Just like most of you Open Culture readers, I’m a sucker for cultural intersections, the places where music meets painting, poetry meets computing, language meets architecture, and so on. I feel an even greater thrill when two respected creators team up to accomplish this; the more unlikely and inadvertent the combination, the better. The film above, which you can watch free on Archive.org, represents not just the intersection of cinema and literature, but the intersection of Alfred Hitchcock and Joseph Conrad, titans of their respective forms whose lives only briefly overlapped. In 1907, Conrad published The Secret Agent, a political novel of late nineteenth-century London. (Find it in our Free eBooks collection) In 1936, Hitchcock turned it into the picture Sabotage, also known as The Woman Alone (but not, I should note, Secret Agent, an entirely different Hitchcock-directed film of that year). Conrad’s book, a tale of ideology and terrorism, saw very frequent citation in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Later that decade, Quentin Tarantino cited Hitchcock’s film to illustrate a vital plot point in his own Inglourious Basterds. Both works, it seems, have retained a certain relevance.
While Hitchcock and company tailored Conrad’s source material to fit their sensibility, their times, and their medium, both the movie and the novel center on a businessman named Verloc. (Spoiler alert, we talk about the plot here.) Caught in the unenviable position of belonging to a bomb-chucking anarchist society and working as an agent provocateur for a country somewhere in shadowy Eastern Europe, Verloc uses his unsuspecting young brother-in-law Stevie to carry out an attack meant to ostensibly further the anarchist agenda but to secretly strike a blow for the nation that employs him. When the bombing goes awry and takes Stevie with it — a death that Hitchcock reportedly regretted including, though the inevitability with which his plot delivers it strikes me as entirely Hitchcockian — Verloc finds himself not at the mercy of the anarchists, nor of the spies, nor of Scotland Yard, but of his own enraged wife. Even after having undergone cinematic simplification, Conrad’s tale eludes almost any positions or messages readers would ascribe to it. “Conrad distrusted governments as much as he scorned those who sought as a matter of abstract principle to overthrow them,” writes Judith Shulevitz in a Slate piece on the novel’s post-9/11 popularity. “He neither advocated one kind of state over another nor prophesied the ongoing war against terrorism, except insofar as he saw industrialized society as forever at odds with the anarchic human heart.”