Sabotage (1936 film)

Sabotage, also released as The Woman Alone, is a 1936 British espionage thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Sylvia Sidney, Oskar Homolka, and John Loder. It is loosely based on Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent, about a woman who discovers that her husband, a London cinema owner, is a terrorist agent. Sabotage should not be confused with Hitchcock's film Secret Agent, also released in 1936, but based on the stories of W. Somerset Maugham. Also should not be confused with Hitchcock's film Saboteur (1942) which includes the iconic fall from the torch of the Statue of Liberty which presaged the Mount Rushmore scene in North by Northwest.

Sabotage poster showing the U.S. title
Directed byAlfred Hitchcock
Produced byMichael Balcon
Screenplay byCharles Bennett
Story byJoseph Conrad
StarringSylvia Sidney
Oskar Homolka
John Loder
Music byJack Beaver
CinematographyBernard Knowles
Edited byCharles Frend
Distributed byGeneral Film Distributors (GFD) Ltd.
Release date
  • 2 December 1936 (1936-12-02) (UK)
Running time
76 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

The film holds a rare 100% rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.[1] In 2017 a poll of 150 actors, directors, writers, producers and critics for Time Out magazine saw Sabotage ranked the 44th best British film ever.[2]


Suddenly, London goes dark and loses all of its electricity. There is commotion at a cinema, with people demanding their money back. The owner of the cinema, Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka), enters through a back entrance to the living quarters above, and pretends to have been asleep and not know anything of the blackout. His wife, Mrs. Verloc (Sylvia Sidney) comes to get him and is surprised to see him, but he informs her that he had been sleeping the entire time. He instructs his wife to return the money to the customers – against her protests – because he has "some money coming in." As the money is about to be disbursed to the customers downstairs, the lights go back on. It is revealed that sand was put in the boilers as an act of sabotage on London's electricity grid.

The next day, Verloc meets with his contact and it is revealed that he is part of a gang of terrorists from an unnamed European country who are planning a series of attacks in London, though their exact motives are not made clear. Verloc's contact is disappointed that the newspapers mocked the short loss of electricity, and instructs Verloc to place a parcel of "fireworks" at the Piccadilly London Underground station. Verloc tells the contact that he is not comfortable with any act that would cause the loss of life.

Meanwhile, Scotland Yard suspects Verloc's involvement in the plot and assigns Detective Sergeant Ted Spencer (John Loder) to investigate Verloc. Spencer is initially undercover as a greengrocer's helper next to the cinema, and befriends Mrs. Verloc and her little brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester), who lives with them, by treating them to a fancy dinner. At this point, Spencer and Scotland Yard are unsure whether Mrs. Verloc is complicit in the terrorist plots or merely innocently unaware.

Verloc goes to a bird shop to meet his contact, who is also a bomb-maker. The contact tells Verloc the time and place of where he must deliver the bomb – all Verloc has to do is place the bomb at Piccadilly Circus tube station on Saturday, as it is a time bomb that will already be set to explode at 1:45 p.m. that day. Later that night, the associates of the terrorist group are having a meeting in Verloc's living room above the cinema. Detective Spencer attempts to eavesdrop on the conversation, but he is found. His cover is blown by one of the terrorist associates, and Verloc realises that the police are investigating him. The meeting ends abruptly and the members scatter, worried that they are all being followed. Verloc tells his wife the police are investigating him, and he confirms with the greengrocer that Spencer was with Scotland Yard.

The next day, the canaries are delivered to Verloc – a present for Stevie – and the bomb is located within their cage. Detective Spencer shows up with Stevie and tells Mrs. Verloc of Scotland Yard's suspicions that he is involved in sabotage. Verloc sees his wife and Spencer talking, and becomes nervous. Before Spencer comes to question Verloc, he tells Stevie to deliver a film canister to the cloak room under Piccadilly Circus, but Stevie is unknowingly carrying the time bomb for Verloc. Stevie is delayed by several events, including The Lord Mayor's Show procession. Stevie manages to talk himself aboard a bus, even though it is forbidden to transport flammable nitrocellulose film on public vehicles. The bomb explodes while Stevie is still aboard the bus.

Verloc confesses to his wife but blames Scotland Yard and Spencer for Stevie's death, saying that they were the ones who prevented Verloc from successfully carrying out the bomb delivery himself. Soon afterwards, as Verloc and his wife are preparing to eat dinner, she stabs him to death with a knife. When Spencer arrives to arrest Verloc he realises what has happened, but insists that she shouldn't admit that she stabbed her husband. Nevertheless, she starts to confess to a police inspector. Meanwhile, at this very moment, the terrorist bomb maker sneaks into Verloc's flat to retrieve the birdcage that had been used to deliver the bomb out of fear that it might incriminate him. The police surround the building, and just as Mrs. Verloc blurts out that her husband is dead, the bomb-maker detonates a bomber-coat he wears in the event he is about to be caught. The explosion destroys all evidence of the death and confuses the inspector about whether it was before or after the explosion that she told him, "My husband is dead!"



Hitchcock wanted to cast Robert Donat (with whom he had previously worked in The 39 Steps) as Spencer, but was forced to cast John Loder due to Donat's chronic asthma.[3][4] According to Hitchcock, in his interviews with the French director François Truffaut, Alexander Korda, to whom Donat was under contract, refused to release him. Hitchcock, who was not happy with Loder's casting, later commented : "The actor we got wasn't suitable, and I was forced to rewrite the dialogue during the shooting".[5]

Hitchcock also chose the young Bobby Rietti (later known as Robert Rietti) to play the part of Steve, but was not able to sign him for legal reasons.


Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times praised the film as "a masterly exercise in suspense."[6] Variety wrote, "Competent and experienced hand of the director is apparent throughout this production, which is a smart one and executed in a business-like manner from start to finish." However, the review noted that the motivation of the terrorists "is not made clear. As a result, the audience watches the piece and its suspensive moments with interest, and when it is over, is still hazy as to the why and wherefore."[7] Harrison's Reports called it "A thrilling melodrama," adding that Hitchcock "again shows his skill in building up a situation to a tense climax."[8] The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "The individual genius of Hitchcock is very clearly shown in the distinctive and original direction," and called Oscar Homolka's performance "remarkable."[9] John Mosher of The New Yorker called it "rather exciting for the most part. It's a lively, minor Alfred Hitchcock picture."[10] Writing for The Spectator, Graham Greene gave the film a good review, pronouncing that "in Sabotage for the first time [Hitchcock] has really 'come off'". Greene identified the children's matinée scene as an "ingenious and pathetic twist [] stamped as Mr Hitchcock's own", and he praised the melodrama present in the screenplay writing, the dialogue, and the acting cast generally. Greene's only complaint was in relation to the acting of the "unconvincing" detective (Loder) and the "invincibl[y] distaste[ful]" prep school student (Tester).[11]

Sabotage garnered 100% approval on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 7.4/10.[1]


Bennett liberally adapted Joseph Conrad's novel, transforming the highly political Tsarist-era agents provocateurs into foreign agents without any obvious political leanings.[3] Verloc's shop is transformed into a cinema, with the films being shown echoing the story, and the policeman investigating the case is an undercover officer posing as a greengrocer.[12] Since the film was produced in the years immediately preceding World War II, the unnamed hostile power behind the bombings has been assumed by many viewers to be Nazi Germany. However, the film does not specify this, and indeed, Verloc's first name has been changed, presumably because his name in the novel, Adolf, had too many connotations by the time the film was made.

Stevie, Mrs Verloc's brother, is portrayed as an ordinary schoolboy, with few of the visionary attributes of his literary counterpart. Stevie's death is a climactic moment in the plot, providing insight into Hitchcock's views about how the innocent suffer through random acts of violence.[12] When a critic condemned Stevie's death as brutal and unnecessary, Hitchcock said that he regretted including it in the film, not because of the brutality, however, but because it violated his method of suspense, whereby tension eventually had to be relieved. Yet, Hitchcock remained faithful to the novel in having the bomb go off,[3] and it also allowed him to justify in the movie that the boy's sister would eventually kill her husband, who was responsible for the boy's death, and get away with it.


The fact that many scenes of the film were set in a cinema allowed Hitchcock to include references to contemporary films and storylines. Perhaps the most famous of these is the final film sequence, an excerpt from a Walt Disney Silly Symphony Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935).

See also


  1. "Sabotage (1937)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 21 January 2017.
  2. "The 100 best British films". Time Out. Retrieved 24 October 2017
  3. Sabotage at screenonline
  4. Sabotage at Turner Classic Movies
  5. Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut Hitchcock, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985, p.109
  6. Nugent, Frank S. (27 February 1937). "The Screen". The New York Times: 9.
  7. "Sabotage". Variety: 15. 16 December 1936.
  8. "'The Woman Alone' with Sylvia Sidney and Oscar Homolka". Harrison's Reports: 19. 30 January 1937.
  9. "Sabotage". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 3 (36): 214. December 1936.
  10. Mosher, John (6 March 1937). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker: 78.
  11. Greene, Graham (11 December 1936). "Sabotage/The Tenth Man". The Spectator. (reprinted in: Taylor, John Russell, ed. (1980). The Pleasure Dome. Oxford University Press. pp. 122-123. ISBN 0192812866.)
  12. Spoto, Donald (1999). The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. Da Capo. pp. 155–158. ISBN 0-306-80932-X.
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