Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
When John Carpenter made his seminal, low-budget Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976, he was looking for attention. So he consciously included a scene early in the film that was so shocking, so off-putting, and so violent that it would guarantee both notoriety and a larger audience. As groups of blood-thirsty LA gangs are assembling to pay back the police for a violent raid, a father & daughter stop to get ice cream from a truck. The street gang arrives and instead of shooting the father, they shoot the young girl in cold blood, driving the father insane with vengeance. It was a calculated, brilliant, ultra-violent way to begin a film. And yet Alfred Hitchcock did almost the same thing exactly 40 years earlier.
In Sabotage (1936), the entire film builds to a brutal act of sabotage. The saboteur, movie theater owner Oscar Homolka, has received a package with a bomb and needs to deliver it to Piccadilly Square by 1:45pm, when it will detonate. Suspected by Scotland Yard, he asks his wife’s teenage brother to deliver the package for him. The young boy gets distracted by street vendors, then gets hemmed in by a parade. As the clock is ticking down he finally gets on a bus, hoping to make up for lost time. In a brilliant sequence, the boy waits impatiently on the bus, as passing outdoor department store clocks count down the time: 1:30. 1:37. 1:42. And finally 1:45. The whole time, there’s a part of your mind that thinks it won’t happen. Maybe you’ve seen other Hitchcock movies, or other Hollywood movies, where bad things happen but not REALLY bad things. Blowing up a kid? Come on.
And then, just at the moment where you expect someone to rush in and save the day, the bomb goes off. The bus explodes, killing the brother, all the other passengers, and even an adorable puppy he was playing with. Boom.
John Carpenter is a student of classic film, and while he owes more to Howard Hawks & John Ford, I’d bet he had seen Sabotage before he made Assault on Precinct 13. Both of these films prey on a simple idea in our heads: they won’t kill an innocent. But Carpenter had the advantage of having seen Hitchcock’s attempt and he knew exactly how it would play. Hitchcock regretted this choice later in life, saying that it was too grim and that the audience didn’t accept it. Except of course, that Hitchcock would do essentially the same thing 24 years later with Psycho, killing off a main character not even an hour into the film.
This is a man who built a career out of subverting expectations. So while I don’t think he regretted what happens in Sabotage, I think he regretted that it didn’t work the way he hoped it would. Hitchcock would need more finesse and more skill to make a narrative rug-pulling of that order palatable to audiences.
Despite this flaw, Sabotage is still a great film. If it’s not the height of Hitchcock’s British period, it’s still full of ideas and innovation. Hitchcock plunges straight into the story with no preamble; at a power station, the power suddenly goes out and London is plunged into darkness. Confused voices provide a running commentary, men in the power plant discover it was sabotage, and Hitchcock introduces a shot of the guilty party, Oskar Homolka, striding away as menacing music plays.
The way Hitch reveals information in this film is interesting. Many of his other films function as whodunits (like The Lodger) or are very dependent on when details are revealed (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Vertigo, etc). Here Hitchcock lays everything out immediately: Homolka is revealed as the saboteur and is shown returning to the small movie theater he runs with wife Sylvia Sidney. A few minutes later we see that the overly-friendly greengrocer next door (John Loder) is actually an agent for Scotland Yard, put there to spy on Homolka. So as the movie shifts to Sidney’s point of view, as she juggles a potential romance with the greengrocer and her slow doubts about her husband, we know exactly what’s going on long before she does.
It’s an odd choice to have a character who is so clueless be our window into this world. That might have something to do with the fact that the film was adapted from a well-known Joseph Conrad story, The Secret Agent (not to be confused with Hitchcock’s Secret Agent, which came out in the same year!). But I also think it’s because Hitchcock loved the idea of making the entire film into a drawn-out suspense piece.
After the blackout, Homolka meets with a representative of a foreign government at an aquarium (a terrific scene, complete with a vision of Piccadily Circus in ruins), who demands that a bomb go off in a public place on Saturday. The rest of the film is a slow, methodical build to the weekend, even counting down the days in title cards.
The film is full of other terrific scenes, including a wonderfully fey bird shop owner who also traffics in explosive devices. But the most famous scenes are a pair of sequences at the end of the film. The bomb has gone off and killed the younger brother. Sylvia Sidney has figured out that her husband is the responsible party. She confronts him over the dinner table, and he brushes it off, callously telling her that there’s nothing to be done and the police would be interested in her too.
Now Hitchcock’s silent film background comes into play. Sidney uses a large knife to cut the meat for dinner, Homolka grows suspicious of her, and she finally stabs him, partly out of fear, partly out of anger. Yet the beauty of it is in the cross-cutting. In this dialogue-free scene, Hitchcock cuts between the faces of the actors and their growing concern and shots of Sidney’s hands on the knife. Hitchcock fills the frame with gigantic extreme closeups, especially on Homolka, where we see the gradual horror of his wife’s betrayal dawn on him. It’s a perfect dance, as elegant as poetry and mathematics combined, a tour de force of editing prowess that is one of the finest sequences in any Hitchcock film. It’s a dry run for the shot/reaction/shot structure that would drive the entirety of a masterpiece like Rear Window.
(Ironically, Sylvia Sidney was confused by the entire scene, constantly asking why there wasn’t more dialogue and unable to fathom why Hitch needed so many shots of hands and faces. Only a rough cut of the final scene, hastily assembled by the editor, would placate her).
The other legendary scene comes right after the killing. Sidney has slipped a knife into her husband and she wanders in a daze from their apartment into the movie theater itself. A Disney cartoon is playing as she stumbles into a seat and finds herself laughing along with the audience. That is, until the cartoon takes a dark turn: it’s Who Killed Cock Robin?, a humorous take on the old English nursery rhyme. Yet the narrator’s song speaks right to Sidney as she watches a cartoon bird get shot through the heart. In a remarkable bit of chutzpah, Hitchcock appealed directly to Walt Disney for permission to use the cartoon, and amazingly, got it.
This type of meta-commentary from a film within a film is close to unprecedented in 1936. Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. broke down cinematic conventions in silent film, but in Sabotage Hitchcock is using Who Killed Cock Robin ironically. He’s years ahead of Preston Sturges, who would use a similar scene in Sullivan’s Travels to justify the importance of light entertainment. Hitchcock is gleefully showing us that darkness is everywhere, as well as demonstrating how art and irony can coexist.
When I was younger, I went through a huge phase of postmodernism in college (doesn’t everyone) where I embraced its narrative-defying aspects while also condemning its facile snark. I wanted to change the world by breaking boundaries and making movies that were about something, man! I called my film “company” PreModern films and made a decidedly post-modern film-within-a-film-within-a-film-within-a-film-within-a-film-within-a-film-within-a-film-within-a-film-within-a-film as one of my final projects.
And while I recognize there’s a cognitive dissonance at the heart of that idea, I still think it makes sense. I think movies and art should be free to use whatever techniques they want, as long as it’s in the service of creating something. Anything. Any kind of art that expresses a point of view or feels like it was made by someone with a beating heart.
That’s a hard attitude to have in the internet age of 2016. Where snark trumps all and people publish “Honest Trailers” of movies that traffic exclusively in hindsight and critical opinion. Or worse, films that hide behind a level of ironic detachment.
Case in point: Wes Anderson. I fell in love with him when I walked into a movie theater in 1998 expecting nothing more than a new Bill Murray movie, and was rewarded with Rushmore. A bleeding-heart movie about growing up different. A movie with a stunning visual aesthetic yet one that pulsated with longing and regret. It’s still my favorite Wes Anderson film.
Cut to 2014 and Grand Budapest Hotel. A shockingly gorgeous movie with nothing at its core. A film that asks us to laugh at the idea that Ralph Fiennes would have sex with older women because, gross. A movie that tries to get laughs from someone killing a cat by throwing it out a window. A movie that once again reduces women to characters who need to be rescued. A mean, spiteful film with no point of view other than a director’s desire to build miniatures and parade actors around in exquisite costumes. It’s no better and no deeper than Michael Bay’s Transformer films, only with a better soundtrack.
I hated Grand Budapest Hotel. And I hated it because it didn’t stand for anything. Time and time again in the film, it would raise an issue or take a stand, only to have a character (usually Fiennes), dismiss it out of hand. As though it’s not cool or passé to feel anything. It’s a cold, empty movie that asks you to laugh at a family pet being dumped in the garbage.
People accuse Hitchcock of coldness, which I guess I can see. But I think they’re confusing “cold” with “bleak.” First of all, Hitchcock has his share of films with a happy ending; about half of his movies have “Hollywood endings” where the guy ends up with the girl and all is well (yes, that’s a patriarchal stereotype, but it’s not “bleak” at least).
Hitchcock might embrace darkness, but his movies are always about something. Even if they’re only delighting in their own cleverness, as Anderson does, Hitchcock is still going out of his way to entertain. Hitchcock wants to thrill audiences and try new things; if a film didn’t do well with, he would dig deep to understand why. Wes Anderson demands that you come to him: a film like Grand Budapest Hotel extends no hand in friendship, but instead insists that you adapt to its cold visual palette. If you don’t like its dollbox structure or dislike of women or inability to mean something, well that’s YOUR problem.
I don’t want to sit and watch a film that has disdain for its audience. As much as Sabotage is a cruel, even heartless film, it’s still a movie made by someone who wanted to entertain and thrill audiences. I don’t mind irony or sarcasm or postmodernism as long as it’s in the service of saying something, of delivering some kind of experience instead of just commenting on it. Life is hard and I don’t have time to waste on snarky bullshit. Give me the whirlwind genius of Alfred Hitchcock anytime.
Watch It: Sabotage is available to watch streaming for free on Youtube, and is also streaming on Amazon Prime. It’s available on DVD too.