For my money the greatest Hitchcock film before his move to Hollywood, this espionage thriller is criminally underrated and in most circles probably unknown. In fact even to film aficionados this film is more than likely to be confused with Hitchcock’s Saboteur, a similar film by name and theme yet drastically different by way of technique and delivery. Nonetheless it’s highly improbable that a film expert would put either film in Hitchcock’s top five, and even less likely that this particular film, the least coveted of the two, would make it on the top twenty five of any critic’s lists. Despite the contrary I’d venture to say that due to dynamic performances and a powerful script they are regrettably missing out on the very first Hitchcock classic.
Oscar Homolka plays the owner of a theatre in London who sneaks home one night and pretends to be asleep after a power outage throughout the city. His younger wife played by Sylvia Sidney helps run the theatre and is surprised that not only is he home sleeping but he’s also willing to pay back all the patrons that had their movie cut short. As it turns out Homolka is feeling generous as he was the one who sabotaged the electricity grid, and he expects compensation from the gang of terrorists he works for, to which you could assume are from Nazi Germany however it goes unspecified. It should be noted however that the film was released in the years leading up to World War II and Homolka’s character in the original novel was coincidentally or not named Adolf. Nonetheless in the film adaptation he is Mr. Verloc and unbeknownst to his honest wife and her charming younger brother that she cares for, the man of the house is about to be deadly involved in another plot that requires him to leave a time bomb at an underground train station. However as it turns out the grocer next door is really a detective from Scotland Yard, and when Homolka gets nervous about being tailed he tricks the innocent little boy into performing the drop off, setting the stage for one of the greatest Hitchcock moments that ever touched the screen.
First and foremost it needs to be mentioned that actor Desmond Tester who plays Sidney’s younger brother is phenomenal. From his juvenile hairstyle to the innocent freckles on his face, Tester’s overall charisma is what makes the film’s climax so powerful that it’s groundbreaking both figuratively and literally. As you watch Tester make his way through town with his life in his hands you can’t help but feel agonized over his impending fate, and Hitchcock plays on those emotions every time Tester becomes sidetracked over immaterial matters as meaningless as a street salesman and his toothpaste. Ultimately the boy’s curiosity leads to the inevitable and I don’t hesitate to rank this moment as the most dramatic scene he ever filmed. For the events to unfold on screen this way in the year 1936 is a remarkable feat for such a young director in the early years of filmmaking itself. I have to consider that Hitchcock’s experience with silent pictures paid off in the subsequent films that followed, as the fateful climax is so beautifully tragic that for most of the frames no words need to be spoken. Furthermore the encore to the film’s most powerful scene is the moment when Sidney finally puts the fork (or knife) in Homolka, in which case a similar form of silence creates an uncomfortable stillness that leaves you almost numb as you look on helplessly.
My final anecdote involves the aforementioned Sylvia Sidney and the impact that she makes on this film. A Bronx native and a New Yorker until the day she passed, Sidney adds a beautiful mystique to the film with her sensual qualities that emanate effortlessly on screen. A brunette with dark eyes Sidney had a sultry appearance with a nurturing demeanor, and speaking from preference as well as objectivity I find her to be one of the most dynamic leading ladies to ever appear in a Hitchcock film. Unfortunately their tenure together was a turbulent one, notably due to Sidney’s resistance to Hitchcock’s filming methods along with the use of silence as was previously mentioned. Ultimately to my chagrin Sidney apparently vowed to never work with Hitchcock ever again, and to our great misfortune she never did.