Pre-Hollywood Hitchcock isn’t usually my favorite, but Sabotage (1936) is one of his better ones, a loose, more accessible adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Mr. Verloc (Oskar Homolka) and his wife (Sylvia Sidney) run a modest little movie theater in London, and appear to be a happy couple, living a simple life. But secretly Mr. Verloc is an agent of the enemy, enlisted to wreak havoc in London with acts of sabotage. He’s under surveillance by British agent Ted (John Loder), who’s masquerading as a cheerful grocer next door — and quietly falling in love with Mrs. Verloc. A city-wide blackout increases Ted’s suspicions, but it turns out Mr. Verloc — under pressure from his handlers — is planning an even more devastating act of terror.
It’s a swift-moving, entertaining thriller, quite short by modern standards. I found it interesting to compare against the more recent The Secret Agent, a more faithful adaptation. While Hitchcock’s version definitely files the political edges off, it’s easily more watchable and satisfying, taking numerous liberties that both expedite the plot and broaden its appeal. Sidney anchors the film with a winning, tragic performance, while Homolka’s villainy is suitably sinister and Hitchcockian. As an example of Hitchcock’s formative work in England — particulary his themes, techniques, and dark humor — Sabotage is tough to beat.