Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): *****
Every hero has a beginning. At least, that’s what we’re taught by the Hollywood/comic book nexus that sees fit to shove a reboot/origin story into theaters every year or two. And Criterion’s Blu-Ray release (also on DVD) of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) lays bare the beginnings of an unequaled cinematic hero. The film is Hitchcock concentrate, a microcosm of the style and subjects that would mark the master’s five-decade career. Arguably, the period when he made his “thriller sextet” – which consists of Steps, the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage, Secret Agent, Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes – is the epoch where Hitchcock-the-man became Hitchcock-the-adjective.
The difficulty in reviewing The 39 Steps is not gushing too much. On a personal level, it was the first Hitchcock I ever saw and it led to a rather severe habit. Between Steps and Touch of Evil, my obsessive movie-viewing metastasized into full-blown cinephilia. Another huge fan of the film was Ernest Lehman, who heavily referenced Steps when writing "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures," North By Northwest.
The 39 Steps is based on the taut adventure novella of the same name by John Buchan. In one of the many supplements to the Bluray, Francois Truffaut interviews Hitchcock, asking him what drew him to adapt Buchan’s novel. “Understatement of highly dramatic facts,” Hitchcock replies. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about Steps – in both book and film form -- is its deceptive simplicity, the “understatement” of its near-constant tension.
The film opens in a music hall where Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) performs mental feats before a packed crowd, which includes the bemused Richard Hannay (Robert Donat). The act is interrupted by a volley of gunfire and Hannay, via a few light twists, ends up taking Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) – the perpetrator of the gunshots – home to his flat. Over drinks, Smith divulges a few vague details about a sinister international plot and, subsequently, is murdered by an unknown assailant. Hannay is left holding the knife and spends the remainder of the film’s 85 minutes dodging the police and the crime syndicate, all the while trying to prove his innocence and thwart the doomsday plot. Along the way, he becomes entangled with the plucky, beautiful Pamela (Madeline Carrol), a woman who – like Hannay – is an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances.
A wrongly accused man being pursued by both sides of the law while trying to track down a shadowy menace … as I said, The 39 Steps is Hitchcock at his most unadulterated. Buchan’s book uses the threadbare plot to luxuriate in the setting – Scotland’s mythical Highlands. Hitchcock also employs the windswept, haunting Highlands but manages to boil the plot down even further, into a string of thrilling vignettes and set pieces that are often barely connected to the titular mystery of the 39 Steps, which is little more than one of Hitch’s best uses of his beloved MacGuffin.
Hannay’s pursuit takes the episodic structure of a road movie; there’s a narrow escape from a train crawling with police detectives, a brief asylum in the home of a crusty, abusive farmer and his wide-eyed, accommodating wife, and the inevitable confrontation with the enemy in his lair. Each section is its own hermetically sealed mini-thriller. Hitchcock builds tension using tiny, simple details, carefully edited together into point-counterpoint structure. What struck me this time around is the veritable lack of a button-pushing musical score (only when romance is finally struck, late in the film, do the strings come in). Most of the film’s suspense is reliant on the expert sound design; rushing water, bleating sheep, the thwipping of helicopter blades, and the prehistoric screech of a train whistle deftly replace music. Most brilliant is the use of the oblivious laughter of extras – in the concert halls, on the train, etc – at wholly inappropriate moments to heighten Hannay’s discomfort and underscore his alienation.
Another favorite Hitchcockism (which is also a Buchan-ism) is the depiction of savagery cloaked in polite society. “I live here as a respectable citizen,” the leader of the sinister syndicate reasonably intones to Hannay, “and you must realize that my whole existence would be jeopardized if it became known that I’m not… what I seem.” Sure, the debonair devil/civilized criminal is a bit of a familiar chestnut. Many of the other charms of The 39 Steps are tropes now – hell, they might have been tropes in 1935 – but Hitchcock knew better than anyone how to underplay and invert clichés, alchemizing them into new excitements. The 39 Steps is just as fresh and vital today as it was nearly eighty years ago.
The Blu-Ray is especially revelatory; as many times as I’ve seen Steps over the years, the print has never been this clear. The whimsical, detailed set design is fully visible, down to the advertisements for The Man Who Knew Too Much hanging in the train terminal. The disc comes loaded with supplements especially for Hitchcock obsessives. Particularly good is the new visual essay by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff, which places The 39 Steps and its style and themes within the greater context of Hitchcock’s filmography.
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