He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the image of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.
Thus ends Joseph Conrad’s long-in-the-works novel The Secret Agent. First published in 1920, the story had been conceived decades earlier, inspired by the terrorist bombings that took place in London during the 1880s and 1890s. In particular, it was the infamous 1894 attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory that served as a plot for Conrad’s narrative.
While based on events that occurred well over a century ago, the above passage could describe any suicide bomber today. Of this—Conrad’s The Secret Agent and its obvious connections to the recent acts of terror in London—I was forcefully reminded when I screened Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 thriller Sabotage last night. I had not seen this film in years and, being unprepared, was startled by its up-to-dateness.
Even though Hitchcock was not particularly pleased with it, Sabotage is one of his most mature earlier thrillers. It has none of the adventure or intrigue of his better known pre-Hollywood films, such as the seminal but perhaps overrated caper The Thirty-Nine Steps; nor does it have the romance and humor of his lesser efforts, such as Rich and Strange or Young and Innocent. Instead, it offers a portrait of a terrorist so stark, so dark, so nearly naturalistic that it remains startling today.
Hitchcock claims to have regretted the scene in which the innocent young boy, Stevie, the brother of the terrorist’s young wife, is blown up while unknowingly delivering a bomb as instructed by his stepfather. Compared to the inane Hollywood endings we are still expected to endure—such as the infuriatingly contrived reunion of Tom Cruise’s character with his teenage son in The War of the Worlds—Hitchcock’s Sabotage comes across as relentlessly true-to-life. According to the conventions of Hollywood storytelling, characters with whom we identify are not generally blown to bits—especially not children.
The reality of our everyday, however, does not heed such conventions. The innocent are victimized without remorse, either by indiscriminate terrorists or their persecutors, as the story of Jean Charles de Menezes, wrongfully shot as a terrorist suspect, forcefully drove home in recent weeks; his story continues to unfold as the probing into his death lays bare some of the criminal errors of anti-terrorist actions.
Hitchcock always enjoyed telling the story of The Wrong Man—innocent people unjustly pursued by the authorities the director had dreaded since childhood. During the chase that is essentially the Hitchcock experience, our sympathies are more often directed toward the hunted than the hunter, encouraging us to reexamine established roles of criminal and persecutor, to question our definition of justice.
Sabotage tells the story of flawed and guilty people—the saboteur, who risks a boy’s life to carry out his mission of destruction, and his young wife, sister of the victim, who ends up stabbing her husband in revenge, despair, or sheer confusion (this is being left ambiguous). Even the boy—whom we catch early breaking a plate and filching a bit of food—is not altogether innocent; his tardiness and negligence contribute to his death. Killer, victims, and hapless messenger alike are sentenced to death brought on by ruthlessness and ignorance. Only a combination of knowledge and ethics, of smarts and decency, can save those caught in the web of terror that is our everyday.