Hitchcock – Sabotage (1936)

directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1936

The second in this season of Hitchcock films I’m seeing. This film is based on the novel The Secret Agent by Jospeh Conrad (somewhat confusingly the film he made right before this one and after last week’s film was called Secret Agent and had nothing to do with Conrad – he seems to have been pursuing a theme). It is, again, a very loose adaptation and set in his contemporary times.

The Story –

Mr Verloc is proprietor of a small cinema in London. We see him sneak home at the beginning from an act of sabotage, sand in Battersea power station causing a blackout across London. Later we see him meet his foreign handler at London Aquarium (which, I think has since become quite a popular meeting place for cinema and tv foreign spies, I’m sure I have seen it again). His handler is displeased that Londoners laughed at this nuisance blackout and orders a darker plot. Verloc is horrified, refuses to have anything to do with taking life, yet proceeds. He just tries to get others to do it instead!

This part of the plot hinges on something dastardly that I shall not reveal. There is a famous sequence as the bomb is transported that Hitchcock delivers beautifully juxtaposing innocence and evil. However he came to regret how it concluded he said later, as it went against his usual belief in suspense. It is shocking.

In the meantime we have already learned of Mrs Verloc – back from America she seems to have entered into a marriage of convenience with Mr. V. Possibly to help her care for her young brother, Stevie (at our discussion we did wonder if he may be her son, in fact, though this is never discussed or suggested clearly in the film, really). We have also learned that that nosey greengrocer, Ted, next door is nosey as he is an undercover detective keeping tabs on Verloc. We have also learned that he may indeed have a bit of a thing for Mrs V (and once again this film which may seem old, seems fresh and relevant in light of recent undercover police officer stories in the UK, and their romantic shenanigans).

The bomb plot shock leads to a denouement in which Mrs V is genuinely shocked — this passage of the film becomes truly strange and seems to give a very vivid picture of her state, maybe also his, as his plan has not quite worked the way he wished. He tries to mollify and manipulate her. She wanders in a daze and finds herself sitting in the film theatre watching an animation of Who Killed Cock Robin which seems to bring her back to her own narrative — she wanders back, she is fighting acting as she wants, he is scared – he acts, she acts, what is that altercation? what intent does it have? self defence in exceptional circumstances, accident in the same? But she is now even more scared – tries to flee, but our friend and hers, Ted, finds her suggests they elope to the continent. They are on their way but caught in the police closing the net. There’s another turn with the bomb maker – it confuses the confusion. What does happen, when, we have a policeman doubt the order of events himself. We close with apparently Ted offering Mrs V a safe way forward. Is this love? Is it more sinister? Is it how love may show itself in twisted circumstances?

My reaction 

Apparently this was the only Hitchcock film that Graham Greene, who reviewed it, liked. It also seems to have become one of Hitchcock’s least favourites, possibly for that bomb plot sequence. I wonder what that liking tells us of Greene, maybe points to pessimism.

I was interested by having the bad guy run a cinema and in fact living right behind the screen – to get to and from their flat you have to walk through the theatre, during showings too. We wondered last week about there being figures in Hitchcock’s films who are like the director, directing play, as it were, in the film. This is very literally that. Although Mr Verloc himself is directed by powers above we don’t get to hear much of, beyond that the police don’t hold any hope of actually catching them.

I was also interested by how Mrs V seems to move through her shock and make some decision to act, and to correctly perceive what has happened, by sitting in the cinema and watching Who Killed Cock Robin. This seemed a very nice comment on how we know where we are in life from the narratives we are given about life. But also perhaps a comment on the use of cinema, maybe it begins to touch on how we may be influenced by propaganda? In her shock there seemed an element of knowing her situation through art, I’m not sure what more can be said.

The whole sequence of her shock I found truly shocking – the strangeness of it. I wondered if all the usual psychological rules had been replaced, or was it just that the same rules existed but at such a fundamental level so much else we usually notice was grist to the mill, redundant, normality barely recognisable, as the foundational aspects of her being were turned up to their maximum, beyond it. It is bad enough if Stevie is her brother, if he were her son, then?

But having seen The 39 Steps last week, and given my earlier comments on that, one thing that stood out to me in this film was how much the characters in it were in fact trapped by their thinking styles in their situations and how they respond to the changing situation. Unlike Hannay last week hey seem to simply dig themselves deeper into their positions. Mr Verloc does not wish to take life, he says so, yet he merely adapts his role as an agent acting in subterfuge to slide out of the way of doing this directly, without confronting the problem he faces. Once again it seems that how a character lives his life makes itself known in his response to the crisis of the film. Unlike Hannay his response to traps is to adapt to them whilst basically doing the same thing — we see at one point his manipulative and hidden character emerge on his face over the minor arrangements of a meal — and overall we learn that is how he is in life. Hannay, last week may be stuck in his own way, but it is a way of life that is light, refusing to accept definitions, labels, the automatic process of systems. His answers are not static, he is in touch with reality but within a view of himself and the world that has a basis in the good, and he adapts within a certain limit of himself to face to that reality, to challenge it. I guess sometimes that may seem annoying to some, as he skips through life, but he can also take it seriously. It seems to me this is a large part of what saves him — as also I guess is his clean conscience and clarity about himself to himself, something inner that is not spoken directly, we just see it sing through him.

It’s not  just Mr Verloc that is so trapped. Both Ted and Mrs V also seem somewhat trapped. There seems a sort of passivity on show that moves trough their labyrinths without ever really choosing how to respond to them drawn by some gravity, or fate. Hannay’s same thing in his way of repetition is always inventive, not stuck in limited possibility. To some extent it seems this may partly also relate to their view of the world, their faith in what is possible.

I read this week that the Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul would be weighed after death by Osiris and if it weighed more than The Feather of Truth then they could not pass to heaven, not even to hell (there was none) but instead to non existence. You watch Verloc and sense heaviness (though we do not know his motives or even if there are more reasons he has no choice), but Mrs V too has a heaviness and Ted, who seems to have a need to save her, but maybe they do have some hope? Hannay seems light. Who am I to judge overall, just reflecting my sense of their dramatic lives.

How interesting. It speaks to my thoughts on Hitchcock representing imprisonment and escape. I‘m getting an idea he identified two possible reactions to life, almost a glass half full and a glass half empty differential in ways of being – and a suggestion that true freedom lies in the glass half full approach, refusing definition, challenging boundaries, faith in self and honesty about self, prepared to react to each situation – just as last week he kept being presented with wholly new worlds with each opening of a door, where the solution to the last room was different.

Hitchcock seems well aware of the evils of the world, he seems to know badness, to have no illusions about it and the ways of those in its thrall, but also to know the traps set to our responses and difficulties of taking a path of clarity to lightness. Maybe he offers ways out, even those that are still somewhat dogged by the obstacles of the path, as Mrs Verloc and Ted are at the end.

A. H / K. H-H (25 October 2018)

edit 9/11/19 – it occurs to me that what I’m talking about in regard to Hannay is an aspect of grace, not unlike Martin Luther’s definition of it as “the experience of being delivered from experience”. It struck me having written this, after a bit and then thinking of Hannay:


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