Alfred Hitchcock’s innovative and seminal contributions to cinema are visible all through his films, as evidenced by the fact that his name is associated with at least one zoom technique. The murder sequence in Sabotage is a clear example of this creativity. This segment of the film, which could be merely sensational, nonetheless reveals several profound characteristics of the relationship between Sylvia and her husband Verloc, and with her dead brother.
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Hitchcock accomplishes this using a simple vocabulary of shots and angles, a few crucial sound effects, and no special effects. In addition to masterful acting by the protagonists, Hitchcock uses the objects in the scene almost as characters. To allow the actors to communicate the maximum content with the least amount of dialogue and overt violence, Hitchcock targets his application of the modest range of shot types in this section of the film.
At the outset of this sequence, Hitchcock uses an element in the environment; Disney cartoon; to demonstrate that, in spite of her apparent equanimity, Sylvia is catastrophically devastated by her brother’s death. On the movie screen, the innocent and charming Cock Robin bird, shot dead senselessly by an unidentified assailant, comes all too close to her brother’s death by explosion through no fault of his own. She telegraphs her inner distress as her facial expression collapses.
If she had simply broken down and cried, it would not have led the audience along with her. The audience is led with her to her own realization of her loss and her growing uncertainties about her husband.
Another element of the environment, the dinner set up with cutlery by the cook, serves to signal Sylvia’s increasing distress with her husband and recent events.
Verloc’s complete obliviousness to the effect of Stevie’s murder is signaled by his interaction with the table setting. He demonstrates his unconcern over her loss through his self-centered attention to fiddling with the covered dishes. He samples the food and complains about the greens; reminding both of them of Stevie’s death by suggesting that fresh greens be sent for. This task was allocated to Stevie in life, and the camera shot on the chair draws the viewer’s attention to his absence.
Near the end of the segment, Hitchcock assigns to another element in the mise-en-scene a crucial part. The caged birds chirp and hop with apparent unconcern. They remain bonded in a way that Sylvia and Verloc are no more, and perhaps never were.
Hitchcock uses a relatively restrained repertoire of shots to telegraph the interior processes of his characters. Hitchcock focuses the camera closely on the knife, and then her face, and then shows us how disturbing Sylvia’s own thoughts are to her by drawing the focus back into a more distant shot, to let us see her push the knife away from her in horror. We see the train of thoughts as clearly as if she had mused on murder aloud.
Verloc’s gaze, captured in close-up, fixes on the same cutlery, and his expression almost makes the viewer forget that the cutlery itself is not what can kill, but the bereaved and betrayed sister. When she takes up the knife too swiftly for him to get it, Sylvia has taken yet another step in her journey of preparing herself to avenge her brother. Thus, when, close to the end of this clip, after Sylvia has, apparently without completely intending to at that moment, plunged the knife into Verloc’s innards, we are not entirely surprised.
The segment is also characterized by a paucity of notable sounds. After Sylvia is out of range of the theatre, there is near silence. Hitchcock combines the few sounds he does use with careful camera use to further emphasize the internal thought processes of the characters. The viewer hears Verloc’s petulant and critical complaints, the clatter of cutlery as Sylvia thrusts it from her, the creaking of shoes and the expostulations of both Verloc and his wife as he comes to grips with her.
However, the camera cuts between Sylvia’s face, Verloc’s face, and the knife to draw the eye first to the knife cutting meat, then impaling the potato, then pushed away with a rare burst of sound, then, finally, Sylvia’s hands. Hitchcock gives the viewer Verloc’s point of view at this point, focusing on her folded hands, her wedding ring prominently visible right across the table from him.
As the viewer sees realization of his risk of reprisal dawning on Verloc, the camera follows him as he rises and circles the table. This demonstrates the deliberateness of Hitchcock’s austere choices elsewhere in this segment. Verloc’s murder is up close, but his death is shot from a greater distance, allowing us to infer Sylvia’s almost immediate abandonment of resuscitation. The bizarre floor-level final angle reprises Verloc’s point of view.
Hitchcock’s use of mise-en-scene and sparing use of special angles, shots, and sound all work together. They help us to understand Sylvia’s gradual approach to her murder of her husband.
|SHOT # |
|DURATION||SCALE||ANGLE||CAMERA MOV.||TRANSIT- |
|1: 0||12 sec||Long shot||Level||None||Cut||Synchronous diegetic||Audience is appreciative|
|2: 12||3 sec||Close-up||Level||None||Cut||Asynchronous |
|Reaction shot; Sylvia appears happy|
|3:15||13||Long shot||level||None||Cut||Synchronous diegetic||Audience is appreciative|
|Reaction shot: Sylvia appears shocked|
|5:31||2||Long shot||level||None||Cut||Synchronous diegetic||Audience is appreciative|
|Reaction shot: Sylvia’s face crumples|
|7:35||12||Two-shot then a panning and tracking shot||Slightly high angle||Camera follows her as she rises and walks down aisle to exit||Cut||Asynchronous |
And Synchronous diegetic (dialogue)
|Sylvia appears stricken. Housekeeper stops by to announce that dinner is dished up, & she is leaving, nearly indistinguishably. Sylvia rises, walks towards exit|
|8:56||3||Medium shot||Tiny elevation in angle||Camera tracks her as she comes to door and opens it||Cut||Asynchronous |
|Sylvia exits the theatre and enters the adjoining living quarters: appears distressed but walks purposefully|
|9:59||7||Medium shot||Slightly below level angle – at level of table or waist||Camera follows her as she enters, approaches the table and lifts the covers||Cut||Appears to be silent||Sylvia opens door, closes it, approaches table, lifts covers and begins serving food for the seated Verloc hastily|
|10:1.06||6||Medium shot||Level with Verloc’s upper torso||None||Cut||Verloc speaks||Verloc tells Sylvia to pull herself together, and nods approvingly|
|11: 1.12||3||Medium shot||Level with Sylvia’s waist||None||Cut||silence||Sylvia scowls while serving|
|12: 1.15||9||Medium shot||Level with the Verloc’s upper torso||None||Cut||Initial silence followed by Verloc’s complaint about cabbage||He lifts the covers, tastes the food, scowls at the cabbage|
|13: 1.24||2||Medium shot||Level with Sylvia’s waist||None||Cut||Asynchronous |
Verloc complaining about the cabbage
|Sylvia looks at him with apparent incredulity or irritation|
|14: 1.26||5||Medium shot||Level with the Verloc’s upper torso||None||Cut||Synchronous diegetic: Verloc complaining about overcooked cabbage||Verloc continues to complain about the cooks’ inability to properly cook greens|
|15: 1.31||3||Medium shot||Level with Sylvia’s waist||None||Cut||silence||She serves food, cutting meat and dishing up potatoes|
|16: 1.34||11||close-up||Slightly elevated angle||Tracks her gaze down to her hands and the cutlery||Cut||silence||Camera focuses on meat knife impaling potato|
|17: 1.45||4||Close–up||Level but slightly elevated||None||cut||silence||She raises her eyes|
|18: 1.49||7||Medium shot||Level with her shoulders||Synchronous diegetic Clatter of cutlery||She almost throws knife away from her|
|19: 1.56||4||Medium shot||Level||None||Cut||Synchronous diegetic Verloc eschewing cabbage||He scrunches up his face, and asks whether they could not send out for lettuce, a task usually assigned to the exploded Stevie.|
|20: 2.0||4||Medium shot||Slightly below level||None||Cut||Sudden silence||Sylvia appears appalled|
|21: 2.04||1||Medium shot||Level||None||Cut||Silence||He scowls and looks at her|
|22: 2:05||1||Medium shot||Level||None||cut||Silence||She looks to her right and down.|
|23: 2.06||2||Medium shot||Slightly elevated angle||None||Cut||Silence||The brother’s empty chair|
|24: 2.08||5||Medium shot||Slightly depressed angle||None||Cut||Silence||Sylvia looks at chair and then at food|
|25: 2.13||4||Close-up||High angle||None||Cute||Silence||Serving plate with meat on it|
|26: 2.17||11||Medium shot – slightly pulled back, then coming in for more of a close-up at 2.27 of this clip||Level||None||Cut||Silence until 2.22 of this clip, when the cutlery clatter on the plate||Sylvia continues serving food, lingering over the knife stuck in the potato, suggesting uncertainty about what to do with her cutlery and her hands, which she finally clasps. As the camera focuses on her comes in close, she looks at Verloc with a trembling lip.|
|27: 2.28||4||Close-up||Level||None||Cut||Silence||Verloc scowls, tilts his head, looks towards the cutlery|
|28: 2.32||4||Close-up||Level||None||cut||Silence||Sylvia’s hands at waist level clasped with her wedding ring showing|
|29: 2.36||6||Close-up||Level||Cut||Silence||Verloc’s eyebrows suggest realization|
|30: 2.42||3||Medium shot||Level||None||Cut||Silence||Sylvia appears agitated|
|31: 2.45||5||Close-up||Level||None||Cut||Silence||Verloc appears apprehensive- makes premonitory motions to get up, almost rising out of the frame|
|32: 2.50||19||Medium shot||Slightly elevated||Camera tracks him as he rises and moves around table, pulling in close at end of shot||Cut||Synchronous diegetic: creak of chair||Verloc continues rising and moving around table|
|33: 3.09||5||Medium shot||Level||Focus pulls in on Sylvia||Cut||Asynchronous diegetic: creaking of Verloc’s shoes||Sylvia appears worried, agitated, uncertain what to do or think or feel.|
|34: 3.14||20||Two shot||Level, then following both their gazes down to the knife and then up again||Pulling in closer to the two heads||Cut||Asynchronous diegetic: creaking of Verloc’s shoes |
Then Synchronous diegetic: Verloc utters something indistinguishable and Sylvia cries out
|Sylvia appears terrified. Verloc approaches close, makes an indistinguishable utterance, and then they both nearly simultaneously cry out.|
|35: 3.34||2||Close-up two shot at chest level||level||none||Cut||Silence||Knife in Verloc’s midsection|
|36: 3.36||6||Long-to-medium 2-shot||level||None||Cut||Synchronous diegetic – Sound of falling body||Verloc collapses in her arms and she lets him fall|
|37: 3.42||8||Close-up||Level||None||Cut||Silence, then Asynchronous diegetic: bird chirps||Reaction to the dying body, then looking across room|
|38: 3.50||1||Close-up||High angle||None||Cut||Synchronous diegetic: chirps||Lovebirds in cage, chirping and hopping|
|39: 3.51||12||Close-up||Level||None||Cut||Synchronous diegetic: Sylvia whispers||She looks around in distress while saying “Stevie, Stevie.”|
|40: 4.03||23||Long interior shot||Foot level||None||Fade to black||Synchronous diegetic: Sylvia’s footsteps||She steps unsteadily around the body, steadies herself on a side table, and sits down in the far hallway with her forehead in her hand|