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The 39 Steps

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Robert Donat, Madeline Carroll

(US DVD: 26 Jun 2012)

Review [5.Nov.2009]

Becoming Hitchcock

“Have you ever heard of the 39 Steps?”

Lucie Mannheim asks this of Robert Donat’s Hannay in Hithcock’s early masterpiece. We have to wait ‘til the end to find out the meaning of this mysterious phrase, in part because Mannheim’s “Mrs. Smith” gets quickly dispatched, setting Hannay off on his anti-hero’s journey as a suspected murderer trying to get to the bottom of a secret plot.

Hitchcock was well on his was to becoming Hitchcock by 1935. He had already discovered his signature style in the 1927 The Lodger. The 39 Steps features voyeuristic camera work, exchanges in a train car in which the camera moves with the eye to suggest the antagonistic nature of human relationships, and always, always the possibility of violence shimmering beneath every image.

The film also featured his off-kilter humor that could blend murder with jokes about women’s underwear. The knife in the back of a foreign agent leads to a joke about a milkman, male camaraderie and the humor in extramarital dalliance (and its possible consequences).

Hitchcock was, in other words, well on his way to finding that sweet, dark spot in the western consciousness where he did his most important work. In the decades to come, Vertigo, Strangers on a Train and Psycho issued forth from that peculiar cultural space, providing generations with his signature combination of horrified screams and mordant laughter in the dark.

39 Steps puts his emerging powers on full display. Other than one of his early chases featuring an aircraft, this film includes a train chase sequence more than little harrowing for a 1935 film. Hitchcock knew how to add disturbing levity to the mix with barking dogs in the baggage car and shots from the fugitive’s perspective that actually seemed to threaten the audience with a fall to their deaths from the trestle bridge.

Even more effectively, he knew how to take it down just a notch, to prevent the drama from becoming melodrama. In the famous chase on the train, he distracts us with a waiter about to drop a heavy tray and a fight between train guards, police and porters about whether or not it’s lawful to stop a train on a bridge.

In other words, he could already play us like a violin, already create suspense without ever, ever coming close to the cheap thrill or the easy scare.

Other than the chases and the camera that works with the human eye to spy out the darkest secrets human beings keep in their hearts, fans of this film remember well the opening sequence. Hitchcock takes us into a rowdy British music hall. “Mr. Memory” whose ability to remember fifty facts a day, ranging from the distance from Winnipeg to Manitoba to the age of Mae West, is the entertainment. Amidst this beautiful recreation of the old music hall tradition from which came so many of the tropes of modern entertainment, hots ring out in the midst of the performance.  But it was a red herring tossed by the smoky, foreign-accented beauty “Mrs. Smith” to create a panic, to get away and to begin the suspense.

He’s already practicing the Hitchcock McGuffin on us, the misdirection, the ability to make us think we are about to experience one thing and then remind us that he’s in control. This ability would reach its full fruition in Psycho as he prepared us for a suspense thriller that became a horror film.

The extras are as substantial as you might expect from a Criterion release. In the supplements for 39 Steps, Hitchcock fans will find a treasure trove.

If you’ve never seen the 1966 Cinema interview where the master discusses his early years of writing and production design, you are in for a treat. All of the available, if limited, footage from the interview appears here. Hitchcock somewhat unwillingly shares the story of how he begun direction, an opportunity that emerged out of conflict with a director who refused to work with the brilliant young art and design ingenue .

This interview is also notable for a discussion of his infamous comments about actors being cattle. Hitchcock actually doesn’t climb down from that argument very much, comparing them to children and essentially saying that what he wants out of an actor is the ability to look interesting smoking a cigarette. There’s obviously some element of self-parody at work here but its footage that helped build his image as an auteur.

Supplemental materials also include a short documentary. Unfortunately, at least some of this doc functions as one of the “in my opinion, Hitchcock is among the greatest of twentieth century directors” sort. Really, you think so? The documentary does give us a good, quick tour of Hitchcock’s early British films, including, of course, 39 Steps.

Other than the Cinema interview, Criterion included an excellent film school supplement on the visual style of Hitchcock guided by Leonard Leff. Leff includes material from a famous discussion between Hitchcock and Truffaut that deals with Hitchcock lack of interest in the plausible. “If a critic speaks to me of plausibility,” he says, “I call him a dull fellow.” 

The extras several times allude to perhaps the most Hitchcockian element that appears for one of the first times in 39 Steps, the idea of “moronic logic”. Hitchcock was always aware that his plots stretched credulity, that the “morons” in his audience who didn’t understand why suspending disbelief was so essential to all art forms, would demand to know how his characters got themselves entangled in such “implausible” horrors.

So Hitchcock, here and elsewhere, dealt with the problems of “moronic logic” setting up circumstances that put his poor characters into untenable situations. He would use this again in North by Northwest, coming up with circumstances that ratcheted the suspense while they answered the plausibility questions of the morons.

39 Steps hardly ever comes up on anyone’s list for their favorite Hitchcock, but this release offers the opportunity to revisit it by looking at the best print available. It also has the best audio possible. Be warned that while its an improvement on earlier releases it does have the creaky authenticity of 1935.

Most importantly, it joins The Lodger in giving us the trajectory of Hitchcock becoming Hitchcock, an apprentice in the world of suspense well on his way to becoming its master.


Extras rating:

W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.

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