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New York Times (27/Feb/1937) - Sabotage





Alfred Hitchcock, that sturdy yeoman of the Gaumont-British guard, has whittled a pitilessly melodramatic segment from Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent" and, calling it "The Woman Alone," has placed it on exhibition at the Roxy as a masterly exercise in suspense. His new film is imperfect narrative, but perfect dramaturgy. Impatiently brushing aside all but the semblance of motivation, he has plunged his camera lens into the heart of Conrad's story and has brought out a brilliantly executed fragment of a plot that had more logic than he, gives it. In another director this would have been unpardonable, but Mr. Hitchcock's technique is its own excuse.

Always the master of his picture's destiny, Mr. Hitchcock has reduced "The Woman Alone" to the bare essentials of its narrative, selecting only those incidents which he could bend to his melodramatic will. His directorial pace is deceptively deliberate, but he builds ruthlessly to his climaxes and he makes their impact hard and sudden. His players, including the superb Oscar Homolka, Sylvia Sidney, John Loder and that engaging youngster, Desmond Tester, are held rigidly to the line of story advancement but, within the narrow limits Hitchcock permits them, contribute sound characterizations.

The scene is London; the time the present; the theme sabotage. For reasons obscure, a small cinema theatre owner, Verloc, has been commissioned to terrorize London. His first step is to cripple the city's lighting plant. London accepts the blackout as a joke. The foreign agent employing him warns that London must not laugh the next time: a time bomb, left in a Piccadilly cloakroom, would really test the British sense of humor.

Verloc, under surveillance by Scotland Yard, is unable to deliver the bomb himself and selects his wife's small brother as the innocent messenger of death. The lad takes the paper-wrapped bomb, timed to explode at 1:45, and begins his trip across London. Verloc has warned him to leave the harmless little packet no later than 1:30. Mr. Hitchcock has directed the sequence fiendishly. It is almost an agonizing experience to have to sit silently and watch the careless youngster's dawdling progress across London, idling at shop windows, selected by a sidewalk vender for a hair-tonic demonstration, delayed by a parade, by traffic and by fussy bobbies.

We won't tell you what happens. That would be to cheat Mr. Hitchcock of his just reward, but it is a warning what you may expect—which, as is the way of all Hitchcock melodramas, is the unexpected.

Mr. Homolka as Verloc is a perfect tool for Hitchcock's deliberate tempo. Miss Sidney as his bewildered wife, tragically mothering her young brother; Master Tester as the boy, John Loder as the romantic sergeant from Scotland Yard and William Dewhurst as the bomb manufacturer are severally perfect. But it is Mr. Hitchcock's picture and a valuable one, for all its refusal to give us the whys and the wherefores of the sabotage plot.