A ring of saboteurs is causing havoc in London with a series of explosive terrorist attacks. Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka) is part of the group, but he maintains a cover as a kind movie theater owner. His wife (Sylvia Sidney) is beginning to suspect something, though, and so is Scotland Yard Detective Sgt. Ted Spencer (John Loder). What neither of them know, however, is that Verloc uses his wifes little brother (Desmond Tester) to deliver the bombs in film canisters.
Sabotage, also released as The Woman Alone, is a 1936 British espionage thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock about terrorism in the United Kingdom and an agent who hides a time bomb in a delivery package to blow up London. It is loosely based on Joseph Conrads novel The Secret Agent. It should not be confused with Hitchcocks film Secret Agent released the same year, or his 1942 film Saboteur.
A Scotland Yard undercover detective is on the trail of a saboteur who is part of a plot to set off a bomb in London. But when the detective's cover is blown, the plot begins to unravel.
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 Londons 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. Verlocs contact is disappointed that the newspapers mocked the short loss of electricity, and instructs Verloc to place a parcel of "firecrackers" 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 Verlocs involvement in the plot and assigns Detective Sergeant Ted Spencer (John Loder) to investigate Verloc. Spencer is initially undercover as a greengrocers 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 actually a bomb-maker. The contact tells Verloc the time and place of where he is must deliver the bomb all Verloc has to do is place the bomb at the Tube station at 1:45 on Saturday, as it is actually a time bomb that will already be set. Later that night, the associates of the terrorist group are having a meeting in Verlocs 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 realizes 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 Yards 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 he was unknowingly carrying the time bomb for Verloc. The boy had become distracted along the way by street sideshows, which had delayed its delivery, and thus, the bomb exploded en route to its final target.
Verloc confesses to his wife, but then blames Scotland Yard and Spencer for Stevies 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 realizes what has happened, but insists that she shouldnt admit that she killed her husband. Nevertheless, she starts to confess her crime to a policeman. Meanwhile, at this very moment, the terrorist bomb maker sneaks into Verlocs room to retrieve the birdcage that had been used to deliver the bomb out of fear that it might incriminate him. But as the police surround the building, he detonates a bomber-coat he wears in the event he is about to be caught. The explosion and fire interrupts Mrs. Verlocs confession, destroying all evidence of her crime and effectively preventing the policeman from remembering whether it was before or after the explosion that she told him, "My husband is dead!"
At the end we see an uneasy Mrs. Verloc and Ted Spencer walk away together through the crowd.
Hitchcock liberally adapted Joseph Conrads novel, transforming the highly political Tsarist-era agents provocateurs into foreign agents without any obvious political leanings. Verlocs 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. 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, Verlocs 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 Verlocs brother, is portrayed as an ordinary schoolboy, with few of the visionary attributes of his literary counterpart. Stevies death is a climactic moment in the plot, providing insight into Hitchcocks views about how the innocent suffer through random acts of violence. When a critic condemned Stevies 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, and it also allowed him to justify in the movie that the boys sister would eventually kill her husband, who was responsible for the boys 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).
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 Donats chronic asthma. According to Hitchcock, in his interviews with the French director Francois Truffaut, Alexander Korda, to whom Donat was under contract, refused to release him.
Hitchcock also chose the young Bobby Rietti to play the part of Steve, but was not able to sign him for legal reasons.
Mrs. Verloc was Sylvia Sidney’s only role for Hitchcock. Reportedly, they did not warm to each other and she refused to work for him again.Sylvia Sidney as Mrs Verloc
Oskar Homolka as Karl Anton Verloc
Desmond Tester as Steve
John Loder as Sergeant Ted Spencer
Joyce Barbour as Renee
Matthew Boulton as Superintendent Talbot
S. J. Warmington as Hollingshead
William Dewhurst as The Professor
Charles Hawtrey as a Studious Youth
Peter Bull as Michaelis (uncredited)