Criterion Prediction #174: Sabotage, by Alexander Miller
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Sylvia Sidney, Oskar Homolka, Desmond Tester, John Loder
Synopsis: An undercover Scotland Yard detective investigates a potential terrorist syndicate who plan to stage a series of attacks throughout London but the plot thickens when his involvement with the prime suspect’s family turns personal.
Critique: Early Hitchcock films are a great deal of fun to watch, not only did he cut his teeth in the silent era, but flourished in the early talkies. And while Hitchcock was fine-tuning his penchant for dynamic thrillers, cinema itself was also on the grow. Watching movies like Sabotage, Secret Agent and Blackmail, you see and hear this director becoming the master we all know him as today. Hitchcock is tuning his cinema, nuzzling into the mechanics of suspense, weighing out the contrast of wry humor and action, calibrating technique and aesthetic flourishes in conjunction with the medium of film. Movies are figuring out how to talk, utilize sound and adjust to this pivotal change. By the time we get to Sabotage, we ’re watching Alfred Hitchcock (a name synonymous with the medium) and cinema undergo a very significant growth spurt.
Sabotage might not have the rapid-fire witticisms, pacing and set pieces that would make The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Lady Vanishes iconic titles from the director’s British years but it’s still an inspired companion with more than a few sporadic flickers of the master’s brilliance. The political atmosphere of pre-war British cinema was curious and reflexive in that there are the echoing concerns from WWI as well as the paranoia stemming from varied terrorist organizations. Sabotage turns its narrative toward a terrorist cell operating in London. Of course, it’s from an unnamed European country and their cause is unknown; this decision is likely due to the director’s penchant for omitting unnecessary details in favor of crafting entertaining fare. In the conversation of watching an artist’s creative ascension Sabotage feels like one of the earliest examples of a McGuffin playing a significant role in juicing along the film’s narrative. The antagonistic political motivations of the film’s interpretation of modern terrorism is disturbing, namely in the film’s famous bus scene where a bomb (which is being transported by a child no less) detonates, leveling a double-decker bus. In the 30s, this was a “what if” bit of thriller cinema. However, given the state of international terrorism and the multiple attacks on London, Sabotage is an eerily relevant movie that (perhaps) inadvertently prefigured the extensive destruction of global terrorist attacks.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage almost has every standard qualifier for a potential Criterion release. There’s the LaserDisc argument. Along with the director’s other earlier films, Secret Agent, Blackmail and Young and Innocent, Sabotage was one of Criterion’s many LaserDisc entries. Recently, there’s been some Blu-ray quality restorations of Hitchcock’s early works and, of course, Sabotage is one of them. Plus, like so many of the director’s earlier films, Sabotage has fallen into the realm of the public domain. Many (including yours truly) were introduced to the early work of Hitchcock via cheap collector’s sets but the quality of some of these titles is abhorrent and, for some, even off-putting with indecipherable audio and crappy picture that doesn’t serve anyone, especially the movie.