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39 Steps, The (1935)
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Godfrey Tearie, Lucie Mannheim, Peggy Ashcroft, Wylie Watson
John Buchan, Charles Bennett, Ian Hay
THE 39 STEPS is a heart-racing spy story by Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho), following Richard Hannay (Oscar winner Robert Donat of Goodbye, Mr. Chips), who stumbles into a conspiracy that thrusts him into a hectic chase across the Scottish moors—a chase in which he is both the pursuer and the pursued—as well as into an expected romance with the cool Pamela (Madeline Carroll). Adapted from a novel by John Buchan, this classic wrong-man thriller from the Master of Suspense anticipates the director’s most famous works (especially North by Northwest), and remains one of his cleverest and most entertaining films.
39 Steps, The (1935) | Review
Blu-ray Criterion Collection
The internal pamphlet features an essay by David Cairns called "Thirty-Nine Steps To Happiness." It's Cairns' words that provide a background for the use of Scotland, the purpose of the MacGuffin, and the development of the story from John Buchan's novel to Hitchcock's cinematic delivery. If you prefer the type of thing where someone, here the expert Marian Keane, talks to you throughout, then the optional audio commentary will do the trick.
Additional features on the Blu-ray disc include "Hitchcock The Early Years" (Steps is only a dozen years into his career), as well as various takes on the man himself and his methods. I'd never really watched a Hitchcock movie from that perspective before, and it proves to be quite "alarming." As in when a woman's scream turns into a train whistle. Or when a spy uses gunfire to create a distraction and an unsuspecting man takes her home, learns her mission, and takes it on for himself when she's murdered...
I mean, that's ridiculous, isn't it? But Hitchcock drew us in with his opening segue into the theater and he keeps us step-by-step with his hero, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), as he proceeds to go riding the train and dodging the police, and romping about the Scottish crags. We don't actually know what Hannay's lady spy was up to but we know that Hannay is being pursued and feels emphatically certain that he must flee.
It seems that is often the Hitchcock way: we know what he deemed necessary for us to know enough to care and become involved, but never enough to solve what is actually going on ahead of time. It is quite a bit like another British mystery spinner, Agatha Christie. But Hitchcock doesn't pedal on the thoughts or emotions we have wrapped around standing characters; he builds a new story each time and wraps us in quickly.
In Hannay's case, we find ourselves asking, "how far would we go to prove our innocence?" Would the truth really set us free in this situation? How could we prove our innocence or the situation that we find ourselves in? Hannay's validation finally comes, but it takes a long time to get to those "thirty-nine steps." Somehow, Hitchcock makes the time fly by as if we were hardly ever there.
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