Friday, August 6, 2010

Sabotage by Alfred Hitchcock

Q: In the opening credits of the Hitchcock film Sabotage , there is a special thank you to Walt Disney for arranging the animated sequence. Later in the film a short clip from the Silly Symphony "Who Killed Cock Robin" is shown along with the song. Can you tell me how this came about? Was Walt a fan of Hitchcock and did they ever meet in person?
Donnie, Houston, Texas

A [Dave Smith]: We do not know about Walt being a Hitchcock fan, but actually there were a number of motion pictures made by other Studios which would license a clip of a Disney cartoon to have running when actors went into a movie theater. You can see Disney cartoon clips in such films as My Lips Betray (Fox, 1933), Michael O'Halloran (Republic, 1937), Sullivan's Travels (Paramount, 1941), Dillinger (Monogram, 1945), Portrait of Jennie (Selznick, 1948), 1941 (Universal, 1979), The Outsiders (Warner Bros., 1983) and Gremlins (Warner Bros., 1984).

[Just to Know by Marcio Disney]

Actually, we Do know a few things about Walt and Alfred! First things first: The US release title is A Woman Alone and it was based on Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent. It should not be confused with Secret Agent or Saboteur, 2 different films by Hitchcock.

The similarities and connections between Disney and Hitchcock are intriguing. Both men enjoyed the sort of public recognition you would expect from people who starred in films, rather than just making them. Needless to say, they knew each other and admired each other’s work. Hitchcock, in particular, kept a watchful eye on whatever was going on at the Disney studios. He first paid tribute to Disney in one of his British films, Sabotage, during the uncharacteristically moving scene when Sylvia Sidney, horrified to have learnt not only that her young brother has died, but that her husband was responsible for the death, walks into a cinema auditorium where one of the Silly Symphonies cartoons is playing and can’t help but find herself laughing through her tears, caught up in the audience’s shared joy. Years later, whenever Hitchcock needed a particular special effect, it was usually from Disney that he would borrow it. The sodium process that made The Birds possible, for instance, or the fake bucking horse towards the climax of Marnie: both effects were supplied to him by Disney’s technicians. 

Perhaps the most important thing Hitchcock and Disney had in common, however, was their virulent streak of sadism. After all, they were both great film-makers, and therefore, almost by definition, they were both committed sadists of the first order.  

"We know we are in the hands of a master director in SABOTAGE. Hitchcock’s key visual elements here: signs of innocence – puppies, bird cages, a Disney cartoon, and warm meals – are given such a dark, chilling treatment that we never know where to turn or what happens next in this vastly under-rated classic."

"small imaginary creature blamed for mechanical failures," oral use in R.A.F. aviators' slang from Malta, Middle East and India said to date to 1923. First printed use perhaps in poem in journal "Aeroplane" April 10, 1929; certainly in use by 1941, and popularized in World War II and picked up by Americans (e.g. "New York Times" Magazine April 11, 1943). Possibly from a dial. survival of O.E. gremman "to anger, vex" + -lin of goblin; or from Ir. gruaimin "bad-tempered little fellow." Surfer slang for "young surfer, beach trouble-maker" is from 1961.

Sabotage   Starring Sylvia Sydney, Oscar Homolka.  Featuring Desmond Tester, John Loder, Joyce Barbour, Matthew Boulton, S. J. Warmington, William Dewhurst.  Screenplay by Charles Bennett.  From the novel 'The Secret Agent' by Joseph Conrad.  Continuity by Alma Reville.  Photographed by Bernard Knowles.  Music by Louis Levy. Cartoon sequence courtesy Walt Disney.  Alfred Hitchcock committed a shocking murder in Sabotage (1936). Here, in one of the director's darkest works, a child unknowingly carrying a bomb is blown to pieces in the streets of London. The death of Stevie is a deliberate attempt to shock an audience not accustomed to elaborately orchestrated deaths of sympathetic characters - especially children. The crime defeats expectation so decisively that it is virtually an act of cinematic terrorism. Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribute reviewed Sabotage under its American title, The Woman Along. He spoke for most of the contemporary public when he wrote, "If your senses are easily shocked, you will find the photoplay frequently unbearable."
Hitchcock attributed his own dissatisfaction with Sabotage to the casting of John Loder as the detective. He would have preferred the physical and verbal grace of Robert Donat, who contributed to the success of The Thirty-Nine Steps but could not star in Sabotage due to illness. With Donat to complement the nuanced performances of Homolka and Sydney, softening the lurking evil with his suaveness, Sabotage might have had greater appeal.  But the real trouble with Sabotage is that it arrived ahead of its time. The deaths of the boy and the saboteur are as fully realized as the notorious shower scene in Psycho - and much more meaningful. Today the visual virtuosity of Sabotage repays viewing after viewing. - Mark Fleischmann.

            1936. 76 minutes. Black and White. Monaural. 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Great Britain.

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