A close look at "Sabotage"

by PDXJPrice

A closer look at one of the earliest Hitchcock's earliest films, "Sabotage" (1936). This article will look at four questions to gain a deeper understanding of the film.

"Sabotage" is based on a short story by Joseph Conrad. The film is very raw and very early Hitchcock and he breaks several of his own film making rules. Even though the film is raw, it is also very sophisticated and Hitchcock's signature is all over it. It is admittedly not one of my favorite films of his, but that doesn't mean it's not enjoyable or interesting. It is a thriller and has compelling characters and typically Hitchcockian moral ambiguity throughout. throughout.in hopes to gain a greater understanding of the overall film.

These questions come from a film teacher and are written from the perspective of aspiring film students and film makers. I found these questions difficult to answer, but I still think they make for an interesting read.

if you have not seen the film, or need to refresh your memory, I advise you to see it by clicking the link below, as the following will contain spoilers.

"North by Northwest" and "Shadow of a Doubt" are Thrillers with Comic Overtones. "Sabotage" mixes the comic and the suspenseful as well... but how does it do it differently?

Consider juxtaposition of jokes with violence or moments of cruelty in the cartoon ("Who Killed Cock Robin") scene. Be sure to relate the cartoon to the concurrent action in the film.

While Hitchcock’s humor always has a dark and ironic edge to it (which I appreciate), in Sabotage, we see humor in a different way than in many of his other films. One of the most striking ways is that the humor, in this film, generally has us laughing at the characters, not laughing with them (unlike a scene in, say, North by Northwest where Roger Thornhill frequently finds himself involved in humorous situations). It’s almost entirely external and doesn’t really further the plot in any way. For example, the scene at the aquarium after Verloc and his “boss” discuss the impending attack pans to a couple coming with the man talking about the sex practices of oysters. It’s a funny line that does nothing for the plot, but does lighten the mood. The main characters had just discussed a terrorist attack and the mood is heavy. Hitchcock uses this little nugget to lighten the mood.

The characters, with the exception of Stevie, are humorless—perhaps even featureless. The opening scene, where Stevie is cooking and burns himself and nearly trips on his pants, is rather humorous, and in a slap stick way. The cartoon, towards the end of the film was an interesting use of humor. Cartoons in general have an odd, violent humor. In the case of this film, the cartoon was used first to alleviate the sadness of Mrs. Verloc, whose brother has just died. The cartoon then serves to remind her who killed her, and, perhaps, suggests what she should do about it thus setting up the climax of the film. This is shown by showing Mrs. verloc first laughing, and then, frowning. Hitchcock uses the cartoon to spark Mrs. Verloc to action.

Sabotage Film Poster
Sabotage Film Poster

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Decribe the use of the camera in the Death of Verloc stabbing scene

Mr. Verloc
Mr. Verloc
Mrs. Verloc and Detective Spencer
Mrs. Verloc and Detective Spencer

The stabbing of Verloc is the most beautiful scene in a film which was otherwise rather drab and blah. Hitchcock said that sex should look like murder and murder should look like sex, or something to that effect, and he does that with this scene. I really liked how the camera focused on Mrs. Verloc’s reluctant hands as she grabs the knife puts it down and grabs it again: the camera showing us her moral quandary. Then, the camera focuses tightly on Mr. Verloc’s face and as he approaches her oddly, the camera emphasizes how large he is in relation to Mrs. Verloc.  As she stabs him, quickly, he towers over her. Even though he has been bested, he still remains bigger than her and she remains weak as she can’t hold up his body which died remarkably fast after a stab to the stomach.

The whole film, before this scene, shows Mrs. Verloc as weak and powerless. Even int this scene, where she finally has some power, stabbing and murdering Mr. Verloc, she is still dominated by his physical body, which collapses on her.

The drama was played up by the camera angels (her low, him high) and the positioning (it follows the movements of Mr. Verloc as he walks around the table to his bride).  It’s a vintage Hitchcock murder scene. Beautifully done.

Hitchcock and Holmolka on the set
Hitchcock and Holmolka on the set

In many ways, Hitchcock's early English films are less polished and audience aware than his later Hollywood films and therefore much more revealing about his psyche.

What do you think this film reveals about Hitchcock the person?

I found Sabotage very difficult to watch and I think it had more to do with the film making itself then it did with the quality of the print. Much of the dialogue was unclear and the camera and soundtrack were at times distracting. The most notable moments of distraction was at the beginning of the film when the power grid has gone out and one of the men asks “who did it” and then the face of Mr. Verloc appears, along with ear piercing music. It was almost excruciating to watch and listen too..

But, more than that, it became obvious that when Hitchcock mentioned in Inside Hitchcock that no one was truly innocent, that he was true to that idea for this film. He kills a young boy and a puppy (not to mention some elderly folks). Certainly the puppy and the young boy would be perceived by most to be morally innocent, yet Hitchcock kills them off, which tells me he stood by that credo. It also tells me he cared little about the audience getting angry or saddened by the deaths. While I applaud Hitchcock for sticking to his guns and his beliefs, it is clear that by killing off these characters, he had very little regard for the audience and their feelings towards him, which leads us into question 4…

Mrs Verloc walking away from her husbands murdered body.
Mrs Verloc walking away from her husb...

What does Hitchcock do in this film that he says a film maker should never do?

In Inside Hitchcock, Hitchcock states that "You don’t show the audience a bomb and then let the bomb go off and kill people or you will have a bunch of people mad at you." This is pretty sage advice that Hitchcock obviously didn’t learn until after he made Sabotage. I was certainly angry when the bus blew up, though I cared more about the sweet little terrier puppy then the dopey little kid. I’d be curious to find out when Hitchcock adopted this philosophy and, after having adopted it, if he would have changed this in Sabotage. Did he receive backlash for this film because he killed these characters and, if so, did this result in his change of cinematic heart? This is something I intend to research further.

This was my fifth Wizzley article. Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it!

Updated: 04/01/2012, PDXJPrice
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PDXJPrice on 07/24/2012

Thanks Katie. HItchcock is really fun to think about too. He's so creative and interesting in all he does.

katiem2 on 07/22/2012

Very interesting view on sabotage, I enjoyed reading this and reflecting on Hitchcock.

PDXJPrice on 06/17/2012

Thanks so much for reading, Colin!

PDXJPrice on 05/16/2012

Thanks so much, Audrey... and I'll be publishing more here on Wizzley soon.

AudreyHowitt on 05/15/2012

Wow--Justin--nice article. I love Hitchcock!

PDXJPrice on 05/04/2012

Wow, Flora. What a terrific analysis. Thanks so much for your insights!

FloraBreenRobison on 05/04/2012

I enjoyed reading your answers to the questions about Sabotage. I would have to think a long time about how I would answer them. I have seen this film often-I own a copy-and I agree that I was upset about the bomb going off with the boy and the dog. I couldn't say if I am bothered more about the puppy. But every time I see it, I find myself screaming at the boy to get off the bus, even though I know waht happens.

I find humor as satire in this film, but not funny ha-ha humor in this myself. North By Northwest in particular had laugh out loud and for an extended period of time lines. I never laughed in this film, though I smiled wryly.

One thing about the Who Killed Cock Robin? Since you are asking people to watch the film in its entirety before readin gthis article, I can discuss the ending of Who Killed Cock Robin without feeling like I am spoiling anything. I always had a problem with the poem. It is satire for sure and on this basis I love it. But I was angry with the ending. Who killed Cock Robin? The Dove did. The dove as a real bird, not a fictional character, is the international symbol of *peace.* To have a fictional dove kill anyone, for any motive, is an irony I wasn't expecting the first time I read the poem. I did not see it as appropriate for children. Nowadays anything goes for children's literature, but when the poem was written, this was not the case. Versions children read of fairy tales were less graphic than the original versions which were meant to be read by adults. But I am not sure if the irony of the poem of that era fit the other children's books being written at the same time. Excellent.

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