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In 1936 the idea of a terrorist blowing up a bus in London's Piccadilly Circus was an unimaginable and somewhat outrageous conceit. Yet that action provides one of Alfred Hitchcock's most famous and controversial sequences in Sabotage (1936), an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel, The Secret Agent (the novel title was actually the name of Hitchcock's previous film, which was based on W. Somerset Maugham's "Ashenden" adventure stories, hence the need for a new title). At the story's center is Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka), the owner of a movie theatre and a member of a secret terrorist organization bent on destroying London. His wife (Sylvia Sidney) is completely ignorant of her husband's activities until a government agent (John Loder), pretending to be a grocer, arouses her suspicions - but not in time to prevent a terrible tragedy.
The scene in question, which has Mrs. Verloc's innocent young brother Stevie (Desmond Tester) carrying a package (a well-disguised time bomb) to a specific destination via a crowded bus, blurs the line between the director's typical use of suspense versus shock. In an often repeated illustration, Hitchcock laid out the difference between the two methods. Shocking an audience was easy; you could show a group of people at a table playing cards and suddenly have an explosion, killing everyone. Much more effective is to show the same group playing cards but also show a time bomb placed under the table, knowing that it might explode any second. This approach is decidedly more suspenseful by engaging the audiences' fear for the potential victims. Yet, in Sabotage, Hitchcock stepped over that line into shock when [Spoiler Alert] he had the bomb explode, killing the young boy along with other bus passengers and an adorable dog (a complete taboo in England where canines are the favored pet). Audiences and critics alike felt Hitchcock went too far this time and even the director agreed in retrospect when he was interviewed years later by French director Francois Truffaut: "I made a serious mistake in having the little boy carry the bomb...[He] was involved in a situation that got him too much sympathy from the audience, so that when the bomb exploded and he was killed, the public was resentful. The way to handle it would have been for Homolka to kill the boy deliberately, but without showing that on the screen, and then for the wife to avenge her young brother by killing Homolka."
Today the bus bomb sequence, while more timely than ever considering the current state of the world, remains a visual tour-de-force, employing montage to powerful effect and presenting a breathtaking example of Hitchcock's emerging technique. For the most part, Hitchcock was faithful to the grim, despairing tone of Conrad's novel, from the death of Stevie (who died in a fall in the book) to the underlying theme of the banality of evil and the chaos inflicted on innocent people by the actions of terrorists. In other regards, Hitchcock took a great deal of liberties with Conrad's story; he only retained three of the novel's main characters, changed Mr. Verloc's occupation from a shop owner to a cinema manager, and added the undercover agent who falls in love with Mrs. Verloc. In addition, he gave Sabotage a new ending (in the novel Mrs. Verloc commits suicide, throwing herself off a ferry - a scene the censors would never approve at that time) and numerous visual flourishes, including a secret meeting at the London Zoo Aquarium and a scene where Mrs. Verloc, in shock over her brother's death, retreats into the movie house to watch a Walt Disney Silly Symphony cartoon, "Who Killed Cock Robin?"
For Sabotage, Hitchcock wanted to show the East End neighborhood he knew as a boy in London - the street fairs, back-alley shops, local peddlers, and crowded public transportation. To achieve this, "a slightly inclined replica of a London street, complete with fully equipped shops, was built to permit the director to film dialogue scenes with traffic moving noiselessly in the background, the noise to be looped in afterward." (From Hitchcock at Work (Phaidon Press). He also spent an additional 3,000 pounds (which put quite a financial strain on Gaumont, the production company) to build a facsimile tramline and operational passenger tram for a one-day shoot; the final result only lasted for a few seconds on screen but "Hitchcock insisted that a tram would communicate "London" to American audiences in a way that a mere bus would not." (From Alfred Hitchcock by Patrick McGilligan). He also wanted to demonstrate to Hollywood producers that he knew the importance of production value and could handle expensive budgets - a realization that would soon pay off for him.
When Hitchcock first planned to film Sabotage, he envisioned Peter Lorre in the role of Verloc but after working with him on The Secret Agent decided he was too difficult to direct and cast Oscar Homolka instead. Robert Donat, the star of his previous 1935 success, The 39 Steps, had been cast in the role of Ted, the undercover agent, but had to drop out before production began due to health reasons (he suffered from chronic asthma and came down with acute bronchitis). Instead, John Loder, a then-current screen heartthrob, was offered the part though he was clearly a disappointment to the director; he lacked range and complexity. On the other hand, Hitchcock was ecstatic about his leading lady, Sylvia Sidney, until they began working together and found they had little rapport. "She could not piece together in her mind what Hitchcock was after, the meaning of separate shots and how the scene could be constructed from them," recalled Ivor Montagu (in Patrick McGilligan's Hitchcock biography). "She had always acted a scene right through, and she badly needed words, a single sentence or even a phrase, to start a mood off for her, as a singer needs a note to find the key." Naturally, she had a major problem with her biggest scene in which [Spoiler Alert] she kills her husband with a knife, a sequence that was pure Hitchcock with its close-ups and inserts of eyes, silverware, facial expressions, potatoes and cabbages cooking on the stove. "Yet the scene required not a word of dialogue from Sidney, and it wasn't long before the exasperated actress, feeling irrelevant, broke into tears, threatening to quit. "Would you give us a few more hours," [producer Ivor] Montagu pleaded, "until you see the rough cut?" The sequence was pulled together in a hurry, and Hitchcock, Montagu, and editor Charles Frend joined Sidney in the screening room. The actress couldn't help but be impressed by the rough cut - it was powerful montage, destined to become one of the most famous sequences in Hitchcock's oeuvre. The actress emerged from the projection room, shaken. "Hollywood must hear of this!" she declared, appeased."
Hollywood did indeed take notice of Hitchcock. After completing Jamaica Inn in 1939, he emigrated to the U.S. to make Rebecca (1940) for producer David O. Selznick and begin a long and illustrious career in America. However, Sabotage was not a major success for the director, partly due to the controversial bus bombing sequence. It was banned outright in Brazil where it was accused by the censors of teaching conspiracy and terrorist techniques. In the U.S. it was given a title change - A Woman Alone - but it didn't fare much better with audiences here than in Britain. Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia, wrote in her book, Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man, that "the film was definitely a bit of a downer. Sabotage remains, probably with Vertigo  and Psycho , one of my father's darkest films, where a happy ending was impossible."
Producer: Michael Balcon, Ivor Montagu
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Charles Bennett (based on the novel The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad)
Cinematography: Bernard Knowles
Film Editing: Charles Frend
Music: Louis Levy
Costume Design: Joe Strassner
Art Director: Oscar Friedrich Werndorff, Albert Jullion
Cast: Sylvia Sidney (Mrs. Verloc), Oscar Homolka (Karl Anton Verloc), John Loder (Det. Sgt. Ted Spencer), Desmond Tester (Steve Verloc), Joyce Barbour (Renee), Matthew Boulton (Scotland Yard Supt. Talbot), S. J. Warmington (Insp. Hollingshead), William Dewhurst (The Professor), Martita Hunt (The Professor's Daughter), Torin Thatcher (Yunct).
by Jeff Stafford