When you think Joseph Conrad cinema adaptations, you generally think of Apocalypse Now (1979) Francis Ford Coppolla’s Vietnam War set take on Heart of Darkness. Sabotage (1936) is a not as famous film based on a not as famous book. It is a British era Alfred Hitchcock film, based on Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, a book I absolutely love, and personally prefer to Heart of Darkness. The book is an amazing, tense account of a terrorist and the results of his actions, especially those wrought upon his family. The book is strange in that it is not overly cinematic, but immediately upon reading it I thought it would make a great adaptation if taken on by one of today’s more original directors. I had visions in my head of a contemporary reimagining with Paul Greengrass at the helm, or even more intriguingly for some reason a Tarantino helmed period piece. Either would be scripted by me, so no stealing my ideas.
Before I get into my thoughts, I think it is hard to talk too much about the film without giving away spoilers. Luckily the film is in the public domain, so check it out here (it is well worth a look, and is only an hour and a quarter long):
First a small note on the name change. It was necessitated because Hitchcock’s previous film was titled Secret Agent (1936). That picture was unrelated to Conrad’s novel, and was in fact based on a W. Somerset Maugham short story. From the very start Hitchcock’s originality and ability to utilise technique to enhance the style of his films is on display in this effort. A pre-credits shot sees the camera zoom in on the word sabotage in an open dictionary; whilst the first shot of the film proper shows a canted close up of a light bulb whilst Mr Verloc plunges the city into darkness with his first act of sabotage. The film has an edge of innovation throughout it, such as when a deceased character’s face repeatedly flashes up onscreen, haunting his older sister. What the film does well narratively, is achieves the all-important balance any adaptation must. Namely it strips away the fat from the book, in the form of a number of sub-plots which are not necessary to the central thrust of the film as envisaged by Hitchcock. Verloc is a saboteur, an agent for an unnamed foreign government who runs a cinema in London as a cover for his operations. The film has fun with this metaphor, with the shady goings on all taking place behind the facade of the screen. The appearance writ large for the audience in the movie’s cinema masks the reality of the city’s underbelly unfolding behind it.
The film is in parts, searing. It was actually banned in Brazil because it upset public order, whilst Hitchcock says the scene where a young boy is killed was the biggest mistake he made on film. This scene is the film’s highpoint and I think it is equal to any sequence Hitch ever filmed, at the very least in terms of tension. I do not write that last sentence lightly. Stevie, thinking he is just delivering a film canister, gets distracted on the way to dropping it off. The audience knows he is really carrying a bomb for Verloc, a fact Hitchcock reminds us of with repeated close-ups of the package, often intercut with a shot of a cute puppy or the young, innocent Stevie. As the scene builds to its shocking conclusion, Hitchcock continues to amp up the tension to almost unbearable levels. The outcome is a crushing one, smouldering bus wreckage and all. The book is extremely psychological, primarily concerned with mental anguish and torture. Whilst the film is not able to maintain all of this, it does elicit a lot of tension from the situations that it depicts and it is able to maintain the cerebral quality of the book. Hitch truly is a master of this genre of film. Specifically I am talking about short, taut, classical mystery films dripping with intrigue; in this case all aided no end by a very clever script. The setup, with enemy spies and undercover cops, is classic crime film. But the layer of psychological manipulation and the relationships between the characters allow it to rise above the generic standard. And whilst his Hollywood work is undoubtedly more ambitious, big in scope and ‘great’, these earlier British films of his really are genre classics.
Occasionally the acting in these earlier, British works of Hitchcock’s left a little to be desired, especially in comparison with the turns delivered by some of the stars of his later Hollywood work. That is definitely not the case here though. Oskar Homolka gets the difficult role of Verloc, a pretty unlikeable dude. He is a bad husband, and a small amount of initial idealism swiftly makes way to a much larger unfeeling, vicious streak. He is a coward who will do anything to placate his superiors and Homolka’s portrayal maintains the small mindedness and bumbling tendencies of Conrad’s Verloc. Homolka is a bit of an Edward G. Robinson lookalike who initially appears to be rocking a Dracula accent, but this settles and is not distracting after a while. Continuing the lookalike theme (for me at least) is the undercover cop Ted Spencer, played by John Loder who looks a whole lot like Laurence Olivier. Spencer is (along with Stevie) the moral core of the film, obviously representing good and the law in opposition to Verloc’s evil and illegality. Stevie, Sylvia’s younger brother who features in the film’s emotional highpoint is effectively portrayed by Desmond Tester. This is a difficult role as Stevie is a character with mental issues, but the performance resists the temptation to overplay this, instead making it clear but not distracting. His innocence that Verloc takes advantage of is also made plain. The standout performance by far of the film comes from Sylvia Sidney as Verloc’s wife Sylvia (this has been changed from the name of Winnie in the book). Sidney is truly excellent in this film, managing to convey the right amount of innocence without coming across as weak. Actually her character is far from weak, as evidenced by some of the actions she takes late in the film. The scene where she discovers that her younger brother has been killed is heart wrenching, mainly because of Sidney’s performance. Upon hearing the news, she collapses to the ground, overwhelmed by grief yet not needing to resort to histrionics. It is a masterful piece of acting.
Like the best literary adaptations, this film changes a lot but remains true to its source. The film has a happier ending than the book. Not in a saccharine way, but it is a measure of Hitchcock’s skill that this change, just like all those he makes from the book, feels ‘right’ and like it fits perfectly. Whether or not you have read the book, definitely take a look at this one. I wish they still made em like this.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny