Hitchcock liked to say that if some films are slices of life, his are pieces of cake. But his little-known 1936 picture "Sabotage" -- a spare, harrowing adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent" -- is the kind of cake that arrives with a file hidden in the middle of it. The most character-oriented and emotionally daring of the director's early thrillers, it's about espionage as shabby-genteel terrorism. Here, Hitchcock fuses suspense with empathy. Oskar Homolka and Sylvia Sidney are touching and incongruous as a husband and wife -- Mr. and Mrs. Verloc -- who manage an East London movie theater and care for Mrs. Verloc's younger brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester). The young, pretty, sensitive Mrs. Verloc has married for the security her husband provides Stevie and herself. That's why it's so heartbreaking and ironic that the deceptively phlegmatic Mr. Verloc is a saboteur. A Scotland Yard investigator (John Loder) has taken a cover job at the greengrocer next to the movie theater and ends up falling in love with Mrs. Verloc. But "Sabotage" is mostly an anti-romantic thriller. In the United States it was called "The Woman Alone" -- and for once an American title is apt. Mrs. Verloc learns how nightmarish a marriage of compromise can be. Mr. Verloc is a sleeper agent under orders from an unnamed government. He's the kind of nondescript and quiet fellow who can hide every kind of dissatisfaction under a thick surface. It's perfect that he runs a small independent movie house, because in that self-enclosed milieu his darker nature can remain a mystery. Hitchcock would later regret following Verloc's family-fracturing actions to the end -- he felt it made the picture too hard on an audience. But this uncompromising lucidity is precisely what raises the movie to greatness. At one point, Mrs. Verloc tries to lose herself in the Walt Disney short unspooling in the theater. But the Disney featurette is that merrily macabre musical "Who Killed Cock Robin?" -- and Mrs. Verloc only briefly shares the audience's joviality. The images of a cartoon murder connect with the horrors she's been imagining and bring her anguish to full boil. Sylvia Sidney imbues Mrs. Verloc's expressions with such authentic intensity that you know exactly how Mr. Verloc feels when she picks up a carving knife. Throughout, the characters release their secret hatreds and ambitions in terrifying spasms and explosions. And the killings don't offer the usual cathartic thrills; instead, they deepen our identification with Mrs. Verloc. This movie is as wrenching as it is eruptive. Hitchcock never went further beyond pop than he did with "Sabotage."
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