One of the great joys of AVForums’ commitment to covering the BFI Top 100 films, is that it gives us the opportunity to take a look at some older classic movies on Blu-ray and on this occasion to a very important film in the career of Alfred Hitchcock, ‘The 39 Steps’. There have been three movie versions of John Buchan’s novel with Hitchcock’s being the first in 1935. After a long gap it was remade in 1959 starring Kenneth More in a film that made you wonder why they hadn’t left the original alone. Then in 1978, a further and more successful remake directed by Don Sharp and starring Robert Powell with a great British cast hit the big screen. There have also been several TV versions of varying quality over the years. Despite this, the Hitchcock one is the most atmospheric, entertaining and involving – but try explaining that to the ‘yoof’ of today who can’t understand why anyone would make a film in black-and-white and not in a widescreen aspect ratio with surround sound.
It was made during Hitchcock’s early period when he also directed ‘Young & Innocent’, ‘Blackmail’ and ‘The Lady Vanishes’ among others. While the body of the picture came from the novel, there were certain things that were pure Hitchcock, such as the opening at the Music Hall where we meet Mr Memory for the first time. Looking back over his films, this was yet another use of the recurring theme where an innocent man is wrongly accused of a murder and has to set out to find the guilty party in order to clear his own name. Many consider ‘The 39 Steps’ to be the forerunner of ‘North By Northwest’ and, when it’s pointed out to you, there are indeed many similarities – allowing for many Hitchcockian additions and developments. Its release on Region B locked Blu-ray is courtesy of ITV-DVD who have provided a version that opens with the original British Board of Film Censors certificate.
We first encounter our hero, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) as he arrives at a Music Hall, where Mr Memory displays his talent for memorising facts by answering questions put to him by members of the audience. As a fight breaks out, Hannay leaves in the company of the exotic Annabelle Smith (Lucie Mannheim) who seems quite keen to go back to his place. “It’s your funeral,” quips Hannay, unaware of just how prophetic his remark will turn out to be. The next morning he discovers that she’s been killed and finds himself in the frame for her murder. What else can a chap do, but set out to prove his innocence – and so begins a chase that takes him by rail to Scotland. On the train, he uses a young lady (Madeleine Carroll) as cover when the Police pass by the compartment – who promptly turns him in. Pulling the communication cord, he escapes via the slam door to dangle perilously from the Forth Rail Bridge before taking to the Scottish Highlands on foot in search of the murderer. As he arrives at a small croft, the owner - played by John Laurie of ‘Dad’s Army’ fame (“We’re doomed Captain Mainwaring, doooomed!”) does nothing to improve the national reputation of the Scots for philanthropy by agreeing to put him up for a small fee. John Laurie is great in this role as the gaunt featured farmer, who is instantly suspicious of the handsome stranger’s intentions to his much younger wife. The close up of Laurie’s shifting eyes as the three say grace before eating is almost silent movie stuff, but there’s great comedy here. Hitchcock’s taste in black humour surfaces on many occasion, but one that may well escape the notice of many people is that on the map pointing to the house at Alt-na shellach, is the highlighting of Killin – an actual place in Scotland but one that Hitch thought particularly apt.
On his travels, Hannay meets up with Pamela again (the lady on the train) only to be handcuffed to her while trying to escape the villain of the piece. As they fetch up at the Argyle Inn they pose as a young, newly married couple and end up in a room together. The scene where she takes off her wet nylons is quite erotic as Hannay is still handcuffed to her at this point. As his hand ends up on her knee, in a moment of true comedy she puts a sandwich in his hand just to keep him busy. Bear in mind also that back in 1935, a close up of a woman’s legs revealing her stocking tops was incredibly risqué. It’s all very cleverly handled in its use of the comedy element to overcome any lecherous intent in the mind of the Censor.
One of my favourite scenes in the movie is where Hannay, while on the run, is mistaken for an English Politician visiting Scotland to support the new local MP. As he takes to the stage, you wonder how he’s going to carry it off by making up a speech on the spot as his potential captors attempt to surround him. His speech is witty and amusing as he digs himself out of one hole after another – the best being where he mis-reads the MP’s name as McCrocodile to the hilarity of the Scottish audience. As they rib him for not knowing his own party member’s name, he says it’s the affectionately meant nickname they have for him in Westminster.
While it may not be possible to say that the film looks as if it was shot yesterday, it has an authentic period feel to it that helps the story along very nicely indeed. What we have here is the work of a master storyteller, who knew how to involve an audience and make them actually care about the plight of the central character. Many of today’s directors who seem to satisfy themselves with overblown, CGI laden action sequences could really improve their movies by learning from Hitchcock. I don’t know why the very recent Tom Cruise actioner ‘Knight and Day’ popped into my head in this context. It would be their first step towards producing more satisfying movies. Just another 38 steps to go and their film may become almost as good as a movie made in 1935.
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