- Highlight of the Master’s British years; perhaps his tightest, tautest film
- His peerless run of 1930s thrillers are essential viewing for any film fan
- Plot is as sadly relevant today as ever; only the names and causes change
- Though not explicitly stated, these terrorist enemies are Hitler’s fascists
- Features various real and fictitious references to popular 1930s cinema
- Detailing its source novel, related adaptations and all official releases
- Beware the bootlegs: they’ll kill your enjoyment of the film stone dead
Note: this is one of 100-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.
- Home video releases
- Soundtrack releases
- On the radio
- The Secret Agent (1992)
- The Secret Agent (1996)
- The Secret Agent (2016)
- Related articles
Hitch’s golden run of 1930s thrillers continues unabated with Sabotage, whose title is a MacGuffin; this is really a domestic drama, albeit one with sky-high stakes. It boasts an impeccable pedigree, being based on The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (1907, Gutenberg/Internet Archive), a critically acclaimed novel by Joseph “Heart of Darkness” Conrad. Once again, Hitch’s chief scriptwriter, Charles Bennett, assisted by a handful of others, deviated considerably from the novel and supplied the film’s more defined sense of closure, and quasi-happy ending.
Originally, pretty much all its major players, both good and bad, died in the end in the tradition of nihilistic greats like King Lear. Conrad had already adapted his novel as an eponymous play which had a short London run in 1922 and many times since, but his script does not appear to have been referred to for Hitch’s film. Subsequently adapted in various other media, it’s even been turned into an opera at least thrice, in 2006, 2011 and 2013.
- Three Plays : The Secret Agent; Laughing Anne; One Day More (1934) – Joseph Conrad
- Conrad’s Drama: Contemporary Reviews and Observations (2019) – ed. John G. Peters | review
- Conrad and the Reviewers: The Secret Agent on Stage – Richard J. Hand
- A Most Disturbing Play: The Secret Agent – Richard J. Hand
Conrad and Hitchcock: The Secret Agent Inspires Sabotage – Michael Anderegg, Literature/Film Quarterly (1975)
For obvious reasons, the title had to be changed from that of Conrad’s novel… Oh, alright then: coincidentally, that happened to have been the name of Hitch’s previous film! Except in France, that is, where Sabotage was indeed titled Agent secret, made possible because the previous year’s Secret Agent had been retitled Quatre de l’espionnage (The Spying Four). No, not at all confusing. Naturally, all the remakes in various different media have retained the novel’s title. Hitch’s film was retitled yet again for the US, where the more sensational The Woman Alone was somehow thought necessary, despite being wholly inaccurate. But that’s nothing: its US reissue earned the even more macabre moniker, I Married a Murderer. At least all the alternatives retained relevance to the plot, which does what it says on the (film reel) tin. The story, originally set in 1886 but here updated half a century to find WWII looming, concerns a London-based group of foreign saboteurs or a terrorist cell, in modern parlance. They work out of a seedy Soho newsagents selling porn magazines and sundry insalubrious wares – in the novel, that is.
Cinema Then, Cinema Now: Sabotage
The film’s setting was moved to an ostensibly family-friendly cinema south of the river which may have shown some porn films, though Hitch could only get away with hinting at the fact. When Verloc, the manager and undercover terrorist (don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler: we learn this in the opening scenes), wonders why the police are paying special attention to his establishment, his greengrocer neighbour jokingly speculates, “You must have been showing some funny sort of films, I dare say. You know, perhaps a bit too hot!” This London Filmland article has more details of the film’s cinema setting, but beware its many spoilers.
In the novel, terrorist attacks are carried out by Russian Embassy agents on behalf of the Tsarist regime, to whip up anti-leftist sentiment and popular resistance to the immigration of refugees fleeing persecution. Of course, it would have been a cinch to alter Tsarist Russia to Nazi Germany but these were sensitive times, and most of the world was still trying to appease Hitler’s fascist regime. Coincidentally, the novel’s main saboteur was named Adolf Verloc, so in the film was rechristened Karl. He was played to sinister perfection by Austrian émigré Oscar Homolka, who left behind a very successful stage and screen career in Germany after Hitler came to power, thereafter living and working in the US and UK for the rest of his life. Therefore, though the baddies’ cause here remains nebulous, you can easily fill in the blanks for yourself.
Incidentally, the most-cited ‘fact’ concerning Sabotage is Hitch’s frequent pronouncement, commencing with Hitchcock/Truffaut in 1962, is that the onscreen explosion was a mistake and if he could do it over again, he wouldn’t allow the bomb to go off. To me, this rings hollow and I’m not the only one. Not only does it explode in the novel and play, it’s narratively essential for all that follows afterwards. Hitch received some contemporary criticism for the bomb, and later, from François Truffaut who bluntly told him, “Making a child die in a picture is a rather ticklish matter; it comes close to an abuse of cinematic power.” Of course Hitch, ever averse to conflict, acquiesced, thus leading to something of another Hitchcock myth. Conversely, the staging and editing of the pivotal knife scene has drawn unanimous plaudits, both then and now, and is rightly celebrated as one of the film’s high (but low) points. Unsurprisingly, Hitch remained proud of it until the end. There are cute mini-remakes of it here and here.
Though I won’t detail them, echoes of Blackmail reverberate strongly throughout, with multiple shared themes and very specific similarities. Certainly, there is at least as much wit and inventiveness on display again, yet while constantly using sound innovatively, it also showcases many of Hitch’s effective silent era techniques.
Sabotage also has many titbits, both real and fictitious, scattered around for fans of 1930s cinema. At one point, Ted Spencer, played by John Loder, playfully warns, “Look out George Arliss doesn’t bite ya, Steve!” to the unaffected youngster portrayed by Desmond Tester. Other references include several authentic looking posters for Two Gun Love, an imaginary Hollywood western with Tom McGurth and Jane O’D… [obscured], plainly inspired by the many popular cowboy stars of the time, such as Tom Mix and William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd. Similarly, an intriguing but sadly non-existent two-reeler, Bartholomew the Strangler, also features prominently throughout the central part of the film.
Just before initiating the chain of events leading to the film’s most shocking act, Mr. Verloc pretends to be browsing through a trade magazine with a cover proclaiming the arrival of “Percy Gibson in… [obscured] McGraw“, apparently another non-existent western. But behind the seemingly mocked-up cover is an actual trade magazine; among its numerous mostly indistinguishable adverts is one for Gainsborough and the glossy centre spread depicted here, for Revolt of the Zombies (1936). Its strapline, “Even more fascinating than White Zombie“, refers to a 1932 surprise hit from the same team which ushered in a wave of zombie B-movies. The earlier film starred Bela Lugosi, hot off the success of the previous year’s groundbreaking Dracula.
But be warned: though these zombies are well worth a taste, they aren’t the fast moving and cannibalistic 2.0 variety of game changer Night of the Living Dead (1968) and beyond; rather they’re shuffling drones that are only occasionally moved to violence. Even then, sadly, nary a brain is consumed. Both films are in the public domain, so expectedly there are many terrible copies out there with poor A/V and with White Zombie missing one-two minutes of varying snippets of footage. In 2015, UCLA restored the film to its original general release length from six different sources, but it’s only had a few public screenings and is as yet unreleased on home video. This is largely because the market is so awash with substandard copies that even a restored edition would struggle to break even. The culprits even include two competing US BDs which, though neither looks great, are sadly the best way to see the film at present. In fact, all the best discs for both films derive from the US but only those from Roan and Kino are region-locked:
Revolt of the Zombies
When Ted sneaks around the back of the cinema to eavesdrop on the saboteurs, the British comedy playing is Fighting Stock (1935). It’s one of 18 films closely associated with the then hugely popular Aldwych Farces stage shows and is available on volume three of a handy series of UK DVDs from Network. One of the remaining non-DVD films, A Night Like This (1932), can be viewed for free at any of the UK’s BFI Mediatheques (films). Let’s hope the remaining half of them are eventually made publicly available.
As Sabotage steamrollers towards its cataclysmic finale, a projected cartoon is seen in glaring counterpoint to the action: the Disney Silly Symphony short Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935). One of the studio’s most famous early works, it is in itself full of knowing references to contemporary cinema, including avian caricatures of Mae West, Bing Crosby, Harpo Marx and others. This masterpiece of black humour was released as an Easter egg on the Walt Disney Treasures: Silly Symphonies 2-DVD set in 2001.
Robert Donat, star of The 39 Steps, was due to return for both Secret Agent and Sabotage, the latter of which was initially (and strangely) titled The Hidden Power in the US. Minus the article, it was eventually the title of an related 1939 US B-movie. However, Donat suffered from various health issues throughout his tragically short life which forced him to largely confine his career to the UK and even then turn down numerous parts, including the two further Hitchcocks. In the case of Agent, an attack of acute bronchitis precipitated his withdrawal and he was replaced at very short notice by John Loder.
But later Hitch frequently articulated his disappointment and was critical of Loder’s performance, which wasn’t helped by the fact dialogue intended for Donat had to be rewritten on the fly to better suit Loder’s character. However, considering the circumstances, I think he acquitted himself extremely well in the role and is perhaps my second favourite leading man of Hitch’s British films – after Donat, of course.
It’s a great pity neither actor got to appear in another film for the Master of Suspense; Donat died aged only 53, with just 21 full film and TV roles under his belt. But they’re classics all and absolutely essential viewing. Conversely, Loder had a lengthy screen career with many other top directors and co-stars, and left us some great performances in at least 120 films and TV programmes, many of which are detailed in his 1977 autobiography Hollywood Hussar. His imported American Sabotage co-star Sylvia Sydney didn’t leave us a self-penned memoir but we do have Scott O’Brien’s excellent biography Sylvia Sydney: Paid by the Tear (2016).
“It doesn’t pay to antagonize the public”: Sabotage and Hitchcock’s audience – Mark Osteen, Literature/Film Quarterly, 2000
It’s well known Hitch frequently reused cast and crew he liked. To wit, I’m pretty certain the actor who memorably asked “What causes pip in poultry?” in The 39 Steps is also the cinemagoer who says “It’s a moot point!” in response to John Loder, around seven minutes into Sabotage. Can anyone confirm this; who is he? While I’m at it, Albert Chevalier (1899–1959), not to be confused with his eponymous music hall entertainer-uncle, played the concierge in Sabotage. Albert junior looks suspiciously like the uncredited concierge of the music hall at the beginning of The 39 Steps, who gets into a fight while trying to silence the unruly punter demanding to know the age of Mae West. Again, does anyone know for sure? Also, what’s his “minor role” in Young and Innocent?
A young Charles Hawtrey, future star of the Carry On films, has a fleeting appearance in early scenes as a youth out on a date. Gay in real life and always overtly camp, even within the space of a few seconds he is less than convincing in this guise. Although Hitch isn’t (yet) known to make one of his famed cameos in Sabotage, following her brief appearance in The Lodger his wife Alma Reville crops up again, this time with their daughter Pat. This, therefore, marks the latter’s first screen appearance, some 12 years before her official début in Stage Fright. In the Lord Mayor’s Show day crowd scene with young Stevie vainly trying to cross the road, the pair can clearly be seen standing next to him, with Alma lifting Pat for a better view of the action. But they don’t appear throughout, as the extras around Stevie are suddenly switched, indicating filming took place on two occasions, possibly on different days.
How many more previously undocumented appearances are out there waiting to be discovered? This only underlines the importance of seeing Hitch’s films, particularly his much-bootlegged British works, in the best quality possible: only via official, restored releases.
Home video releases
There are some lovely looking releases of this pithy little gem, which packs an awful lot into its lean 76 minutes. All the early DVDs feature a very clean, clear and steady transfer, scanned from BFI-preserved pre-print materials. But the film got a digital remaster in 2008 which shows a marked improvement with deeper blacks, better grey scale and natural grain, ie detail. Here are all official releases:
- US: Criterion LaserDisc (1987) sleeve essay
- UK: Network DVD (2008), also in 10-DVD/11-film H: The British Years
- ITV DVD (2008) – The Times newspaper giveaway; only UK DVD w/English subtitles
- Odeon 2on1 DVD (2009) w/The 39 Steps
- Germany: Concorde 6-DVD/7-film AH: The Early Years (2003, reissued 2011)
- France: Journaux.fr DVD/magazine (2002, 2005)
- TF1 Vidéo DVD (2008), also in 5-DVD H: Le maître du suspens (2005, reissued 2010, 2016) – beware: forced French subs
- Spain: Filmax DVD (2000)
- Divisa DVD (2003)
- Benelux: Video/Film Express DVD (2004), also in 5-DVD/6-film H Collection: The Classics, Volume 1 and 10-DVD/11-film Classic H Collection/alt
- Scandinavia: Futurefilm 8-DVD/9-film H Classic Collection (2006) info
The US was first to better Sabotage’s early VHS releases via Criterion’s barebones LaserDisc but, though excellent for the time, they had to wait over 20 years for their second physical release. The UK Network DVD has a handful of extras: a short intro by film historian Charles Barr, a slideshow and best of all, an interesting 11-minute “On Location” featurette presented by Robert Powell, star of the 1978 remake of The 39 Steps. The next best PAL option is the German DVD, which is only available as part of a box set and has no extras, save for the ubiquitous “Hitchcock: The Early Years” featurette (1999, 24min), and some image galleries elsewhere in the set. Not present is the 1978 German dub recorded for the film’s TV première. The French TF1 DVD also has the “Early Years” doc and two non-subtitled French-language interviews (25 min each). But its forced French subtitles on the feature and English doc render it unsuitable for most. After that, the other DVDs are all vanilla.
- US: MGM DVD (2009), also in 8-DVD AH Premiere Collection/warning
- Criterion Prime Video HD
- UK: Network BD (2015)
- France: Filmedia DVD (2015), also in 4-DVD AH box set
- ESC Editions BD (2020), also in 3 Films de AH
- Poland: Studio Printel Digipak DVD (2009), also in 7-DVD H: Wczesne filmy mistrza and 6-DVD set
- Brazil: Versátil 2-DVD/4-film A Arte de AH/alt (2016) info
Those in the US can get the remastered version streaming in HD but there are only two physical HD options for Sabotage at present and both are region B; a compelling reason to own a multi-region set-up. The UK and French BDs share the same beautiful transfer as the US-restricted stream from Criterion; however, with much higher bitrates and lossless audio, they look and sound even better. Even projected on a 106″screen at a seating distance of 10 feet, they’re near flawless. There’s the odd bit of speckling or a momentary light scratch, but nothing more. Overall detail is incredible; now on every viewing, I can’t help but notice the specks of toothpaste on Stevie’s lapels before he has his teeth brushed. They clearly remain from previous takes and weren’t even spotted by those present during filming! Network port over the extras from their earlier DVD while ESC Editions’ only extra is a 14½-minute French-language interview with documentarian Christophe Champclaux. Both have optional subtitles in their respective languages.
Among the remastered DVDs’ extras, the superlative US MGM leads the pack with an exclusive audio commentary by film scholar Leonard J. Leff, author of Hitchcock and Selznick (1987/1999). It also has a short restoration comparison (2½min), Hitchcock/Peter Bogdanovich interview (26 min) and a gallery. Though the latest French DVD from Filmedia has two more French-language featurettes (20 and 27 min), neither are directly related to the film. But at least it has optional French subtitles. Other than that, the rest are pretty much vanilla but whichever you pick at least they won’t blow up in your face, unlike the countless terrible DVD rip-offs and even bootleg BD-Rs from Spain (Resen) and Germany (Great Movies/WME).
Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood (1998), about, full interviews
DVD screenshots courtesy of the invaluable Hitchcock Zone.
US bootlegs: Brentwood, St. Clair | US MGM, UK Network, Germany Concorde, France TF1, Benelux Video/Film Express
- Title: Brent, St. C | MGM, Net, Con, TF1, V/FE | BD
- Loder/Sidney: Brent, St. C | MGM, Net, Con, TF1, V/FE
- Clipping: Brent, St. C | MGM, Net, Con, TF1, V/FE
- Greet/Dewhurst: Brent, St. C | MGM, Net, Con, TF1, V/FE
- Dewhurst/Homolka: Brent, St. C | MGM, Net, Con, TF1, V/FE
- Sidney: Brent, St. C | MGM, Net, Con, TF1, V/FE
- Loder/Sidney #2: Brent, St. C | MGM, Net, Con, TF1, V/FE
- Tester/pup: Brent, St. C | MGM, Net, Con, TF1, V/FE
- Legs: Brent, St. C | MGM, Net, Con, TF1, V/FE
DVDClassik: ESC Editions BD and Filmedia DVD
Network BD screenshots: Homolka/Dewhurst, Homolka, Homolka #2, Loder, Tester, Loder/Sidney, Hunt/Bevan, Homolka #3, Sidney, Tester #2, Bull, Homolka/Mather, Homolka #4, parcel, Sidney #2, Homolka #5, Loder/Sidney #2.
Speaking of bootlegs, there are many official re-recordings of part and full scores from Hitch’s American films, but sadly not so for his British works. So far, there are only re-recorded excerpts from The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. Nonetheless, there are various Hitchcock film music compilations featuring selections from those and several other British talkies. But they’re almost all bootlegs too, mostly lifted directly from the film soundtracks themselves. The sole fully-licensed exceptions are:
- Museum Music 23-tr CD AH: Music from His Films (1999)
- Elusive Sounds 20-tr MP3 AH: Memorable Music from His Films (2012)
They include a cue from Sabotage composed by the film’s musical director Louis Levy: “Delayed on the Bus”, along with passages from Blackmail, Steps, Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes.
On the radio
Though there have been many BBC Radio adaptations of the novel, none are readily available but listen out for occasional rebroadcasts on BBC Radio 4 Extra. Besides, all of them are much more faithful to the downbeat-ended original than Hitch’s version. What we do have is the only true successor to his take, Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Play (2000), a light-hearted three-parter also incorporating The Lodger and The 39 Steps. It’s oft-performed (Facebook/Twitter) and there are various trailers and excerpts on YouTube; here’s the Sabotage portion:
The Secret Agent (1992)
There were at least half a dozen TV adaptations of Conrad’s novel between 1957–1981, but sadly none are in circulation. The very survivability of most of them is in question, though at least the 1967 BBC two-parter is still with us. The current earliest available small screen representation is an hour-long 1987 documentary, “Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent“. Part of the Ten Great Writers of the Modern World series, it dramatises many of the novel’s scenes throughout, “combining dramatisation, documentary and criticism, to investigate the world of the novel and Conrad’s view of life as under constant threat of violence and moral disarray.”
The next full length attempt was a 1992 BBC miniseries. It was well received and again a much closer reading of the source text. It’s most notable for starring David Suchet, on a brief sojourn from his regular gig as Agatha Christie’s Poirot, and a future Doctor Who in the shape of Peter Capaldi. So far, it’s only been released in the UK:
- UK: Spirit DVD (2016)
The Secret Agent (1996)
The only other theatrical film version is much more widely available. A decent effort all around, a host of recognisable faces feature among its fairly international cast. Joining the likes of Bob Hoskins and Christian Bale is a strangely uncredited Robin Williams as the bomb-making Professor. It’s been issued on DVD in the US and various European countries but bizarrely, not in its native UK.
- US: Fox DVD (2005)
- Italy: Cecchi Gori DVD (2006, reissued 2013)
- Germany: EMS DVD (1999)
- France: Metropolitan DVD (2013)
- Spain: Filmax DVD (2008)
- Divisa DVD (2012)
- Netherlands: Dutch FilmWorks DVD (2006, alt)
- Hungary: Jupiter Film DVD (2006)
The screenplay was penned by Christopher Hampton and published in 1997, alongside his adaptation of Conrad’s epic, South America-set novel Nostromo (1904, Gutenberg/Internet Archive). The latter was to be the basis of iconic filmmaker David Lean’s final, never-realised project. Scoring duties for the 1996 film were undertaken by none other than acclaimed composer Philip Glass and his sterling efforts have been issued in the US, UK and Japan on CD and streaming.
The Secret Agent (2016)
The most recent screen adaptation, another TV miniseries, again comes courtesy of the BBC and while it takes many liberties with the novel, remains tonally dark throughout. Verloc is played by Toby Jones, who earlier portrayed Hitch himself in The Girl (2012), while Nottingham-born Vicky McClure is his suffering spouse.
These are all the official releases so far but it’s also been bootlegged on a couple of unlicensed freebie Greek newspaper DVDs in card sleeves. They’re twofers and each is paired with either Beyond the Law (1993) or Total Eclipse (1995).
- US: Acorn DVD (2016)
- UK: Spirit BD and DVD (2016)
- Australia ABC DVD (2016, alt)
Teaser | Spanish: teaser, trailer | French
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Setting the Scene
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Miscellaneous British Films
- Free the Hitchcock 9! Releasing the BFI-Restored Silents on Home Video
- Bootlegs Galore: The Great Alfred Hitchcock Rip-off
- Alfred Hitchcock: Dial © for Copyright: British Law
- Hitchcock/Truffaut: The Men Who Knew So Much
- Alma Reville: The Power Behind Hitchcock’s Throne
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The British Years in Print
- Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side or the Wrong Man?
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Miscellaneous Releases
- Beware of Pirates! How to Avoid Bootleg Blu-rays and DVDs
- Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide, Part 2: The Bad, the Ugly and the Good
For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.
The end of Hithcock’s Sabotage seemed disappointing to me. I think this is the first movie of his that doesn’t have a happy ending.
Through the course of Sabotage there were plenty of jokes and good humor, nonetheless the movie ended like a tragedy.