Theatre as the Locus of Inner World in Sabotage

by Qi Wu

In Hitchcock’s movies, the theatre is an important location as it mirrors the chaos world—a dark society without order. It also bridges the plot and reflects the inner world of the characters. Such is the case in Sabotage (1938), where all the suspense revolves around a movie theatre and its owner Mr. Karl Verloc and Mrs. Verloc. Appearing to be an ordinary Londoner, Karl is secretly a saboteur responsible for the citywide blackout. To plunge the city into real chaos, Karl’s organization plans to set off a bomb in central London and he is commanded to deliver the bomb. In order not to be suspected, Karl asks his wife’s young brother Stevie to deliver the bomb, disguised as a film canister, and the kid is killed in the explosion. In this film, the theatre functions not merely as a “theatre” where people entertain themselves but often a place of chaos. Moreover, the theatre, more precisely the auditorium in this movie, is where the characters’ thoughts and emotions are exposed. Throughout the film, Hitchcock filmed the auditorium eight times for this purpose, but with various emotional effects by combining the actor’s performances with different music, dialogue, and visual images in the movies shown in the Bijou theatre. Among these eight scenes, the most touching and exquisite one is the sequence when Mrs. Verloc watches the cartoon Who Killed Cock Robin? after discovering that her husband is responsible for Stevie’s death.

In this scene, different from the domestic helper who passes the auditorium earlier, Mrs. Verloc does not identify with the audience and share their joy at all, as is demonstrated by their disparate ways of laughter. When the domestic helper leaves the Verlocs’ home after a day’s work, she feels relieved and in a good humor since she can go home now. Therefore, when she passes the theatre and the audience laughs, she shares their joy and laughs with heartfelt happiness. In comparison, the heroine does not participate in the audience’s delightful experience. The audience laughs when they are amused by the appearance of the pretentious bird lady in the cartoon. Although Mrs. Verloc laughs along, she laughs in a bitter way: one could see the sorrow and despair in her eyes while she laughs; and in the intervals of her laughter, she looks completely miserable. Unlike the rest of the audience, she is by no means entertained by the cartoon. Rather, she seems to be laughing at her own tragic fate.

Mrs. Verloc stops smiling when seeing the bird shot in the cartoon Who Killed Cock Robin? Mrs. Verloc stops smiling when seeing the bird shot in the cartoon Who Killed Cock Robin?

The smile on Mrs. Verloc is wiped out fully when a shadow of a sparrow creeps in and shoots Cock Robin with an arrow—the audience still finds it amusing but the visual image reminds her of Stevie’s tragic death. Here Hitchcock uses a shot of the seemingly endless falling of Cock Robin and a close-up of Mrs. Verloc’s face to show how mournful she feels. It also implies that the falling is not only that of Cock Robin, but also that of Stevie and Mrs. Verloc: Stevie fell victim to the scheme of the saboteurs and died; Mrs. Verloc falls into an abyss of sorrow because of Stevie’s death, and the truth that her husband is responsible for it. In addition, the main characters of the cartoon are the birds—earlier Mr. Verloc also gave two caged birds to Stevie as a gift. The present serves as a carrier and disguise of the bomb when it was delivered; and also an incentive for Stevie to courier the bomb which is later disguised as a film tape for Mr. Verloc—“two birds with a stone”, just like Mr. Verloc said when he asked Stevie to run the errand. One could say that to some extent, Mr. Verloc killed Stevie with the birds. Therefore, the mere sight of birds would be a reminder of Stevie’s death.

The “knife scene” in Blackmail (1929). Hitchcock distorts the voice that utters “knife” repetitively to show how disturbed Alice is after killing Crewe when defending herself.

The theme song of the cartoon and its repeated lyric “Oh who killed Cock Robin?” also strengthens the emotional effect of this sequence. Although Hitchcock does not distort the voice singing “who killed Cock Robin” as he did with “knife” in Blackmail, he achieves a similar effect by repeating it five or six times. Recurrently hearing “killed” “killed” “killed”, the heroine could not avoid thinking about Stevie’s being killed. In addition, when the song is played, the domestic helper comes to her and says “Young Stevie ain’t getting that light for him”—mentioning Stevie’s name at this time definitely deepens her sorrow, which prompts her to revenge his death. The repeated lyrics also seem to be asking her “who killed young Stevie?” Knowing the answer by heart, she probably screams out “Mr. Verloc” in her mind. Besides, in the latter part of the cartoon, although not shown in the movie, the witnesses of Cock Robin’s death are put on trial and the jury decides that they all should be hanged. As the Verlocs own the Bijou Theatre, high chances are that Mrs. Verloc has already seen the cartoon and knows how the plot goes; even if she does not know fully about the cartoon, she could have known the dark version of the original nursery rhyme (that the cartoon adapts from) where the killer is hanged in the end. In this context, the thought of punishing Mr. Verloc herself is probably planted during this sequence inspired by the cartoon/nursery rhyme. After the cook comes to talk to Mrs. Verloc, she looks more determined than mournful and then marches back to the dining room, when the song “who killed Cock Robin” is still sung in the theatre.

The length of this sequence is meticulously calculated as well. As the longest in the eight auditorium scenes, it slows down the pace and enables the viewers to feel the pain and sorrow of the protagonist. Comparing this scene to the one when Mrs. Verloc and Ted go out after Mrs. Verloc stabs her husband, one could see how the sequence’s length influences the emotions the viewers feel. The latter scene lasts for only around three seconds, yet it is the very briefness of this sequence that creates a sense of emergency, and builds up tension and anxiety of in Ted and Mrs. Verloc. In contrast, the Who Killed Cock Robin? scene, lasting for approximately one and a half minutes, gives the viewers sufficient time to quietly observe the heroine’s sorrow and let her emotions to fill their mind.

This pivotal sequence and other auditorium scenes are perfect demonstrations of Hitchcock’s deftness in storytelling. In Sabotage, the characters always enter the theatre for purposes other than entertainment, be it a chase, an escape, or merely an innocent passage, and their various emotions and thoughts could be seen in these sequences. The characters portrayed in these scenes never spoke, but their inner world can still be read through the synthesis of their performances like different ways of laughter, and Hitchcock’s skillful use of visual images and sound (of the pictures screened in the theatre). The crosscutting of the character’s body/facial expressions and the screen also contributes to the exposure of their emotions and thoughts. Even the length of the sequence helps us read their minds. The theatre in Sabotage is not only the locus of the characters’ inner world, but also a stage for Hitchcock to tantalize the emotions of his audiences—he knows precisely how to make us cheerful or anxious, as well as how to touch the softest part of our hearts to make them beat for his characters.

Qi Wu is a graduate student majoring in Media, Culture and Communication at NYU, with a concentration on visual culture and cultural studies. Movies and travelling are Qi’s major passions. Contact Qi via victoriamoyu@gmail.com.

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