Based on the novel Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, Sabotage follows Karl Verloc, a man involved with a shady organization planning a terrorist attack on London. A Scotland Yard undercover detective is on the trail of a saboteur who is part of a plot to set off a bomb in London. But when the detective's cover is blown, the plot begins to unravel.


“[...] Hitchcock's delirium sequences document the hot currents of the character's mind. Durgnat's distinction between Hitchcock's "piercing realism" and his "vibrant irrealism" is a merely formal distinction, for Hitchcock's basic interest has always been in how our perceptions reshape our world. His realism constantly shades off into the expressionistic imagery and extravagant technical devices by which he conveys the realism of the emotional state. So his aquarium explosion of Picadilly Circus in Sabotage ranks with the best documentary poetics of Vertov.”

Maurice Yacowar1


“The conflation of the cinematic and the criminal implicit in the reference to an outlaw auteur comes to explosive fruition, we might say, in Sabotage, where the saboteur character owns and runs a cinema, which serves literally to screen his destructive political activities. Ironically, the cinema exacts revenge when his wife, whose younger brother had died in the explosion of a bomb he had been sent to deliver, seems inspired by the onscreen murder of "Cock Robin" in a Disney cartoon to stab her husband with a carving knife (see Susan Smith for a thorough analysis of the scene's numerous complexities). Though Hitchcock may have understood himself as a singing bird whose wooing of the public was constantly at risk of sabotage at the hands of pinch-penny producers or distributors, so that he cloaked his cinematic subversiveness in the guise of commercial entertainment, in Sabotage he puts the screen on screen in ways that twenty-first-century critics find increasingly fascinating. Indeed, the intersection of Conrad and Hitchcock has proven especially productive among critics for whom conceptualizing the complex relationships between mass-culture modernity and the art of film is a top-priority critical task.”

Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague2


The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps initiate a series of thrillers of which The Lady Vanishes (1938) is the most celebrated, but which also includes Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), and Young and Innocent (1937). [...] In this series of thrillers, Sabotage clearly stands apart for its emotional gravity. It traps its girl/woman within a marriage as frightful as Margaret's in The 39 Steps and calls upon her to affirm her innocence by killing her husband — the film's villain — with her own hands. Hitchcock plays the violent, senseless death of her young brothernot to mention the puppy blown up with him in the bus for suspense, forcing us to recognize that the author's capacity for cruelty equals that of his surrogate within the world of the film. It is also the thriller in the series that most emphatically declares that its real subject is film: the villain runs a movie theater, an "innocent" mask for his real calling, sabotage. Yet Sabotage fails to integrate its moments of horror with the theatricality demanded by the Hitchcock thriller format, which for the first time seems to constrict rather than liberate Hitchcock. This failure identifies the central problem that will come to absorb him: to discover how to give full expression to his theatricality while taking that theatricality absolutely seriously as a subject; to keep faith with The 39 Steps while declaring continuing commitment to those aspects of The Lodger and Murder! that resist being encompassed by the 39 Steps format; to hold his audience while acknowledging its capacity to acknowledge him.”

William Rothman3


“The quarrel is not with Hitchcock’s method, but with his material. His purpose is to provide fast-paced, visually exciting melodramas for moviegoers. He intends, by his own admission, to "shock" them out of their normal selves. If one is perfectly satisfied with art that does nothing but entertain, then good and well — Hitchcock's melodramas are probably supreme in their genre. Despite the fact that he is gifted with a mastery of his medium and human insight that must ultimately lead to a greater art, if honestly pursued, Hitchcock seems to have no such lofty aspirations. Furthermore, Hitchcock's melodramas are not of the most honest and compelling kind. Although he lavishes a keen and searching scrutiny on his characters, they remain lifeless puppets. They are unconvincing, for they are not internally conceived; they have no basic motivation, no essential humanity. The camera selects every salient detail of Verloc's murder, but the murder itself does not affect us, simply because we do not believe in Verloc. Realism, as Willa Gather once remarked, is not a matter of scrupulous, external detail, but of basically essential fidelity to the object, of underlying veracity. In reply to these criticisms, Hitchcock now offers a refutation in his article on "Direction" in "Footnotes to the Film" (Lovat Dickson, London, 1937). "I know there are critics who ask why lately I have made only thrillers," Hitchcock writes. "Am I satisfied, they say, with putting on the screen the equivalent merely of popular novelettes? Part of the answer is that I am out to get the best stories I can which will suit the film medium, and I have usually found it necessary to take a hand in writing them myself. I choose crime stories because that is the kind of story I can turn most easily into a successful film. I am ready to use other stories, but I can't find writers who will give them to me in a suitable form.”

Ezra Goodman4

  • 1Maurice Yacowar, "Hitchcock's Imagery and Art," A Hitchcock Reader. (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 29. Edited by Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague.
  • 2Marshall Deutelbaum, Leland Poague, A Hitchcock Reader. (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 72. Edited by Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague.
  • 3William Rothman, “Shadow of a Doubt,” The Murderous Gaze, (New York: SUNY Press, 2012), 182-183.
  • 4Ezra Goodman, “Mysterious Mr. Hitchcock,” Cinema Progress 3, nr. 2, 1938, 9.
UPDATED ON 29.12.2023
IMDB: tt0028212