Alfred Hitchcock liked to say that if some films are slices of life, his are pieces of cake. But his little-known 1936 picture Sabotage -- a spare, harrowing adaptation of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent -- is like the kind of cake that arrives with a file hidden in the middle of it. The most character-oriented and emotionally daring of the director's early thrillers, Sabotage has suddenly become timely as well as "just" a great movie. It's about espionage as shabby-genteel terrorism.
In these days when Hollywood is running away from terrorism as a subject, American filmmakers and audiences alike would do well to buy or rent a copy of Sabotage and watch it right away. (It's available on a half-dozen budget-priced DVDs.) Hitchcock proves that if you treat this volatile subject with wit, invention and integrity, you can give the audience a dose of suspense that won't make them feel guilty in the morning. The suspense is fused with empathy and understanding.
Oscar Homolka and Sylvia Sidney are touching and incongruous as a husband and wife -- Mr. and Mrs. Verloc -- who manage an East London movie theater and care for Mrs. Verloc's younger brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester). The young, pretty, sensitive Mrs. Verloc has married for the security her husband provides Stevie and herself. That's why it's so heartbreaking and ironic that the deceptively phlegmatic Mr. Verloc is a saboteur. A Scotland Yard investigator (John Loder) has taken a cover job at the greengrocer next to the movie theater and ends up falling in love with Mrs. Verloc. But Sabotage is mostly an anti-romantic thriller. In the United States it was called The Woman Alone -- and for once an American title is apt. Mrs. Verloc learns how nightmarish a marriage of compromise can be.
From the beginning, when Mr. Verloc pours sand into the works of the Battersea power station, Hitchcock creates an atmosphere of booby-trapped claustrophobia. A light bulb flickers, London blacks out, the Battersea managers find the dirt in the gears -- and Verloc, with a dark and implacable expression, makes his way home to the East End. Graham Greene, reviewing the film at the time of its release (it was the one Hitchcock movie he had any fondness for), called Homolka's Verloc "slow, kindly, desperate." His description captures the genius of the movie.
A sleeper agent under orders from an unnamed government, Verloc is the kind of nondescript and quiet fellow, gentle in his daily discourse, who can hide every kind of dissatisfaction under a thick surface. It's perfect that he runs a small independent movie house, because in that self-enclosed milieu his darker nature can remain a mystery. But we see his alienation from the outset. Much of London is swept up in the gaiety of moving through a vibrant city in the dark. Verloc doesn't realize it. He thinks he's pulled off a dazzling destructive feat until his handler shows him the newspaper declaring that London laughed its way through the blackout. That's when he is ordered to blow up Piccadilly Circus on a parade day.
Hitchcock doesn't sentimentalize his Londoners. They might be prancing on the boulevards after the lights go out, but in the Verlocs' meaner neighborhood they're demanding refunds from the box office. Yet there's something reassuring and full of appetite about their graspingness. And Hitchcock doesn't demonize Verloc: When he hears about the Piccadilly job, he protests to his boss that he never wants to take human life.
Ultimately, though, Mr. Verloc does embody the banality of evil -- and Hitchcock depicted it unerringly long before philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the phrase. From what we see of Verloc, he likes nothing better than to come off as the gruff, sentimental paterfamilias, playing surrogate father to Stevie and complaining when the cook browns the vegetables. His notes to his henchmen are as nondescript and proper as invitations to a bridge party. The most colorful figure in the film is the explosives expert, "the Professor" (William Dew-hurst): Greene, again, succinctly and brilliantly described him as "a soapy old scoundrel who supports his shrewish daughter and a bastard child with a bird business, concocting his explosives in the one living-room, among the child's dolls and the mother's washing." By the end, though, the Professor is more than a black-comic scoundrel: He's the agent of a suitably doggerel form of poetic justice.