Format: DVD

Release date: 25 February 2008

Distributor: Network

Part of the Alfred Hitchcock: The British Years box-set

Directors: Alfred Hitchcock

Based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent

Cast: Oskar Homolka, Sylvia Sydney, John Loder

UK 1936

76 mins

Despite the fact that Alfred Hitchcock had made over twenty films before he moved to Hollywood in 1939 it has been suggested that his British films were those of a gifted amateur whereas in America he was a true professional at the peak of his powers. There are obvious differences between these eras; a comparison of the two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956) or between Sabotage and Saboteur (1942) clearly demonstrates how the two countries’ products differ; but to divide his career in this way is surely an over-simplification.

As this box-set shows, by the 1930s Hitchcock was already a master filmmaker. Alongside those Saturday afternoon favourites The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes are some less well-known but equally great films – particularly Young and Innocent and Sabotage – films that are as good as, and often better than his American work. However, despite the critical and commercial success of these films, Hitchcock was not thought to be suited to Hollywood filmmaking. None of the major studios were keen to employ him. Independent producer Darryl F. Zanuck finally took the ‘risk’ and invited him over.

In 1936, in what many considered a move to get noticed in America, he cast the Hollywood star Sylvia Sydney in Sabotage. But the film was to prove a poor calling card and simply served to emphasise everything the studios found troubling about him.

Sydney plays Mrs Verloc, the owner of the London cinema the Bijou. Unbeknownst to her, her husband (played by the Austrian actor Oskar Homolka) is a terrorist, a saboteur working for some unnamed country (surely unmistakable as Nazi Germany to audiences in 1937). After failing to alarm the public with a power cut he conspires to explode a bomb in Piccadilly Circus tube station. However, Verloc is no monster but a quiet husband looking after his wife and her young brother Stevie – merely trying to subsidise the meagre income he makes from the cinema with a bit of sabotage on the side. He is being watched by an undercover cop posing as a greengrocer. Hitchcock famously claimed to have a fear of the police and his protagonists are rarely policemen. Even here our sympathies are divided and there is a sense that we don’t want Verloc to be caught. This playing with the audience’s loyalties, getting them to identify with the wrong character, was to reach its apotheosis in Psycho – where the audience’s sympathies are made to switch from a thief to her murderer.

One of the most striking differences between Hitchcock’s British and American films is in the soundtrack. The incidental music that makes his US films seem so slick and professional (especially when scored by Bernard Herrmann) was less prominent in the early 30s, and even in Hollywood it was only after 1935 that it became the dominant style. Many films of that era seem lacking – the absence of spooky music in Tod Browning’s Dracula prompted Philip Glass to write and perform a score for it. However, for Hitchcock this was more of an opportunity than a deficit, such was his skill at employing diegetic sound to add mood to his films, as in the famous scream/train whistle in The 39 Steps or the cruise ship band who break into a quarrel whilst playing romantic music in Rich and Strange (a film unfortunately missing from this box-set). It is most dramatically and perfectly realised in the film he made earlier in 1936, Secret Agent, with its rhythmic machines or the eerie sustained discord played by the dead organist lying on the keys.

In Sabotage, non-diegetic sound is used but sparingly. And even when sound is post-mixed it is the sound of traffic in the street outside the Bijou (a studio set of course) that is added. Mood and tension come from squeaky shoes approaching ominously or from the sounds of the Bijou cinema and its audience. A scream is heard as the detective questions Verloc who explains casually that it is someone being murdered – on the screen. But where incidental music is generally written to suit or enhance a scene Hitchcock’s diegetic sound can work in contrast. A dejected Sylvia Sydney walks through the cinema as the audience roars with laughter at a Disney cartoon – a perfectly appropriate ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’ Sydney even finds herself joining in. With Hitchcock’s move to Hollywood this creative use of diegetic sound was almost lost and disappeared until it was revived to spectacular effect in Rear Window (1954) – for me, his masterpiece.

But the similarities between the early material and later works are more evident than the differences. His mastery of suspense is as clear here as anywhere. Hitchcock once said, ‘There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it’, a theory perfectly realised in Little Stevie’s journey across London with a bomb set to ‘sing’ at 1:45. The cutting between Stevie, the package and a variety of clocks adds tension to the most innocuous of moments. A toothpaste salesman wastes valuable time forcing him to try ‘new Salvodent’. He claims it is ‘from the Greek – salvo – no more – and Dent – toothache’. (Hitchcock’s ‘inappropriate’ moments of humour are already a firmly established feature). Nervous non-diegetic music is used here and Hitchcock even throws a cute puppy into the danger area to raise the tension to breaking point (surely even he wouldn’t kill a child and a puppy in the same shot).

The DVD comes with an introduction by film historian Charles Barr. Barr sees the scene as evidence of the influence of Soviet montage that Hitchcock’s collaborator Ivor Montagu had introduced him to. But one must add that such cross-cutting was also a feature of DW Griffith and other directors in the silent period (with the famous example of cutting between the speeding train and the heroine tied to the track). Montage theory can be seen more clearly in the use of close-ups, which are often used symbolically. The (almost silent) opening shots of a light bulb, a power station, the bulb flickering and going out followed by the sabotage being discovered and finally Verloc walking out of the shadows certainly recalls the Soviet style, although here it is used for a different purpose.

Even when adapted from literature, Hitchcock’s films are always cinematic (Sabotage not Secret Agent is from Joseph Conrad’s book The Secret Agent). He is a filmmaker of great imagination. In interviews he is often thought to be disingenuous in that he ignores themes and subtexts to give all his attention to the formal and technical aspects of film. He has been sometimes dismissed as ‘merely’ a technician. As Penelope Houston points out, ‘critics feel there is something demeaning about the thriller form. Their request to Hitchcock is always to transcend it’. Thus Vertigo – with its fascinating subtext – wins the critics’ polls despite its preposterous plot. But to Hitchcock it is the ‘craft’ of filmmaking that comes first, and the manner in which he can use this craft to excite, frighten or disturb his audience. He was to claim subsequently (with regret) that in Sabotage he had pushed his audience too far.

The film opens with a definition of the word ‘sabotage’ as ‘wilful destruction of buildings or machinery with the aim of alarming a group of persons or inspiring public unease’. One can’t help thinking that there are times, and Sabotage is a prime example, when this definition could apply just as well to Hitchcock’s cinema.

Paul Huckerby

In the same box-set: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog