"Sabotage" and "Secret Agent"

Was 1936 Hitchcock's very best year? Two thrillers, including the director's weirdest movie ever, make the case.

Published August 18, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"Secret Agent"
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring John Gielgud, Madeleine Carroll, Robert Young, Peter Lorre
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Sylvia Sidney, Oscar Homolka, John Loder
Europa Theatre Series from Whirlwind Media; original format
Extras: Biography, filmography, list of Hitchcock cameos, a 1936 newsreel and a Betty Boop and Grampy cartoon ("House Cleaning Blues")

Considering quality and quantity, 1936 had to be Hitchcock's very best year. In it he made both the freakish, fascinating "Secret Agent" and the psychologically shattering "Sabotage." Someone at Whirlwind Media apparently noticed the propinquity of these two Hitchcock productions and packaged them as a "limited-edition double feature," complete with a 1936 newsreel and a Betty Boop and Grampy cartoon, "House Cleaning Blues." The newsreel is a useful bonus. The shots of Victor McLaglen -- who had just won an Oscar for "The Informer" -- leading his own private army around a Los Angeles stadium bring home the political hysteria of the time. (The narrator calls this spectacle "a peacetime preparation.") And the typically funky Betty Boop cartoon reminds us that the peak sequence in "Sabotage" observes the effect of a Disney cartoon -- "Who Killed Cock Robin?" -- on the death-haunted heroine.

"Secret Agent" is the weirdest movie Hitchcock made: a First World War espionage thriller that lurches between suave levity and sobriety. It has a crazily discordant cast headed by John Gielgud as Ashenden, the writer turned spy created by Somerset Maugham. By 1936, Gielgud, the stage star destined to become one of the screen's sliest comedians, hadn't yet made peace with the camera. His face goes through a geological shift when he moves from drawing-room farce to high seriousness. He's joined by Madeleine Carroll (one of Hitchcock's first cool blonds) as Ashenden's assigned "wife," Peter Lorre as an overenthusiastic assassin nicknamed the General, Robert Young as an American who lusts after Carroll and the bouncy young Lilli Palmer as the woman who leads the British spies to the right man. The film sports two exciting set pieces: a chase through a Swiss chocolate factory and a nocturnal train run ending in a plane attack and a terrifying crash.

There's something burstingly modern about the way the movie reels and flies apart. Hitchcock and his scenarists (Charles Bennett, Alma Reville, Ian Hay and Jesse Lasky Jr.) scatter clues like gum wrappers as Ashenden and the General visit Switzerland to find an enemy agent whose skulduggery affects the war in Palestine. Then Hitchcock turns his blithe gamesmanship against itself, in a sequence built around a wire-haired dachshund that turns out to be telepathic: The dog knows when our antiheroes kill its innocent master. Ashenden becomes enmeshed in a jarring crisis of conscience, as well as a tortured romance with his manufactured missus. The whole film has an exploratory feel; the camerawork and editing set off daring changes in perspective. Hitchcock looks backward to John Buchan and ahead to John le Carri, while Lorre camps out in the lunatic realm of John Huston's "Beat the Devil." The most alert actor is Young, who turns a stroll with Carroll into a flirtatious gavotte. One thing's for sure: He wasn't drinking decaf in the '30s.

Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Frangois Truffaut dismissed it; Graham Greene praised it. "Sabotage" could be described as a Hitchcock film for people who don't like Hitchcock films -- although many Hitchcock cultists like it, too. This spare, harrowing adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent" is the most character-oriented and emotionally daring of the director's early thrillers. It's about espionage as shabby-genteel terrorism.

Oscar Homolka and Sylvia Sidney are touchingly incongruous as man 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) takes a cover job at the greengrocer's next to the movie theater and ends up falling in love with Mrs. Verloc. But "Sabotage" is an anti-romantic suspense film. In the United States it was called "The Woman Alone," and for once an American title is apt -- Mrs. Verloc learns just how nightmarish a marriage of compromise can be. The movie deserves to be seen fresh, without having its surprises revealed and then analyzed to death. Hitchcock creates an atmosphere of booby-trapped claustrophobia: The characters release their secret hatreds and ambitions in terrifying spasms and explosions. The killings don't offer the usual cathartic thrills; instead, they deepen our identification with Mrs. Verloc. This film is as wrenching as it is eruptive. Hitchcock never went further beyond pop than he did with "Sabotage."

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By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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