Ever since his feature directing career began with The Lodger in 1923, Alfred Hitchcock had frequently used the lights of nighttime London to set the stage for his films (“Golden Curls,” flashes the sign for a dance hall where the body his first victim will soon be discovered). In the opening setpiece of Sabotage, his 19th feature in 13 years, Hitchcock begins with a variation on this theme: this time, the lights all go out.
This initially causes some of the chaos you’d expect. Horns blare, train cars and businesses spill irate passengers into the street. Four investigators crowd around a generator at the power plant, and find someone has put sand into the machinery. “Sabotage!” one declares, in what may be one of the first instances of a movie’s title being uttered dramatically in the opening scene.
But soon after, a general sense of fun and camaraderie sets in. Pedestrians buy matches from an enterprising street vendor with cheerful good nature, and laugh as they walk arm-in-arm through the street. The author of this plot, it would seem, has failed in his aim: attempting to terrify, he has provided novelty and a refreshing break from the day-to-day routine. Attempting to sow chaos and suspicion, he has instead reaped revelry and fellow-feeling. This is, of course, the worst possible outcome for the terrorist — or for the entertainer.
Based on Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent (and infamously released in the same year as a different Hitchcock film named The Secret Agent that had no connection to the Conrad novel), Sabotage was a new and in many ways unique addition to Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work: it was probably the closest brush the director ever had with conventional literary respectability. Even widely-read novels adapted by Hitchcock, like Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train or Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, tended to fly beneath the notice of the literary elite of the time, ghettoized as “crime fiction” and “gothic fiction,” respectively.
Conrad had the opposite problem as du Maurier and Highsmith (and Hitchcock, for that matter). While his reputation as an author couldn’t have been much higher during his life, few actual readers bothered to investigate these claims. While he was writing Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, and the other novels that secured him his reputation, Conrad was living off a government grant, along with loans from more successful writer friends. The Secret Agent only sold 3,000 copies in its first seven years of publication —an average of about 400 copies a year.
Speaking personally, as someone who enjoys Conrad’s writing in all its elliptical density, The Secret Agent in particular is a difficult read. The opening chapter, with its image of yellowed pornography pasted onto the dirty windows of Mr. Verloc’s aggressively nondescript corner shop, feels unwholesome in a way that threatens to seep through the pages and into the reader’s hands.
Even for Conrad, the narrative is thick with cynicism: Verloc is not a real anarchist, but rather a spy in the pay of the Russian embassy, ordered to blow up the observatory in order to make the British crack down harder on their anarchist movement. The actual explosion is never shown, and breaks the novel into two timelines, one showing the aftermath of the explosion, the other showing everything leading up to it, all in a way that’s difficult to parse the first time through.
The most conventionally entertaining passage in the novel involves two policemen racing against each other to pin the blame for the explosion on two different unrelated groups for their own selfish reasons. The whole thing speaks to a sad, mad struggle of institutions to maintain their own power at any cost — if it were adapted today, I’d want David Simon to write the screenplay.
Hitchcock, on the other hand, wanted to direct a hit. He needed to take the unpromising materials of a critically acclaimed book that almost no one had bothered to read, and turn them into a movie that everyone would want to see. While Conrad’s growth in reputation between 1907 and 1936 would help, a reimagining of the narrative would be necessary.
Some of these choices, like actually showing the explosion, and moving it from the novel’s opening chapters to the climactic moment of the film, were intuitive enough. Others, like the replacement of the corrupt and venal police force with a bland cardboard sandwich of a romantic lead, even Hitchcock would come to regret (or, at the very least, regret his choice of actor). But the main thing that Hitchcock does is locate at the heart of Conrad’s tale a trope he would return to throughout his career: evil intruding into the family unit.
In Sabotage, this is a natural outgrowth of work intruding into the family unit. The Verlocs live above a movie theater owned by Mr. Verloc, who uses the business as a front for his work in an unspecified anarchist organization. The movies that play in the theater can frequently be heard through the walls of the house, which is located directly behind the screen. It is only a matter of time before the more hidden business that Verloc conducts makes its way through this barrier too.
Hitchcock includes several excellent suspense sequences, including the famous detonation of a double-decker bus, but the use of the movie theater is the sort of self-reflective touch that keeps me coming back to Sabotage. The domestic and espionage dramas playing out behind the screen are greater than any being projected onto it — the movies cover up the real plots, just as the movie theater covers up Mr. Verloc’s true occupation.
The irony is that, for a purveyor of movies — of narratives, of stories — Mr. Verloc is quite a mediocre storyteller himself. His initial sabotage attempt, described in the opening paragraphs of this article, generates the opposite emotion he was attempting to provoke. The police do not believe his alibis, and his perfunctory apology to his wife about accidentally killing her younger brother would be cause enough for her to murder him (with additional inspiration from a Disney cartoon inspired by the nursery rhyme “Who Killed Cock Robin?” used in one of Hitchcock’s great juxtapositions of the innocent and macabre).
Such misreadings of English character in Sabotage (and in The Lady Vanishes, two years later) feel prophetic, released as they were against the backdrop of German aggression that eventually boiled over into World War II. Hitler was another enemy who misread the country he was attempting to terrorize, targeting historical and civilian sites in the Battle of Britain rather than military targets in hopes of breaking the British will to fight. Instead, the strikes strengthened the national resolve, and gave the British military time to repair its equipment and recover its losses.
Such misreadings, like Verloc’s, are evidence of a fatal lack of perspective on the part of the reader. You may place an explosion at the climax of a drama to satisfy your audience, like Hitchcock does. You may place it outside the work entirely to frustrate your audience, as Conrad prefers. The placement doesn’t matter so much as your understanding of what the consequences will be. Mess that up, and you’re just another failed artist with bad things coming your way.