#313 The 39 Steps

(1935, Alfred Hitchcock)

“I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me, and those are things that no men or women ought to feel”

Hitchcock was an awesome director, as we’ve already established here on SvTM, but I find that much of his best work came during his later years as a filmmaker, and I’ve found it harder to get into some of his earlier British work. But I’m not giving up, as today we’ll be looking at another of his early British works and seeing how well it holds up today. Let’s examine The 39 Steps.

In typical Hitchcock style, The 39 Steps is about a man who ends up wrongfully accused of something he doesn’t fully understand. Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian on holiday in London, attends a performance by Mr Memory, a performer who claims he can remember all manner of facts. During the performance, shots are fired, and Hannay finds himself trying to help a woman named Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who reveals herself to be a spy, prompting Hannay to end up in an adventure of espionage and mystery.

The 39 Steps is a movie from Britain made before 1990. As a result, it suffers the same problem as every other pre-1990 British movie suffers from – it’s incredibly stiff and awkward. Character interactions are persistently marred by an insistent politeness and an obsessive fear of showing any kind of emotion. This, of course, affects the film before it even begins. It’s most notable in Hannay’s rather flat response to a random woman following him home and announcing that she’s a spy, which feels like a big thing that would elicit more questions than he seems willing to ask.

Fortunately, Hitchcock managed to tap through it a little. Just a little, mind, but it’s something. Some of the dry wit does feel dry in a way that’s genuinely amusing, there’s a sense of attraction between Hannay and his unwitting partner, Pamela (Madeline Carroll), and there are plenty of action-packed moments to hold the film together.

That said, The 39 Steps is a confused movie. While it’s not hard to follow by any means, there’s a feeling that things don’t piece together nearly as well as they do in later Hitchcock movies. Pamela is introduced quite late in the movie, an encounter with a mysterious professor seems to happen too soon, and generally moving from one scene to another feels slightly haphazard, as if it was all made up on the fly.

I think part of the reason the movie flows as well as it does despite these issues is because Hannay is a likeable protagonist. A witty and sarcastic chap, Hannay faces up to a lot of the weirdness he ends up wrapped up in with humour and quips. He clearly isn’t too pleased by what’s happened, but he seems to take it in his stride, and the audience ends up coasting along with him. At times his reactions can feel a little unrealistic and silly, but he’s so likeable that you really don’t care.

I also felt that much of the movie’s set pieces were hugely entertaining, from Hannay sliding across a train carriage to escape pursuers to a scene where he’s forced to give a political speech because he ducked through the wrong door at the wrong time. The central mystery is also intriguing enough that it keeps the film moving even when the film seems determined to not give you a direct answer.

The conclusion was also immensely satisfying, bringing everything full circle and wrapping things up nicely enough, leaving some ambiguities to keep us thinking even after the credits have rolled. It doesn’t answer everything but it concludes things nicely enough.

Overall, The 39 Steps is a good movie, but suffers from British stiffness that prevents it from being a great one. Makes for a good career starter for Hitchcock though.

Starring Robert Donat, Madeline Carroll, Lucie Mannheim & Godfrey Tearle
Written by John Buchan (novel) and Charles Bennett & Ian Hay
Produced by Michael Balcon
Music by Jack Beaver & Louis Levy
Cinematography by Bernard Knowles
Edited by Derek N. Twist

Favourite Scene: The scene where Hannay finds himself mistaken for a political candidate is hugely entertaining.
Scene That Bugged Me: A gunshot being stopped by a book continues to be implausible.

Watch it if: You want to see some of Hitchcock’s history
Avoid it if: You need the title explained to you immediately

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Posted on October 7, 2014, in 1930s, Mystery, Thriller, United Kingdom and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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