Sunday, July 22, 2012

Have You Ever Heard Of The 39 Steps?

The 39 Steps(1935)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim

Alfred Hitchcock is probably the most famous director of all time. He made several of the most stylish and thrilling films ever made and became an expert on build-up, creating a level of tension and shock that got him labelled, "the master of suspense." However, few of his films can be described as horror films, and most are actually pleasant and romantic, with small(but effective) jolts of terror. The man was brilliant at lulling the audience in with false security, always able to deliver a sucker punch to his audience when they least expected it. The 39 Steps is an important film in his career, because it's really where the model for all his future success stems from.
Now, Hitchcock had made several interesting films for the best part of a decade before this film, including his highly German expressionist influenced silent films, like the original version of The Lodger(1926) and a few charming comedies. However, it was this film that set the template, not just for the director's future classics, but for the entire spy and "man on the lam" films to follow.

Unlike, other reviews I have written, it's difficult for me to give away most of the plot, considering the nature of the film. The film begins in a music hall, where a stage act is presented, revolving around Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) who can answer any question he is asked. Of course, the rowdies in the place largely ask silly questions, though one man, Hannay(Robert Donat) asks an innocent one about the distance between Winnipeg and Montreal, since he is Canadian. He is also our hero, and shortly after he has his question answered, gun shots sound off and people begin to empty the place. Hannay runs into Annabelle Smith(Lucie Mannheim), who urges that she go home with him. The seductive European claims to be on the run from two men, because she is a spy. Hannay thinks she's full of it, but feels she is in some sort of trouble and allows her to stay at his flat. She mentions that she is to meet a man in Scotland and that she is part of something called, "The 39 Steps." Hannay pays little attention to all this, until a scream wakes him up in the middle of the night, and Miss Smith falls dead in his bed with a knife in her back!
Hannay is frightened and realizes that she wasn't kidding and that the men after her, will likely be after him next. Changing clothes with the milkman, Hannay takes off and grabs a train, where he soon finds the authorities on his heels again. He ends up in the Scottish countryside, trying to find the Professor, whom Smith was to see, hoping to clear himself, while trying to evade both police and agents, as well as a mysterious character, missing his pinky finger...
Most of the structure here sounds awfully familiar, but this is the one that started it all. The plot is very similar to the more famous, North By Northwest(1959), where Cary Grant finds himself in similar circumstances. There's also a romance on hand, though not with a secret agent. Madeleine Carroll portrays Pamela, a woman that Hannay first finds on the train and is later runs into at a political meeting, where Hannay tries to disguise himself as a speaker, and surprisingly, wins over the people! They end up handcuffed together and race across the countryside and a romance develops. The chemistry between Donat and Carroll is wonderful and they play off the sexual tension rather well, especially in a scene where Carroll removes her stockings, with Donat's hand handcuffed, feeling every motion.
This was to be the structure for most future Hitchcock films, with a light romance playing out against a backdrop of intrigue and suspicion. And certainly, there's also of intrigue, as Hannay encounters several memorable episodes, such as meeting a farmer and his sympathetic wife, and the mysterious Professor, as well as a disbelieving Sheriff, all whom seem to have a connection to "The 39 Steps," which we eventually do learn about in one of the greatest surprise endings of all time, which I have to restrain myself from giving away here, fully.

The 39 Steps is a very fun movie with all the right ingredients for a successful mystery/adventure. Hitchcock finds himself at this point in his career, melding a clever and witty script with oodles of suspense, for once the chase begins here, it never lets up. Many of the scenes depicted within, were borrowed by later filmmakers, and at the same time, the blasted countryside of Scotland, resembles something from German Expressionism. There's a tense feeling throughout, as the audience, along with Robert Donat, are kept guessing to what will occur next and will he be able to clear his name. It's a testament to the director's genius that he is able to sustain a mood, while not overpowering the proceedings.
Several great moments abound, including the revelation of the man with the lost pinky, which effectively introduces one of Hitchcock's most memorable and sophisticated villains, as well as the final reveal of The 39 Steps, when it is explained, only to end in an abrupt and fatal manner. "The 39 steps is an Organization of spies collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of..." Bam! Try not to jump out of your seats, when this bit occurs, because it packs a wallop.
Robert Donat, one of my favorite British actors, is always charming and likable, and this may be his best remembered role, perhaps even more so than his definitive, The Count of Monte Cristo(1934). He sets the template for everyone from Cary Grant to James Bond, with his impeccable wit and intelligence, making him a hero that we can root for and that can act as a believable romantic lead. The script serves him well, with several light moments to offshoot the darker mood of the story and Madeleine Carroll is an excellent leading lady and foil, for Donat's character. It's interesting that the second billed Carroll, only appears for a minute in the first half hour and is dropped for nearly another half hour, before returning! Her banter between Donat is fun and the chemistry is apparent and lightens the mood, considerably.
Hitchcock's attention to even minor characters is remarkable, take for example, the farmer's wife(Peggy Ashcroft) who is given considerable sympathy, as she saves Donat from her husband and the authorities, knowing full well that she will be beaten for her actions. It's a small role, but an interesting one, full of nuance. Frank Cellier's Sheriff almost appears as a savior to Donat, but turns out to be a pigheaded fool, who may or may not be in cahoots with the villains of the film, which are largely unseen. It does a lot for the story and helps build the uncertainty of the surroundings of which Donat has become involved with. We are never sure who to trust and who is actually as they appear, a formula that would be used time and again in subsequent spy films throughout the years.

The 39 Steps is one of the great mystery films ever made and one of the best films of Hitchcock's career. It's a clever and funny film, brimming with wit and suspense, and keeps you guessing throughout, and like any great mystery, it also stands up to repeat viewings. The key scenes still do the business and work their magic, even after being seen a dozen or so times, and that's quite a feat. This film has been released on several DVD editions, since it has ended up in the public domain, though the best one available is the Criterion release. However, if that is too much, i'm sure Youtube has a copy to view...which I have posted below. If you haven't seen this one yet, do yourself a favor. It's one of the greats.

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