Subtitled ‘A Simple Tale’ and dedicated to HG Wells, Conrad’s novel of anarchists, spies, treachery and a terror campaign gone wrong was based on the Greenwich bombing of 1894, though it is actually set eight years before that. Recently adapted for TV and made into an under-regarded movie by Hitchcock in the 1930s, this is a story that has lost little of its relevance since its original publication.
The following is offered (a bit early) for Todd Mason’s Overlooked Film meme at Sweet Freedom; Bev’s 2016 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme, this month celebrating all things 1907 over at Past Offences.
“There could be nothing better. Such an outrage combines the greatest possible regard for humanity with the most alarming display of ferocious imbecility.”
When this book was published anarchists and revolutionaries were, according to the yellow press, hiding behind almost every sofa plotting the downfall of Western society – this was during the lead up to the First World War and the overthrow of the Tsar of Russia, a time of great instability and fear in Europe. Its inspiration apparently came following a conversation Conrad had with his friend, the great British novelist Ford Madox Ford. It tells the story of Adolf Verloc, who runs a seedy shop in London, his wife Winnie and her bother Stevie. The time is 1886 and they live in the back of the shop with Winnie and Steve’s mother. Stevie, who has some unspecified learning difficulties, discovers that Verloc is in league with anarchists, without truly understanding that this means. Verloc is also a spy in the employ of an unnamed foreign power and has been tasked with setting off a bomb at the Greenwich Observatory.
The first sense of security following on Winnie’s marriage wore off in time (for nothing lasts) …
It is very far from a straightforward genre piece, though it includes several murders, secret societies and even a police investigator, in the form of Chief Inspector Heat. But this is a story about criminality, alienation and isolation in society and finds little that is good – making this a powerful but pretty downbeat piece (like pretty much all of Conrad’s work). But Conrad is always extraordinarily penetrating in his study of damaged, haunted people and in this works also displays a clever shaping of narrative that will appeal to mystery buffs I think – the timelines switch around at points, so that we are shown the aftermath of the bombing before we understand its full extent for the Verloc family, generating great suspense and so making the unfolding tragedy dig even deeper.
It was later updated to the (then) present day and filmed by the great Alfred Hitchcock with Oscar Homolka starring as the seditionist Verloc and Sylvia Sydney as his wife, and has just become a terrific BBC mini-series starring Toby Jones and Vicky McClure. The 1936 version – retitled Sabotage as Hitchcock had just adapted the Somerset Maugham Ashenden stories as The Secret Agent – changes the the details of the story though keeps much of the plot. Verloc is now a fairly amiable-seeming man who runs a cinema while Inspector Heat is now undercover as a greengrocer working next to the cinema who ultimately acts as a possible romantic interest for Mrs Verloc once she realises what her husband has been up to. We begin with a power cut, one created by Verloc, which then escalates into the bomb plot.
“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean …” – Alfred Hitchcock
Sabotage is best remembered for the scene in which a bomb is ticking away on a crowded bus and for the fact that Hitchcock later claimed to have made an error here by having it go off. But this is meant to be tragic and would have been a complete betrayal of the source novel if it had been changed, though overall the tone of the movie is noticeably and unsurprisingly much lighter than that of the book. In fact, the closing part of the movie is much closer to Hitchcock and his screenwriter Charles Bennett’s earlier collaboration, the 1929 classic, Blackmail, than it is to Conrad, but it works very well on its own terms.
DVD Availability: Easily available around the world, the best edition in terms of picture quality is the Blu-ray release by Network, which also comes with a few succinct but useful extras including an overview from professor Charles Barr, the foremost authority on Hitchcock’s British films.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producer: Michael Balcon
Screenplay: Charles Bennett (with additional dialogue by E. V. H. Emmett, John Hay Beith and Helen de Guerry Simpson)
Cinematography: Bernard Knowles
Art Direction: Oscar Friedrich Werndorff
Music: Louis Levy
Cast: Sylvia Sidney, Oskar Homolka, Desmond Tester, John Loder, Joyce Barbour, Matthew Boulton, William Dewhurst