The 39 Steps

 

 

There are several filmed versions of John Buchan’s novel. The other two notables have Kenneth More and Robert Powell in the lead. But this one, in spite of its antiquity, is the best. It stars debonair, pencil-moustached Robert Donat as the innocent man forced into going on the run after accidentally getting caught up at the wrong end of someone else’s spying caper.

The “innocent” theme was something Alfred Hitchcock was already comfortable with in 1935 and one which he’d return to repeatedly, most notably in North by Northwest. If you’ve read John Buchan’s original book, you’ll know The 39 Steps is a taut thriller full of derring-do, a rattling good read even today. It was this astute choosing of good source material, often by his wife Alma, that marks out Hitchcock’s mature work. That period had really only kicked off with The Man Who Knew Too Much (also an “innocent man” film) the year before, even though all of Hitchcock’s bravura camera movements and other lessons learned from the German expressionists had been informing his work since 1927’s The Lodger. It’s a MacGuffin film too – the plot serving to do little more than keep the ball in play while Hitchcock delves into the psyches of his characters. It’s also a “blonde” film, with glamourpuss Madeleine Carroll playing the woman Donat is handcuffed to for large swathes of the chase action round the Scottish highlands, a woman who seems more sexually knowing than the plot strictly requires. And it’s a “set piece” film – kicking off with the Mr Memory music hall sequence which will also provide the film’s thrilling climax.

It’s all here, in other words, all the big Hitchcock tropes. And what really stands out on watching it again is the sheer pace of the thing; it belts along in a way which few films since have managed, and even takes a breather halfway through – in the stifling croft inhabited by John Laurie and Flora Robson, yoked together in unhappy domesticity – as if to give us a minute to stand back and marvel. Nearly 70 years later the same formula – innocent man, shady organisation, chase, blonde – would be served up again as the Bourne films. Here we have Hitchcock perfecting it.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The 39 Steps – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “The 39 Steps”

  1. Film history was made in 1935 when Alfred Hitchcock, who was at the time an active but little known and somewhat run of the mill film director, received a contract to create a low budget potboiler type spy thriller, and used the opportunity to provide his studio with a masterpiece which has never been forgotten. In addition he established his reputation as the master of suspense, something which remained unchallenged throughout the remainder of his career. In style this film is quintessimal Hitchcock, and those who know his films can pick out sequences in any of his later ones which were based on, or inspired by, his work in this early thriller. Similarly, sequences from this film have also been imitated by many other directors – for example Richard Pearce, in the thriller "No Mercy" (1986), included sequences that imitated a famous sequence in Hitchcock’s film where Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll were handcuffed together and on the run , by showing Richard Gere and Kim Basinger fleeing pursuers whilst handcuffed together. Because of this "The 39 Steps" has become a "must see" classic that most movie buffs still regard as an essential element in their personal film collection.

    There are two criticisms commonly made of this film. The first is that there are logical imperfections in the story. This is true of almost all Hitchcock films (as well as those of most other directors). The point is that Hitchcock had an unsurpassed ability to maintain a flow in the unfolding of his story on the screen which totally distracts his audience from the type of mental agility required to even be aware of them. Only when dissecting the story on a sequence by sequence basis will such imperfections become significant. The second criticism is that this film, whilst based on John Buchan’s novel of the same name, departs very considerably from the story in the book. I am not a purist about this, books and films are totally different media and must be judged independently. In some cases it must be recognised that a book is structured so that it is almost impossible for a film to remain true to the original book. What I do believe is important is that the film-goer should be entitled to know how true a film is to a previously read and perhaps long loved book. If a film is described as "the film of the best selling novel……..", then it should be as accurate a dramatic presentation of the story in the book as possible. (Where the original is a play, not a book, the dramatic medium is already much closer to the movie form, and I believe such a description should only be used when most of the original dialogue from the play is accurately reproduced in the movie.) By contrast, if a film is described as "based on…………" then the filmmaker should have considerably more freedom; and if the phrase used is "inspired by…….." then a largely independent dramatic presentation should be expected. In the case of "The 39 Steps, Hichcock’s film comes into the latter category, but a later (and in my opinion generally inferior) 1978 film of the same name can legitimately claim to be much more closely based on the book. In this instance I personally do not regard the original book as sufficiently important to be sacrosanct, but those who differ from me about this may feel they have an adequate reason for preferring the 1978 film.

    Today "The 39 Steps" is seldom shown in movie theaters and, when a home video rather than the actual film is under consideration, attention needs to be given to the medium and technology with which it has been reproduced. The catch phrase "digitally remastered" is often used to reassure a purchaser that he is buying the best possible product, but this may be totally irrelevant. The nuances of shade in a good black and white photograph can often be artistically more significant than those of colour in a colour print, and the same is true for many early movies. But home video versions of black and white films are usually disappointing as these nuances are seldom reproduced accurately, if at all. It is regrettable that, largely because of this, many young people today have no appreciation of the artistic appeal a really good black and white movie film can have. Home video versions of "The 39 Steps" as both DVD’s and videotapes have been released by a number of different distributors and these vary in quality enormously. In general DVD’s are capable of better rendering of these subtle shade differences than videotapes, but either can be satisfactory. The first requirement is that the distributor has used a high quality master for the material copied, not an old tape that has already been played numerous times. The next is that proper equipment designed for copying from black and white masters is used. Too often copies of old black and white films are made with equipment that is designed only for copying colour films. In such cases the nuances of the multitude of grey shades present in the master are likely to be totally lost. Many of the copies of Hitchcock’s film still being sold are particularly bad in this respect, with highlight areas that are totally burnt out instead of containing a mass of detail. The best advice is to consult a website such as that of Amazon.com, where the various versions available are listed and priced, with user comments that indicate how satisfactory the final product has been found by the purchaser concerned. My advice is DO NOT LET YOURSELF BE HAD – THIS WILL ONLY ENCOURAGE THE MARKETING OF SUB-STANDARD MATERIAL.

  2. Trust and betrayal have been a recurrent theme in several of Alfred Hitchcock’s works. The 39 Steps, made in 1935, has the all the classic elements of the master filmmaker that set the standard for later Hitchcock films. The 39 Steps has the classic Hitchcockian theme of an average, innocent man caught up in extraordinary events which are quite beyond his control. The sexually frustrating institution of marriage is another major motif present in the film. The strained and loveless relationship between the crofter and his wife, the placid relationship of the innkeeper and his wife, the (physical) bond between Hannay and Pamela can be examined in terms of degrees of trust between the couples. In fact, the short ‘acquaintance’ between Hannay and Smith and Hannay and the crofter’s wife are also built completely upon trust. It is these couples, and the chemistry between them (or the lack thereof) that drive the entire film.

    Over a span of four days, the smart and unflappable protagonist, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is involved in a circular journey to prove his innocence and expose the hive of intrigue. He is involved in chases and romantic interludes that take him from London to the Scottish Highlands and back again and he assumes numerous identities on the way – a milkman, an auto mechanic, a honeymooner, a political speaker among others.

    The opening of the film, the first three shorts do not show him above his neck. With his back to the camera, he is followed down the aisle to his seat. He is then assumed to be lost in the crowd. This gives the audience the feeling that he could be anybody. Later when he takes in the identities of a milkman, a mechanic, a politician one realizes that he is Hitchcock’s archetypal ‘everyman’ who unwittingly finds himself in incredible dilemmas.

    In one of the brilliantly managed sequences on the train, Richard Hannay throws himself at a lone girl and forces a kiss just as a detective and two policemen pass by their compartment. It reveals his desperation to remain free until he can prove his innocence. In the scene after Annabella staggers into his room with a kitchen knife in her back, Hannay sees her ghostly image (which is superimposed) talking to him, `What you are laughing at right now is true. These men will stop at nothing.’ The double exposure achieves a result which is a tad chilling and sad. The hallmark of Hitchcock’s style is his ability to completely shock his audience by deliberately playing against how they would be thinking. In such episodes as the murder of the woman in Hannay’s apartment or when the vicious professor with the missing finger casually shoots Hannay, the action progresses almost nonchalantly leaving the viewers stunned.

    A great story, interesting and likeable characters, slyly incongruous wit, classic Hitchcockian motifs and a great MacGuffin are just a few things that make the The 39 Steps the quintessential Hitchcock.

  3. Most people associate Hitchcock with suspense but he was also a master of dark comedy. "The 39 Steps" illustrates his ability to blend the two genres into a movie that works well on both levels. If he had turned up the comedy a tiny bit it would be just as hilarious as the best 1930’s screwball comedies like "Bringing Up Baby" and "The Awful Truth". Imagine Katherine Hepburn handcuffed to Robert Donat as they wander the Scottish moors. But the chemistry between Madeleine Carroll and Donat is too good to replace her.

    Hitchcock cast a great ensemble for "The 39 Steps". Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Teale and John Laurie are outstanding. The supporting cast are all excellent. Yet in the midst of all this it is Peggy Ashcroft who absolutely shines.

    Donat’s misadventures while "on-the-run" from the law are the original "series of unfortunate events". It seems that he just can’t go anywhere without being identified and chased. Hitchcock’s technique is to lull you into thinking it will be an ordinary scene and then to casually throw something menacing into the scene, so the viewer can never relax. These are like getting a slap in the face before you have a chance to set yourself up for the blow. By comparison with the sinister delicacy and urbane understatement of "The Thirty-nine Steps," modern melodramas are obvious and crude.

    There are many cool things to watch for:

    CAMEO-As Donat and Mannheim board a bus early in the film, director Hitchcock makes his customary cameo appearance as a passer-by who tosses litter onto the sidewalk.

    MATCH CUT-One of the most revolutionary edits in cinema history is in here; after the maid finds Lucie’s body her scream dissolves into the hissing of a train whistle.

    MISE EN SCENE-If you ever wandered what this was ("putting-in-the-scene" is a single shot sequence without cuts to another camera or transition to another scene), Hitchcock’s closing shot is probably the all-time best example. As Donat, Carroll, and the police gather backstage around the dying Mr. Memory, on-stage behind them (visible from the wings) and performing for the Palladium audience is a chorus-line of girls high-kicking to the tune of Tinkle, Tinkle, Tinkle from the film Evergreen (1934). After Mr. Memory confirms the espionage plot, the camera angle changes slightly and Donat and Carroll fill the frame facing away from the camera. Donat still has the handcuffs dangling from his wrist. They spontaneously join hands – this time of their own free will.. The film fades to black.

  4. If what you want from a thriller is in-yer-face mugging, special effects, noise, a booming soundtrack, gore, nudity and flashy editing, this one is not for you.

    However if you are a more discerning moviegoer who values a great script, exquisite understated acting, wit, humour and intelligence, and you are willing to overlook the technically rough bits (come on, this was 1935, you cannot measure it by 2005 standards !!) – then enjoy, because you are in for a treat.

    Robert Donat is one of the most charming heroes that ever graced the screen, and but for his frail health and loathing of the Hollywood pzazz (he later refused some great movie parts offered to him, which eventually went to the likes of Erroll Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks Jr) he might have become one of the greatest. Watch the dinner scene with the crofters, in which he manages to convey his plight to the wife entirely without words. Great acting. Also the wickedly funny bravura piece at the political rally.

    Madeleine Carroll must be among the coolest and feistiest of Hitchcock’s favoured blondes, not as insipid or irrelevant as many of the others were. She is a veritable icicle and it takes a long time for her to thaw, but then watch the sparks fly.

    I feel a little sad for the people who cannot be bothered to check out this movie because of the tinny sound or the b&w photography. Forget about those superficialities and concentrate on the real values – the script, the acting, the lighting, photography and camera work -, just allow yourself to get carried away with the fast paced action, and you’ll love it.

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