Mr. Verloc is part of a gang of foreign saboteurs operating out of London. He manages a small cinema with his wife and her teenage brother as a cover, but they know nothing of his secret. Scotland Yard assign an undercover detective to work at the shop next to the cinema in order to observe the gang.
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Sabotage (1936) is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous British films. It is well plotted and shot. It also features a literal example of Hitchcock’s time bomb theory of suspense.
To begin with, Sabotage features wonderful acting. Oscar Homolka is Verloc, the owner of a movie theater that is a front for spies who commit terrorist attacks in London. Sylvia Sidney is his unnamed American wife. After making this movie the two took different career paths. Sidney became a successful Hollywood actress, particularly in the film noir genre. Fritz Lang had her in two great movies made around this time, Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937). For all Homolka’s talent, her never achieved stardom or even a successful character acting career. It doesn’t matter much though as they work well together here.
Located next door to the cinema is a greengrocer, who is actually a detective named Ted Spenser. In the original story, Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent, there was no greengrocer. Hitchcock added this in, most likely because his own father was one, so he was familiar with the job.
Verloc has to think this over for a moment. This thought process is shown by Hitch as an aquarium exhibit that becomes a building downtown and then the building downtown becomes rubble. Verloc is visibly upset shaken by this hallucination and Spenser, who has tailed Verloc notices this. He does not know that Verloc has accepted a dangerous task though so he can’t give any warning of what will happen next.
On the day of the planned bombing, Verloc receives a package just like the spies said he would. The package of course contains the bomb. Verloc requests that his wife’s younger brother Stevie make the delivery of the package downtown. Ideally, Stevie will drop off the bomb and leave the area before it explodes. Being a boy, he takes his time with the delivery. Being Alfred Hitchcock, he milks the suspense of the ticking time bomb.
When news of Stevie’s death hits Sylvia Sidney she has a talk with the man who sent Stevie on the fateful errand. Verloc can not deny anything. What comes next is one of the most interesting Hitchcock movies.
Verloc is sitting at the dinner table, watching his wife get ready to serve dinner. A knife happens to be on the table to help carve the meat that has been prepared. It appears that each notices the knife at the same time. Verloc’s wife takes the knife to carve as a tense Verloc watches. When Verloc’s wife is finished carving, she extends her husband’s plate for him to take, without putting down the knife. Verloc gets up and seems to walk right into the knife.
Filled with guilt, Sylvia Sidney decides to see the police, but Spenser prevents her. He has fallen in love with her. The movie ends with a guilt filled couple, much like Blackmail.
A whole new discussion could be made of the Verloc’s owning a movie theater and what the movie-making Hitchcock was saying about audiences, but I’ll let you study that when you watch the movie.