Film: The 39 Steps
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Format: Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
“What are The 39 Steps?” It is the question that is shouted at the climax of the movie and is the question that is ever-present for all the scenes leading up to it. It is the question that led mild-mannered Richard Hannay to be on the run for his innocence and it is the question that is causing mysterious men to act towards murder. Is the answer to the question satisfying? Sure, but it’s really one of the first examples where Alfred Hitchcock argues that it really doesn’t matter.
This is a film that Hitchcock made during his British era. He made a number of films before traveling to America to varying degrees of success. He started off with silent films of different genres before he transitioned into the thrillers that we know so well of him. One of the elements he is most famous for is the “wrong man.” Hannay is an excellent example of it,, partly because of how game he is to trot through Scotland, sometimes handcuffed to a beautiful woman.
The stakes are always present in The 39 Steps as Hitchcock plays with the audience’s paranoia. The man on the train who may have seen Hannay’s face on the paper looks right into the camera leaving the audience to decide what he really knows and if they should run. Every clue leads to another shocking reveal all situated to make things worse for the falsely accused Hannay. This should lead to an exciting pace, but Hitchcock’s experiments are not without flaws. Due to the budget of this movie, a score is severely lacking especially in the great chases through the wide landscapes. Also for reasons I can’t defend, too many scenes end with awkward fades to black that feel like we are cutting to commercial.
Yet there is an inescapable charm to the movie that will bring you back from its second-long ad break. Part of it comes from Robert Donat’s fantastic performance as Hannay. He treats his situation as a problem that needs to be solved, but he is also determined to stand by what he knows is true. When Madeleine Carroll’s Pamela is told repeatedly that there are sinister spies framing him for murder, Donat decides to forgo desperation and head right into sarcasm. There is a grand gentlemen’s humor surrounding the whole movie, especially in the great scene where Hannay gives a rousing political speech off the cuff when he is mistaken for a candidate. The meaning of his words and the effect it is having on the crowd is wonderfully countered with the image of his handcuff attached to his wrist.
It is not fair to compare art to other art, but it is hard to watch this knowing that Hitchcock will perfect so many of these techniques in superior films like North By Northwest. However, this remains an undeniable success in Hitchcock’s canon and can be argued as his greatest British film. (The Lady Vanishes is its closest competition for me.) There is a reason why this remains such a fun venture instead of the moody mess of the BBC remake. This is an adventure with a noble goal in the heart of it as a good man goes across country lines to make the world a safer place and along the way he’ll charm the heart of a (rightfully) skeptical woman. The movie has been adapted into a hysterical play that becomes a full-on farce as the story is faithfully adapted but only performed by four people playing 100 roles. That is made possible because Hitchcock shows that being on the run for your life can not only be thrilling but delightful.
Commentary – This was a feature length commentary from a Hitchcockian scholar, Marian Keane. She clearly knows the history of Hitchcock and has studied his intentions with composition. Yet this commentary is incredibly disappointing. Way too much of her commentary is devoted to describing what is happening on screen, plot beat for plot beat. This may work in a longer essay form, but as she is saying exactly what the actors are doing, it all seems too redundant. Any insight after this becomes secondary and often too repetitive like how she keeps labeling all the high-level shots and that the handcuffs were representing a fictional marriage between the characters.
Hitchcock: The Early Years – This was a nice short documentary that highlighted the major films that Hitchcock worked on during his early career in England. A few of them have sustained as popular films of his (The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes) but this film gives great attention to each of them. Thanks to interviewing people who actually worked on these films, we get a greater portrait of a young and often silly Hitchcock who was playing strange pranks on set while still being hyper-focused on every frame of the shot.
Cinema: Alfred Hitchcock – This was great. One of the fastest 40 minute bonus features. It is a long interview with Hitchcock that was done in the 60s for a show called Cinema. While the entire episode is lost to time, we get a great in-depth discussion of Hitchcock’s early films. It was so refreshing to hear him talk about movies like The Ring and Murder, which are never talked about. He uses each film to talk about his philosophies of storytelling that is so insightful. Like he said at the time he will never do another “whodunit” because the emotion for the audience is simply to wonder “who done it?” not about the concern for the characters. Yet, the best parts are the displays of Hitchcock’s wit. His explanation of moronic questions appears to be his real nemesis in his career as people (mostly Americans) ask stupid plot questions in his tales. Also, the mysterious somberness of his discussion of his fear of policemen was a little chilling.
The Borders of the Possible – This was a visual essay by film historian Leonard Leff, which starts with The 39 Steps, but jumps around to a number of Hitchcock films to showcase different styles and presentations in his early career. It felt a bit too scattered as he tried to connect so many different eras and a few times his conclusions were a bit problematic like how he addressed how the women were presented. Though, there are also moments when Leff uses the medium to his best advantage like when he showcases the shot order as information is discovered in the Scottish home.
Production Designs – These were so cool! The drawings themselves had this great style where they almost seemed alive as the sketches were refusing to stay in the lines. Then they showed you how Hitchcock incorporated them, especially where you see plenty of examples where he would use the exact locations for shadows and scope.
Hitchcock – Truffaut – I have read the famous book Hitchcock/Truffaut book many years ago but I have only heard a little of the actual recordings. I know they released them many years ago, but I didn’t try to take in all 50+ hours which includes the translator. This is a 20 minute segment just about The 39 Steps and the book it was based on. Which I’ve read! This interview is such a goofy portion, because you have a lot of joke-telling occurring. It’s often hard to listen to in its raw state because the whole thing is being overlayed with the translator, but it starts to be so impressive how easily the two filmmakers were able to converse under the circumstances.
Lux Radio Theatre – Back in 1937, the Lux Radio Theatre adapted The 39 Steps as a one-hour radio drama. It’s significantly less than an hour after ads and an intermission and a weird little plug at the end where the audience is supposed to chime in on what kind of story they want next week. However the adaptation has its charm. Mr. Memory works really well as a character on the radio. The show wisely took the globetrotting spy story and really focused on the romantic aspect of it. The banter between Hanney and Pamela pops really well with Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino (of crossword fame!). Other elements are fun, but the reveal of a finger that is partial missing is not as dramatic when the bad guy has to describe his own hand. As a nice little treat as well, the drama is hosted by Cecil B. DeMille “from Hollywood!”
Essay – The essay in this Criterion booklet was written by David Cairns, a professor at the Edinburgh College of Art and a filmmaker who was compelled to write a lot about Hitchcock on his blog. This was a very pleasant to read essay that looks into characteristics of Hitchcock and gives them a little flavor. As I went through all of these bonus features, I realized just how analyzed Hitchcock is as a filmmaker. The average person has seen a number of Spielberg or Kubrick films, but I don’t think they can name off the characteristics of their visual style like one can for Hitchcock. So it’s hard to find a new way to discuss the MacGuffin or how he uses famous locations to enhance the drama. But Cairns did a nice job, especially when he went into comparisons between the movie and the original novel.
NEXT UP…The 400 Blows