitchcock, his wife Alma Reville and Walter C. Mycroft the story is based on the novel and play, Enter Sir John. The story opens with a young actress being accused of the murder of another member of an acting company. She seems to have been caught red-handed with the murder weapon at hand. One of the jurors, Sir John, does not think she is guilty and after all jurors give in to the guilty verdict, including Sir John, he decides to investigate.
The lead character is played by Herbert Marshall, who went on to a long career in Hollywood films. Norah Baring plays the actress about to face the gallows. Yes, they were going to hang the beauty. This give Hitchcock the nice opportunity to show us the shadow of the noose as the gallows are being built outside the cell window. There is no need to show the actual building when he can terrorize the audience through shadow and sound.
The lighting and editing are poor, more often than not. A little of that may be due to restoration. Hitchcock admitted in an interview years later that the actors were encouraged to improvise dialogue in scenes that were not quite finished. “The result wasn’t good; there was too much faltering. They would carefully think over what they were about to say and we didn’t get the spontaneity I had hoped for.”
This might account for the slow pacing and awkward pauses we find in many places. Also, the actors are playing as if they are in a theater rather than in a movie. It is not uncommon to see this in early talking pictures with actors who were trained for the stage. The over dramatization of all the actors is a bit uncomfortable. The type of staging seen here was more suited to the West End than the silver screen. At the same time, Hitchcock also filmed the movie in German with other actors.
If these two features offer anything, it is a look at life in London in the 1930s. You can see how a poorer class of people lived and at the very least, you know the props and sets come right out of that time period. Unless you are such a Hitchcock fan that you need to track down these re-mastered works, you could take a pass on them. For some reason, they are available on DVD, and for free on You Tube.