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Sabotage (1936)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Sabotage (1936)
Directed byAlfred Hitchcock
Production CompanyGaumont-British Picture Corporation
Screen PlayCharles Bennett
From the novel 'The Secret Agent' byJoseph Conrad
PhotographyBernard Knowles

Cast: Sylvia Sidney (Sylvia Verloc); Oscar Homolka (Carl Anton Verloc); John Loder (Detective Sergeant Ted Spencer); Desmond Tester (Sylvia's brother Stevie); Joyce Barbour (Renee)

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Thriller. When a local cinema proprietor becomes involved in sabotage, he unwittingly leads his wife and her young brother into tragedy.

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Hitchcock's follow-up to Secret Agent (1936) was, ironically, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's classic The Secret Agent, renamed Sabotage. Hitchcock was truer to the dark mood of the novel than he was to the details of plot or characterisation: Conrad's Tsarist agents provocateurs plotting to blow up the Greenwich Observatory are here transformed into a vague conspiracy, with no specified objective, while the torment of Conrad's Verloc takes a back seat to the relationship of undercover detective Ted and Verloc's young wife Sylvia. Verloc is here a cinema owner instead of a tobacconist, and Stevie, the retarded child in the novel, is recast as merely a young innocent. The setting of the action is also moved from Victorian London to the present day.

Hitchcock and producer Michael Balcon had intended to cast Robert Donat as the detective, but when he was unavailable due to illness, settled on John Loder. A poor substitute for the dashing Donat, Loder's lack of charisma made him a weak partner for the gifted Hollywood star Sylvia Sidney, and the film is somewhat unbalanced as a result.

Sabotage bears similarities with several of Hitchcock's previous films, particularly Blackmail (1929), which also features a murder committed by a woman in a dazed state. The two films also end similarly, with the murderess / heroine prevented from confessing her crime by her policeman boyfriend (a rather different ending from Conrad's novel, in which Winnie commits suicide by jumping from a moving train).

Hitchcock himself was dismissive of the film, and particularly of one sequence, featuring the explosion of a bomb on a London bus - which, he told Fran├žois Truffaut, broke all of his own rules on suspense. The scene, though, is an undeniably powerful one.

Sabotage was widely praised on its release in 1936, although Observer critic C.A. Lejeune - generally a strong supporter of Hitchcock - complained about the cruelty of the explosion scene, which is perhaps why the director dismissed it years later. Despite the vagueness of its politics, the film was banned in Brazil as a potential threat to public order.

Sabotage was Hitchcock's last film for Gaumont-British which, at the behest of its financiers the Ostrer brothers, had decided to abandon production and concentrate on distribution. For what would be his last two pictures before relocating to Hollywood, Hitchcock signed once again with Gainsborough on a two film contract.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Unwitting victim (6:36)
2. Driven to murder (3:14)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Bennett, Charles (1899-1995)
Frend, Charles (1909-1977)
Hitchcock, Alfred (1899-1980)
Montagu, Ivor (1904-1984)
Tennyson, Pen (1912-1941)
English Hitchcock
Literary Adaptation