“Sabotage” is one of Alfred Hitchcocks’s better made films of the 1930′s that integrate intrigue, thriller, and art into one film. The film is about a group of international saboteurs wreaking havoc on the city of London that occurs during a time in history when Nazi Germany is suspected of infiltrating England but the group headed by the main character played by Oskar Homolka, has no known exterior origins. “Sabotage” shows pre-World War 2 sentiments about the alarming political state of Europe as the Nazi party in Germany grows in power.
The film opens with a lightbulb flashing on in a close-up shot, then the camera changes to show a busy London street at night. Right before a major blackout occurs, the lightbulb is shown once again with the light slowly flickering out. At the Bijou theatre where Carl Verloc (Homolka), the owner, passes by wearing his dark overcoat, the audience exits the theatre and stand in front of the box office, demanding their money back. Verloc returns home and decides to lay down and pretends to be asleep with a newspaper covering his face. Verloc’s wife (Sylvia Sidney) works at the box office and when she returns home to see if her husband is there. His wife informs him of the moviegoer’s demands to get refunds, believing they cannot afford the financial loss for that one night, but her husband tells her it is all right, that he has some money coming from a source but does not disclose the source to her.
In the next scene Mrs. Verloc’s younger brother Stevie (Desmond Tester) is introduced. He is a helpful boy around the house, preparing supper when his older sister and her husband are busy working. Mrs. Verloc tells Stevie to purchase a head of lettuce from the grocer next door to their home so she can make a salad for her husband. Stevie returns not only with the lettuce, but with the grocer, Ted Spencer, who presumably insists on coming over himself to see if he might talk to Carl regarding the recent blackout. Spencer is not really a grocer; he is a police sergeant working undercover to expose the group that has been planning a series of attacks on London. Spencer does not get any information that he is seeking though and leaves the apartment when all of a sudden, a window screeches open. Spencer tries to suggest a saboteur is at work when he says a murder must be involved right at that moment but Verloc simply quietly agrees with him, remaining cool and collected the entire time.
Spencer returns to Scotland Yard in Westminster, informing Superintendent Talbot (Matthew Boulton) about what he knows of Verloc and claims his wife alibied him during the blackout. Back at the grocer, there is a camera shot of a solitary lettuce leaf on the ground when a policeman comes by and requests Spencer to pick it up before someone slips and has a major accident. Verloc and another man who jump onto a bus and transfer to an aquarium where they meet in confidence while looking at a tank of sea turtles. Verloc is slipped a newspaper clipping that says “London Laughs at Blackout”, with the laughing presumed to be a reaction to Nazi sabotage activities, since no one got hurt in the process. Verloc is told he will be paid the money when he does the job of delivering a bomb to destroy the metro area. Verloc is given a reference to meet with a pet shop owner who is also part of the sabotage ring. He turns away and looks at a tank of fish, which he imagines is a building collapsing from the exploded bomb.
Spencer continues to see Mrs. Verloc as he not only is trying to get more information about her husband’s criminal activities but also because by this time, he has developed a crush on her. He tries to spend some time with her, taking her and Stevie to lunch at Simpsons, a ritzy restaurant, and wants to learn about the character of her husband. He is simply told that Carl is a quiet, unassuming man, but Mrs. Verloc does not know that such a personality would exclude him from being a gangster. It is entirely possible for gangsters to have that schizoid aura in their personality when they can seem very quiet and almost inconspicuous. Even when Verloc is busy writing letters to other members of the sabotage group while Stevie and his sister work on a model ship, he plays the role of the quiet, unassuming gangster who is plotting his next move.
Spencer eventually exposes the rest of the sabotage group, but not without getting caught. He tries to listen in on a conversation while hanging on to a window in the Verloc’s home. One of the ring members, Yunct (Torin Thatcher) notices someone is eavesdropping on the conversation and casually makes his way to the window, pulling Spencer through the window. Verloc is surprised to see who it is and after Spencer leaves, tells the group that a member from Scotland Yard now knows of their plans. The group knows the wisest thing to do is quickly disband, relocating several times if possible to avoid being prosecuted by the authorities. Verloc becomes suspicious of Spencer and what kind of information, if any, his wife has given him regarding a plan to bomb London. Mrs. Verloc can only tell him what she does know because she wants to believe her husband is innocent and is in no way involved with criminal activities.
The climax in the film finally arrives: when the bomb is to be delivered to its destination by 1:45 in the afternoon on Saturday. Verloc finds a way out of delivering it himself so he has Stevie transport it, telling the boy to make sure it gets to the recipient on time. The package is designed to look like it is a roll of film titled “Bartholomew the Strangler.” By the time Stevie gets on a bus after visiting a street elixir show and a parade, he runs out of time and eventually becomes a victim of the package, as does everyone on the entire bus.
Once the news of Stevie’s death reaches Mrs. Verloc, her life starts to unravel. Spencer finally tells her the truth about her husband, which eventually leads to her defending herself against her husband. Once he is dead, she loses hope even though Spencer is ready and willing to assume responsibility for her care.
Hitchcock is brilliant with his use of the camera, the use of light and shadows, minimal scene changes (the theatre, grocer’s, Verloc home, and Scotland Yard) plus some street shots thrown in for good measure, all create an ideal thriller with outstanding acting from Homolka, Sidney, and Loder. Homolka uses facial expressions to convey his emotions as Verloc throughout the film, even when he takes only one look into the camera at several points throughout the film. He has only one substantial dialogue in the entire film, and that is when he sees her at home after she faints outside upon hearing the news Stevie was killed in the bus explosion. Verloc finally reveals who he really is to his wife. Sylvia Sidney plays the sweet, trusting, and much younger wife to Homolka, while Loder portrays a believable undercover sergeant.
Certain subtleties throughout the film reveal what is to come: the plate breaking, which signifies a breaking in the relationship between Mrs. Verloc and her husband as the movie progresses, the lettuce leaf on the sidewalk foretells an impending disaster, and the temporarily absent sea turtles. Singing birds and numerous camera shots of written notes appear at regular intervals throughout the film. “London must not laugh on Saturday”, as one of the notes in the movie read, and it did not in Mrs. Verloc’s world, when she loses her brother and husband within hours of each other.
Based on a story by Joseph Conrad, the script remains faithful to the original story. Certain scenes may unnerve some viewers, as they did back in 1937 when the film was first released. Stevie’s being on the bus petting a lady’s dog next to him are two symbols of innocence that become pawns in the bombing. Mrs. Verloc is another victim but one of trust. “Sabotage” was made in 1936 when Germany formed an alliance with fascist Italy, with potential war with other nations in sight. This movie does in a way foretell of what was to come in the ensuing years of World War 2, while keeping an audience spellbound about what appears to be local gangsters carrying out the orders of one ringleader who hails from an eastern European nation. Both Hitchcock and thriller fans will enjoy this film for its stellar direction and acting based on a story by Joseph Conrad.