A broad theme of this blog is the way in which cinema is about cinema. Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936) is in large part about a cinema, The Bijou, which the main characters–the Verloc family–own and operate, next to which they live, and where a good deal of the action takes place. That’s one (of many) departures from the source material, Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel, The Secret Agent. What both book and film share is that Verloc is a saboteur, his wife and her younger brother are unaware of that, and a bomb explosion is at the center of the plot.
(Spoiler alert.) In the film, Verloc (Oskar Homolka) gives his wife’s young brother Stevie the bomb, hidden in a bird cage, along with film canisters labeled Bartholomew the Strangler–another meta touch, as no such film exists. He gets on a bus and is supposed to drop the package off at an appointed spot at 1:30. The audience knows the bomb is set to detonate at 1:45, and, in the first great Hitchcockian set piece, we watch with mounting suspense and horror as the bus is delayed and the clock ticks ever closer to the fateful time. It finally arrives, the bomb goes off, and Stevie is killed.
In their sitting room next to the Bijou, Verloc confesses to his wife (Sylvia Sidney) what happened, trying to excuse his role in the tragedy. In a state of shock, she walks out and into the theater and the sound of laughter. The audience — mostly children — are watching the 1935 Disney short “Who Killed Cock Robin?” in which the robin, crooning a la Bing Crosby, is serenading a wren who talks and looks like Mae West. For a moment, Mrs. Verloc joins in the laughter, and it seems that the lesson might be the same as in Sullivan’s Travels—the transporting and redemptive quality of silly comedy.
But then an arrow is shot and strikes Cock Robin, who falls to the ground, apparently dead. The spell is broken, and Mrs. Verloc’s face, in closeup, literally falls. She is back to her real-life world of mourning and pain.