NEW YORK — While preparing his version of "The Secret Agent," filmmaker Christopher Hampton evidently had a good look at an earlier adaptation of Joseph Conrad's sinuous novel: "Sabotage," made by the great Alfred Hitchcock in 1936 and still widely available on video. Hitchcock's approach to the story strikes a tone of mingled sympathy and skepticism that's quite close to what Hampton aims at, although the "master of suspense" achieves his cinematic goals more consistently and resoundingly than his successor manages to do.
Unfolding the story in crisp black-and-white images, Hitchcock's film rings many changes on Conrad's original without dulling its impact or diluting its meaning. In an alteration that opens up multiple possibilities for inventive visual effects, the main character is not a shopkeeper but a movie-theater owner, and several scenes juxtapose "real life" events with "film-within-a-film" action.
In one moving episode, his wife recovers from a horrible tragedy while walking down the aisle of the theater as a Walt Disney cartoon dances on the screen. The cartoon's mock-tragic song - "Who Killed Cock Robin?" - fills the air around her with awful irony.
Other changes also add to Hitchcock's opportunities for the visual storytelling that was his trademark. The terrorist meets his boss not in a stuffy office but an exotic aquarium, and his ill-fated emissary is not a slow-witted adult but a bright young boy with a promising future cut appallingly short.
Hitchcock himself was less than satisfied with the picture, wishing his cast were more magnetic and - in a revealing bit of criticism aimed at his own creativity - admitting that he erred in building a suspense scene around the impending death of an innocent character.
Contemporary viewers can consider such quibbles without forfeiting the film's many pleasures, however, including fine performances by Oscar Homolka and Sylvia Sidney.
Be careful not to confuse "Sabotage" with two other Hitchcock movies: "The Secret Agent," made the same year but unrelated to Conrad's novel, and "Saboteur," a Robert Cummings drama released in 1942. While all are rousing thrillers, only "Sabotage" displays the gripping combination of Hitchcock and Conrad on screen. It's available on video from the Madacy Music Group and on laserdisc from the Voyager Company's Criterion Collection series.