Alfred Hitchcock Adapts Joseph Conrad’s Novel of Terrorism in Sabotage (1936)

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, 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.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

21 Free Hitch­cock Movies Online

We Were Wan­der­ers on a Pre­his­toric Earth: A Short Film Inspired by Joseph Con­rad

Truffaut’s Big Inter­view with Hitch­cock (MP3s)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.