We happened to see this one back-to-back with another Hitchcock film, Blackmail, made seven years earlier. It was interesting to note the similarities. In both films a woman kills a man. In this one, the victim was her husband who had set off a bomb that killed her brother. In the other, the man was trying to rape her. Both eminently justifiable, most people would say. In both films her lover finds out she is the killer. In both films the lover is a cop. In both films the woman is consumed with guilt and only wants to confess. In both films the cop sees that it is possible to get away without confessing to anything. And in both films, that’s what he chooses to do. They get away scott-free! That didn’t happen much in the films of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Of course, neither killing was what you’d call a heinous crime, especially the first one, but still.
This story was adapted from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. (Which has led to a lot of confusion, in that Hitch made another film titled Secret Agent, just before this one. To make matters even worse, he later made a film called Saboteur, in the US. That one had Robert Cummings fleeing across America, wrongly accused.) Oskar Homolka is the villain here, and a strange one he is. He starts off sabotaging a London power plant, which only inconveniences some people. When asked to plant a bomb he says he refuses to do anything that would harm people. But he quickly changes his mind when the offer of money is increased. He’s married (implausibly, to my mind) to the lovely and innocent little Sylvia Sidney. They run a little cinema with her younger brother. Soon, not only is Oskar willing to kill people, he’s perfectly okay with handing a bomb to little brother to deliver across town, timed to go off at 1:45 PM. The tension builds and builds as he encounters one distraction or delay after another, including a procession by the King! He gets on a bus, sitting by an old lady with a cute little dog. The clock is ticking! Of course, something will have to happen to prevent that little boy, the old lady, and especially the puppy from getting blown up, won’t it? Well, I don’t give spoiler warnings on classic movies, and this one is famous for this scene, in which the bus does blow up. It was pretty controversial and angered a lot of people at the time. A lot of people weren’t ready for that kind of unhappy ending, with a child being blown to pieces. I think it works, because it is faithful to the book, and because it gives Sylvia a damn good excuse to cut out Oskar’s liver. There’s a fantastic scene where, after basically telling her she just has to get over it, he debates whether or not he wants cabbage for dinner. This man has already put his mass murder behind him, and in fact is blaming somebody else for it. You don’t see that level of callousness in films of that time very often.