The 39 Steps [Blu-Ray]
Director : Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay : Charles Bennett (adaptation) and Ian Hay (dialogue) (based on the novel by John Buchan)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1935
Stars : Robert Donat (Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela), Lucie Mannheim (Miss Smith), Godfrey Tearle (Professor Jordan), Peggy Ashcroft (Crofter’s Wife), John Laurie (Crofter), Helen Haye (Mrs. Jordan), Frank Cellier (The Sheriff), Wylie Watson (Memory), Gus Mac McNaughton (Commercial Traveler), Jerry Verno (Commercial Traveler), Peggy Simpson (Maid)
In the decade between 1925 and 1935, Alfred Hitchcock directed more than 20 films, yet it was The 39 Steps, which followed his breakthrough hit The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), this is most often cited as the first true “Hitchcock film.” A perennial favorite of both Hitchcock’s and his admirers, it incorporated many of the narrative traits and characters that would come to define the great director’s most popular pantheon of films: the innocent man wrongly accused of a crime; the double-chase in which he is pursued by both the police and the true culprits while trying to clear his name; the cool, intelligent blonde who is both a romantic interest and a potential threat; a seriocomic tone that mixes suspense with droll humor in equal measure; and, of course, the MacGuffin, that essential plot device that is ultimately of no real importance (The 39 Steps hinges on the need to stop the transmission of an important military secret, and although we eventually find out what the secret is in the final reel, it is so banal as to be instantly forgettable, which, in a lesser film, would be a serious detriment).
Robert Donat, an established star of both the stage and screen who had already built a reputation as an affable English gentleman, was cast as Richard Hannay, a Canadian businessman in London who gets caught up in espionage when a woman named Annabelle Smith (Lucie Mannheim) comes home with him after a music hall performance, confesses to him that she is a spy trying to stop the theft of vital military secrets, and is promptly murdered in his apartment. Hannay is blamed for the murder, and with the police and most of England searching for him, he hops a train to Scotland in the desperate hope that clues Annabelle left about someone she needed to meet in the tiny village of Alt-na-Shellach will clear his name. Alas, clearing his name is a decidedly complex affair, as he consistently finds that would-be friends turn out to be either the very villains whose plans he is trying to thwart or simply dubious citizens who don’t believe his seemingly far-fetched tales of spies and murder. Chief among the latter group is Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), a proper young woman who he first meets on the train and who promptly turns him over to the police when he begs for her assistance. Thus, it is only right that he later winds up handcuffed to her, forcing her to join him on an escape through the Scottish moors that ends at a small hotel where, in one of the film’s more amusing sequences, they must pretend to be man and wife.
In interviews, Hitchcock often referred to the film’s brisk pace and lack of any extraneous narrative weight as his primary reasons for liking The 39 Steps so much, and it is indeed one of his sleekest, most economical movies. Screenwriter Charles Bennett, who had already collaborated with Hitchcock on Blackmail (1929) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and would go on to write five more of his films, almost completely repurposed John Buchan’s popular 1915 novel of the same name, streamlining the plot and chopping out almost any connective tissue between scenes. At one point in the film, Hannay goes from apparently being shot dead in the chest to laughing at the police station, the explanation for his resurrection being quickly explained and then set aside. Such speed of narrative unfolding results in a film that is almost over before you know it, which gives us little, if any, time to think about some of the story’s more gaping leaps of logic (such as why Annabelle’s murderer didn’t simply kill Hannay, as well). Of course, Hitchcock, in one of his interviews with François Truffaut, said “A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow,” and I certainly don’t want to be one of those.
Suffice it to say that The 39 Steps is an indelibly fun movie, one of Hitchcock’s early triumphs of sheer enjoyment. There is little in the way of emotional or thematic depth to the film, although many a Hitchcock scholar has tried to tease out all sorts of socio-political and psychological implications. Hannay makes for a pleasant enough protagonist, athough he doesn’t offer much more than that; unlike the later Hitchcock heroes played by Cary Grant and James Stewart, he isn’t much in need of redemption because he’s so solidly himself from the first frame to the last.
The 39 Steps is also filled with Hitchcock’s signature visual flourishes and visual pleasure (while the use of sped-up motion during one chase sequence is unnecessary and distracting, otherwise his framing and pacing of the action is generally excellent). It should also be noted that, true to form, some of the film’s visual pleasure involves the kind of witty, subtle eroticism that is unfortunately all but extinct in the modern cinema. I’m thinking specifically of the scene in which Pamela, who still doesn’t believe Hannay’s story, must remove her stockings while handcuffed to him, a moment of required—and perhaps desired—intimacy in which Hannay’s necessary involvement in her undressing is both amusing and undeniably erotic. Interestingly, while much of the film was shot on studio sets, there are quite a few scenes shot on the Scottish moors, which cinematographer Bernard Knowles captures with an indelible sense of mystery and danger. Hitchcock was notoriously averse to location shooting, yet seeing his work in the actual hills and vales makes one wish he had been more open to it.
|The 39 Steps Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|The 39 Steps is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Audio||English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||June 26, 2012|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion’s new high-definition transfer was made from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and digitally restored, while the monaural audio, presented in a lossless Linear PCM track, was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical track print and likewise given the digital treatment. The film both looks and sounds fantastic given its age of 77 years. The image is generally clean and sharp (a few scratches and minor picture instability from time to time are the only real signs of age and wear), with great contrast and detail. The misty, murky scenes on the Scottish moors seem particularly improved since Criterion’s 1999 DVD. There is a strong presence of grain throughout the presentation, which contributes to its filmlike appeal. The monaural soundtrack, while understandably a bit primitive by modern comparison, still sounds clean and clear, with no distracting aural artifacts.|
|Criterion’s 1999 DVD of The 39 Steps was fully loaded with supplements, many of which make a repeat appearance on Blu-Ray: an excellent, informative audio commentary by Alfred Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane; the complete broadcast of the 1937 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation starring Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery; and a gallery of original production design drawings. Missing is the Janus Films documentary The Art of Film: Vintage Hitchcock, which has been replaced by Hitchcock: The Early Years (2000), a British documentary covering the director’s prewar career. And, while we have also lost a gallery of excerpts from the 1935 press book, the addition of more than 40 minutes of raw footage from British broadcaster Mike Scott’s 1966 television interview with Hitchcock, a new 23-minute visual essay by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff, and 22 minutes of audio excerpts from François Truffaut’s 1962 interviews with Hitchcock more than make up for it.|
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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