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Alfred Hitchcock earned his tagline-name, "The Master of Suspense", with a film like Sabotage, among other works from the 1930's where he built up his reputation. Hitchcock had already directed about a dozen or so films before Sabotage, among them the classic 39 Steps, but with Sabotage we get a very clear expression of what was Hitchcock's art: making suspense by a precise, efficient, but always important amount of cuts and shots that would emphasize the information necessary in the scene. And sometimes there could be surprises, or things that could throw off an audience off guard. The second half of the film especially, two scenes especially, showcase this man's eerie, awesome skill at ratcheting up the tension until you want to tear the seat-rest your on apart.
Maybe I have this a lot on my mind at this moment as I type this: I read today an article which was a commentary itself on another blog, Jim Emerson's take on another writer's take on Inception's flaws with cutting and space in scenes, but specifically how this applies to cutting and composition, particularly on emotion, being so paramount when it comes to film technique. So with this in mind so immediately from reading, I watched Sabotage with such rapt attention. He knows how to stay on a shot, knowing that it's not necessary to go in for a close-up, that a medium shot on two nefarious characters in an aquarium talking about nefarious-things-to-do-in-London can be looking at the fish tank, talk in hush tones, and we'll be able to stick with it. Indeed it's because the two characters aren't facing us for most of this scene, that they're two figures in front of a black-and-white aquarium-tank, that the shot is interesting, and a little strange, but never something to look away from.
Other scenes have more economical cutting and staging. This was Hitchcock moving forward completely into sound film after working steadily in it for years (he's probably one of a handful of directors that really successfully started out in silent film and moved on to sound). And it's thrilling to see that he's not only capable and excellent at crafting this story- of a devious, not-English-accented man, living with a woman operating a movie theater, who is in cullision with a couple other fellows to make mayhem and bomb places in London after an initial attempt to black out the city turns into a joke- but that he expresses this with some irony(!) Yes, irony, long before it was hip to do it in action films, nay even before we usually think of the irony expressed in other Hitch-thrillers (man in the middle of a long corn field being chased by one plane with nothing else in sight).
What kind of irony do I mean? Well, I can't actually express too much of it here without some major spoilers, which I'd rather not put forward. But there is the other aspect of the story, when it comes time for the spies to implement their 'let's-shake-shit-up', that is common knowledge now in movie lore. This involves the character Verloc, Sylvia's husband and the main villain of the story, roping in the innocent young kid with the big hair and big socks who has a couple of film cans under his arm to take along with him another package to arrive at a specific time - 1:30, or at latest 1:45 sharp- and it's this that, to me, is one of the most memorable of all Hitchcock suspense sequences. There was criticism because of what happens, which is not what one would usually expect involving a bomb. I enjoyed this change-up, and it shook me for how Hitchcock decided not to go for what was expected, and stuck instead with the original Joseph Conrad source novel.
|Actually the producer trying to Sabotage the movie. Hitchcock's Cameo proceeded to walk up and put a stop to it.|
The lead-up to this, at the least we can all agree, is full of humor and ironic suspense. I'm almost reminded of the scene in Psycho where Norman Bates is waiting by the bog for the car to sink, and for a moment it's not going down. For a few moments we're made to wonder as the little boy is sidetracked by a swindler with a toothpaste and hair-solution (funny for how the kid is made to sit still and get this treatment and how everyone else finds it amusing- laughing at the audience as opposed to laughing with them), and then when there is a parade with a bunch of guys on horses riding through the street and everyone on the sidewalks. We're made to feel the suspense with the kid; he's no Norman Bates, but there's a similar feeling of 'no, no keep going, get to your destination.' And when it does happen... well, I'll just say I was not disappointed. On the contrary, as cruel as it is, it actually works for the benefit of the story that it should get so dark. Hitchcock stuck to his guns and made a truly fantastic sequences.
Along with this, plus a murder scene that carries so much nail-bite to it as a character intonates the intention with a simple nervous flick of a knife and glances exchanged between eyes and facial expression and physical action, there's another stroke of brilliance, one that along with a specific scene was probably an inspiration for Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds: cinema commenting on itself. It's probably not an accident, either by sticking to Conrad's text or not, that Sylvia works at a cinema and the climax and several key scenes take place there. How we watch this, how we feel about all of this, is a key component. We're there in the audience, we're with the characters, we want to see them make out alright- or for the bad guys that they get their just desserts- and we may need a moment, like with Sylvia after a moment of grief, that a cheery little Disney cartoon is just what's needed... until one is reminded of the horror that awaits back in the 'real' world outside the theater. That is unless the horror comes to the theater itself, as it does near the end.
Other aspects of the movie are commendable, the acting especially from Sidney and Oskar Homolka as Verloc with his amazing eyebrows, and the cinematography is always sharp and spot-on. But it's the direcor's show, and every cut and every angle tells its story with just enough time to take in the actors, to take in the drama of the moment, and yet there's always sophistication with it, even with a super-imposition like the "1:45" notation. It is, in all manner of short-speak, a tight, short, fluid thriller that will appeal to audiences (yes, you modern ones) looking for good thrills and some unconventional surprises.