Alfred HitchcockAlma RevilleSylvia SidneyCharles Hawtrey
Medium: film
Year: 1936
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Country: UK
Writer: Joseph Conrad, Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, Helen Simpson, Alma Reville, E.V.H. Emmett
Actor: Sylvia Sidney, Oskar Homolka, Desmond Tester, John Loder, Joyce Barbour, Matthew Boulton, S.J. Warmington, William Dewhurst, Charles Hawtrey
Format: 76 minutes
Website category: Hitchcock
Review date: 25 March 2013
The only real Hitchcock balls-up I've seen to date. It's broken. However it's also entertaining, funny and very watchable.
The story's based on Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, renamed as Sabotage because Hitchcock's last film had also been called Secret Agent. Conrad's version was about Tsarist-era agents provocateurs in 1886 London and had as its main character a secret agent whose cover identity involves being a shopkeeper, selling bric-a-brac, pornography and contraceptives. That's all gone. It's all wholesome and family-friendly, unless your children don't like bombs and stabbings. Hitchcock's not making a period piece, so the terrorists are working for an unnamed 1930s European power (probably Nazi Germany) and our secret agent's motivations are simple, without Conrad's murky layers.
They even changed his name. In 1907, Conrad saw no reason not to call his protagonist Adolf. In 1936, that would have been a bit heavy-handed, so now he's called Karl Anton Verloc.
However the heart of the novel has been preserved. At first, Mr Verloc (Oscar Homolka) is merely committing a bit of sabotage. There's a power cut. Gee, whiz. Before long, though, he's graduated to state-sponsored terrorism. This is startling. It might even be packing more punch today than it had in 1936! It's cutting close to the bone, especially when a bomb gets taken on to a London bus. Personally I found this a bit spooky, especially given Hitchcock's relatively light-hearted treatment of the material.
The set-up is convincing. Homolka's thick Austrian accent is a bit of an eye-roller, because it feels as if it's implying that only people who sound like Bela Lugosi could possibly be bombers. However I soon got used to that and there are shadings in his character that come from the original Conrad. He's great, actually, and it's all too easy to believe in the world he's built around him. He has a wife who loves him and knows nothing (Sylvia Sidney), a schoolboy for a brother-in-law (Desmond Tester) and shady contacts giving him jobs he doesn't necessarily want to do.
Tester and Sidney have wildly different accents, by the way, despite supposedly being siblings. I can live with that, though.
This should have been a good film. It has strong ingredients and all the reviews I've seen of it are enthusiastic. It's great fun. However the tone is comedic and (possibly as a result) things went seriously wrong with some climactic scenes. Sylvia Sidney makes a right hash of it, for a start. She's a good actress who'd have a long career in the business, but she didn't get on with Hitchcock and she doesn't sell some crucial scenes in the final act. Her reaction to some terrible news is almost farcically bloodless. (Faint. Uh-huh.) I liked a lot of what she's doing and her later hollowness in the light of tragedy is effective, but she's giving the kind of selfishly efficient performance that's dragging down key scenes because she's not co-operating with her co-stars.
Oskar Homolka is mostly great, but that monstrously insensitive final scene of his doesn't work. I should have been being annihilated by his inhumanity, which had the potential to be one of the all-time great movie scenes, but it never comes alive and instead looks unconvincing. Is this guy stupid? Does he think his wife is a wind-up puppet or something?
Then there's John Loder as Sergeant Ted Spencer. Hitchcock had wanted Robert Donat for the role, but Donat was ill. Loder doesn't seem to have been regarded as satisfactory, with Hitchcock finding him so unsuitable for the role that he felt forced to rewrite the dialogue during shooting to get rid of stuff that wasn't working. Me, I liked him. He's light and charming. He made me laugh, which I think matters. He fits the general tone, even if I don't think that tone particularly helpful. (Perhaps he was a significant factor in helping to pull it off-course?) However I wanted to throw things at the screen during that scene where he's talking of running away with Sidney. His character's being an absurd moron and neither Loder nor Sidney were giving me any reason to buy this as characterisation rather than stupid writing. That scene alone nearly broke the film for me.
All that said, the film's amusing. It doesn't have a particularly high hit rate with its comedy, but there's quite a lot of it and it's not just an undertone either. The entire opening sequence is all about Sidney and the other cinema employees trying to wriggle out of paying refunds to their customers, which struck me as dodgy and I can't believe you'd get away with that today... but it made me laugh. There's a cameo for Charles Hawtrey and a girl I could have sworn was Thora Hird, six years before her first screen credit according to imdb. (I'm probably nuts.) "After laying a million eggs, the female oyster changes her sex." "I don't blame her!" There's a version of Monty Python's dead parrot sketch. Loder is funny (e.g. his sarcasm with the policeman, or seeming to bribe someone with fruit), as is the toothpaste and hair oil salesman.
The film also occasionally gets sinister. I'd have liked it to do so even more, but it still has some chilling moments. Homolka is at the centre of a lot of them, as we realise slowly the disturbing limits of this not unsympathetic man.
I blame much of this and more on Hitchcock. I know he was famously unsympathetic to his actors, but he wasn't oblivious to them and at least Sidney and Homolka would have been capable of far better with that all-important final scene. A more actor-friendly director might have fared better, perhaps. I also don't like his suspense sequence with the bomb on the bus, although not for the reasons Hitchcock himself gave in later life. For him, it breaks his rules. He shoots things in certain ways depending on the outcome. Me, I don't care about that and I think it would be terrible to have movies where you always knew what was happening based on how something was being shot. No, my objection to the suspense sequence is that I think it's clumsy. The infinite clocks, the bomb, the see-through shot of its ticking innards... it's heavy-handed. My guess is that even at the time, Hitchcock on some level knew that he was violating his own instincts and so never found his normal groove.
The contemporary critics' objection is laughable, though. Oh no, something bad happened in a movie! Heavens to Betsy, where are my smelling salts?
In some ways, I quite like this film. There are two opposing reasons to watch it. One is that it's charming, light and funny. The other is that underneath that it's sinister and disturbing, with some intriguing touches like the phantom Desmond Testers and the diegetic melodramatic music because the characters are walking through a cinema. It's about state-sponsored terrorists planning to bomb London and it gives us a terrorist who's sympathetic and almost makes you like him, until the film pulls the rug out from under that in a huge way. The moral ambiguity in that is up there with pretty much anything Hitchcock ever did, I think. Homolka has been given an amazing role and, almost until the end, he's nearly great with it.
In short: both good and broken. Now I want to watch a proper adaptation of the original Conrad, of which plenty exist. There are operas, stage plays, several TV versions and a 1996 movie with Bob Hoskins and Gerard Depardieu. However there's still plenty to like here, e.g. the urbane bomb-making dude. It's memorable. If nothing else, the subject matter ensures that.