Not rated, but it actually breaks one of those cardinal rules of what you are allowed to do in film. It straight up kills a kid. Oh, and it doesn't just kill a random kid, like in Fritz Lang's M. It kills the kid that's one of the main characters in the story. But there's also the understanding that lots of people are killed and London is plunged into fear. There's also a stabbing death that's so blunt (no pun intended) that it comes across as shocking. Regardless, not rated.
DIRECTOR: Alfred Hitchcock
I thought that I was the idiot, but I'm not the only one who made this mistake. I could have sworn that I saw Sabotage before. You know, the one with Peter Lorre? Yeah, the internet made the same mistake that I did when I was looking for images from this movie. That's kind of a win-win for me, because I've seen a lot of Hitchcock, so a new Hitchcock for me --especially one that I already owned --is pretty rad for me. I watched a solid print of an okay Hitchcock movie. I can think of worse things. Not only that, but now I'm considering reading a novel that I thought I would never get around to, The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, thanks to the fact that I'm now curious how close the movie is to the book. Look at my charmed life!
I'm going to be irresponsibly critiquing one of the greatest auteurs that ever lived. It's because I have a computer and I can't actually fight Alfred Hitchcock. I adore Hitchcock. I absolutely adore his films and they have brought me such joy and a love of cinema that you have to keep in mind when I talk a little trash about movies like Sabotage. I don't really fall in love with Hitchcock until his time at Warner Brothers. His British films often lack a little something. Part of it, I mentally blame on the British persona woven through his time in England. This is pre-the British documentary philosophy of cinema. No, this is wartime cinema in England. While the Brits were making movie, the studio system at United Artists in the States was changing the face of film. But this is a time where a younger Alfred Hitchcock was experimenting with what could be done with film.
This is amazing stuff. It's just that...it's not all that cohesive. I don't want to compare THX-1138 with the early work of Alfred Hitchcock, mainly because George Lucas isn't the most amazing director ever, but there's an eerie similarity with what Lucas was doing in that film with what Sabotage ends up being. Both THX-1138 and Sabotage are impressive films for the individual beats as opposed to the film as a whole. I remember thinking that THX got a little bit of harassment unnecessarily when I was watching it, because the movie looked super duper impressive while I was watching it. It was only when the film was over that I realized that I was kind of bored stupid and didn't really care about any of the characters. Sabotage isn't quite that reaction from me.
I hate saying obvious things, but Hitchcock is the Master of Suspense. It's in Sabotage that we have him almost distilling the concept of suspense into a brutal cocktail. I'm talking about the death of the kid, guys. I know that this doesn't sell me as the most amazing teacher ever, but my students have a running gag saying that I love any book where the kid dies. That joke has evolved into "Mr. H loves kid death", which is probably something I should probably put a cap on so I don't get fired. But I am genuinely floored by how impressive Stevie's death is planned out. In his interview book with Francois Truffaut, Hitch talks about how it is the ticking that is effective and the explosion that is the anti-climax. (Be aware, I'm butchering that paraphrasing.) It's all in the anticipation that gets us in a movie. I feel like Hitchcock made this movie just for this sequence because it is so crafted and so tense that the rest of the film feels like an afterthought.
Part of that is probably due to the taboo of the subject matter. In my head, there were two options to Stevie's package delivery turning out. 1) Stevie somehow is separated from his package and escapes danger. 2) Stevie is injured, but not killed, causing Mrs. Verloc to question her husband's criminal actions. In my wildest dreams did I think that Hitchcock would blow the kid up after all of that setup. Especially, I never thought that he would die immediately after getting his teeth brushed and his hair pomaded. It just read as such a silly human moment that to counter that moment with a bus explosion seems impossible. And I suppose that we're meant to think that because Hitchcock completely foreshadows the bus explosion happening. There are a handful of times when Hitch points out that film reels are not allowed on public transportation because it's just so flammable and then that scene happens? It's all genius.
Dear Diary, I have a question about xenophobia. It's very easy from the 21st Century to look back at 1936 and say "Ew." Once again, an older movie plays on the concept of the evil foreigner poisoning the Western way of life, steeped in democracy and whatnot. In this case, we have Mr. Verloc. Now, Hitch made Verloc suck. Understandably so, he's the villain. But he's also not the big villain of the piece. I mean, he's the primary antagonist because he's present throughout the film, but Verloc isn't a patriot. He's a guy who wants to make his struggling business thrive once again. Basically he's looking for a quick buck. But given all that I just said, is it horrible that he had to be a foreigner. (He gets mad when his cabbage is brown. I'm not sure if this is a '30s thing or a foreigner thing.) There's really no reason that he had to be from another country. There might actually be something more haunting about a Brit betraying his country because of capitalism, but that's me sitting here comfortably tic-tacking away from my future machine. It just seems gross? I don't know. It's '36. England has a natural weariness from the outside world at this time. Maybe a bad guy with an accent makes it easier to watch something merely from an entertainment perspective.
To close this whole puppy up, I want to specifically talk about what makes this movie less than amazing. I know, I didn't talk about Ted and how he's trying to steal a foreigner's wife. I think that's all I can say about that and the fact that Hitchcock feels the need to wedge a romance into this suspense tale when it really shouldn't have it. No, I'm talking about the weakest third act I've seen in a Hitchcock movie. The movie really hits its climax when Mrs. Verloc stabs her husband. That moment is great. But the movie really tries to go out of its way to close up all of its plot points. I would like to also mention that it doesn't even accomplish this, even in a ham-handed way. We still don't get the guy from the aquarium or even a concrete reason for all of this eponymous Sabotage. Instead, we get the bird guy. That guy blows himself up. The leading lady is let off the hook and there's a romance to be had in the wake of her dead brother and husband. It just seems so...trying too hard. There's no emotional vulnerability, which is something that Hitchcock has always been criticized for. So the end...really sucks.
But for a movie that falls apart in the third act, it is a pretty good watch. Hitchcock is his own worst enemy by peaking with the bomb sequence. Once the movie tries resolving itself, it shows that it is really underbaked. But we do get these moments of pure genius and hints that Hitch will become the greatest director of all time in this film. It's got great parts, but it is not a great product.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.