39 Steps, The (1935) : One of Hitchcock’s Best A-
One of Hitchcock’s early and most entertaining films, “The 39 Steps” holds up extremely well as a new kind of espionage thriller, laced with a healthy dosage of humor and including a romantic couple.
Along with “The Lady Vanishes,” it is considered to be Hitcchock’s best UK films, though, thematically, it was far more influential in the long run.
Released in 1935, “The 39 Steps” served as a model for many of Hitchcock’s later films (specifically the 1959 “North by Northwest”), as well as a workable format for other directors in this genre.
At 36, having made about a dozen features, the director blends elements of thrillers, chase in the countryside (Scottish Highlands, comedy (sporadically witty dialogue) romance, and, of course, some dazzling and brilliant (especially for its time) technical flourishes.
Based on a novel by John Buchan, the script was co-penned by Charles Bennett and Alma Reville (Hitchcock’s wife, who would contribute to many future scripts and projects).
The hero of “The 39 steps,” Richard Hannay, is played by
British actor Robert Donat (who would become a Hollywood star and win the Best Actor Oscar in 1939 for “Goodbye Mr. Chips”).
The event that set off this suspenser is an accident, which presumably could happen to any ordinary man. While visiting London, he becomes involved in a national secret from being passed out of the country. It begins with a nasty murder, which takes place in his tiny apartment (through the window…).
To establish his innocence, he must discover a ring of spies, known as the 39 Steps, whose malevolent goal is to steal knowledge for a new line of fighter airplanes.
As usual in Hitchcock’s romances, at the first one of the partners is reluctant. Here, the appealing blonde, Pamela, (Madeleine Carroll) initially hinders before agreeing to help and falling for our guy.
One of the feature’s amusing sequences occurs, when Hannay, handcuffed to Pamela, falsely admits he is a murderer. Speaking in sarcastic way, he confirms her suspicions, and for a while, he manages to fool her—and confuse us, the viewers.
Individual and collective interests go hand in hand: The journey that the couple embarks on, I meant to prove the innocence of a wrongly accused man, as well as protect the safety of the secret.
This film displays all the major themes that Hitchcock later developed in his American pictures. The mystery plot is subordinate to the development of the characters and themes. Indeed, the secret is of no particular or significant interest, it’s the MacGuffin, to use Hitchcock’s terminology, just a generic plot device
Structurally, the film bears symmetry: “The 39 Steps” begins and ends in a theater (just like in Hitchcock’s 1951, less successful thriller, “Torn Curtain”). The scholar Donald Spoto has observed that the ending is accompanied by a twice-falling curtain. After the secret is revealed by the dying Mr. Memory, Hitchcock shows us the legs of chorus girls in the background, suggesting in more ways than one that the show must go on.
Running time: 85 Minutes
Black and white
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