‘The 39 Steps’ comes to UK Region B locked Blu-ray with a rather disappointing 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer framed in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Over the last 30 years, I’ve never actually seen a good print of this film, either shown on TV or on any video format. Okay it was released in 1935, but ‘King Kong’ was released in 1933 and it looks excellent by comparison although it’s not so much the year that matters as how well the original elements were handled at the time of release and thereafter. The film is not terribly sharp, there is noticeable grain, blacks tend to be a bit grey, contrast isn’t quite as good as it could be and there are occasional light neg scratches as well as other damage to catch the eye. It appears that some attempt has been made, using noise reduction techniques and automated clean up tools, to improve the transfer but this comes with other trade offs in picture quality. I believe the source print was probably the best available, but that a lot of the damage was done early on in the life of the film. Back in 1935, the likelihood is that many release prints were struck directly from the original cut negs (time and again) causing resultant wear that has only been amplified by subsequent duping. At the end of the day, the Blu-ray is probably the best we can expect given a limited budget, and therefore time allocated, for restoration. There is no bite to the image. It makes your heart sink. Interestingly, I found that it looked better projected on my 7 foot screen than on the 50 inch Plasma. All the same, perhaps a film of the stature of ‘The 39 Steps’ should be given a full and extensive restoration before being released on Blu-ray, but if the quality of the source material is so poor then it may well be a case of flogging a dead horse. It’s sad to see it like this.
The audio on ‘The 39 Steps’ comes in a Dolby Digital 2.0 track with the original mono sound duplicated on the left and right channels. It sounds like a vintage optical sound track although some effort has been made to clean it up. A lot of the snap, crackle and pop is gone but if you wind up the wick a bit there’s still some underlying hiss. Dialogue is clear enough, but if you shut your eyes you can picture the massive noisy camera in its own sound booth with the old square microphone hanging from a boom just above the actors’ heads. The music sounds of its time too, but I’m really glad nobody tried to produce a 5.1 channel mix. That would have been truly horrible.
Audio Commentary - Film scholar, Marian Keene provides us with a scene by scene dissection of ‘The 39 Steps’ taking into account things like camera angle, motivation and Hitchcock’s objectives. We hear of his love of using a high angle shot to forewarn the audience of something ominous about to happen. This ought to be fascinating, but it sounds too much like she’s reading an essay and her voice becomes monotonous. She’s certainly thorough as there aren’t too many gaps and she compares sequences to those from other Hitchcock movies such as ‘North By Northwest’. It reminded me of listening to a college lecturer who we unkindly referred to as Mr Soporific, but it would be ideal research for anyone studying the film on a media course.
The Art of Film Video Featurette (HD, 29 mins) - Part 7 of a series by Janus Films, this vintage Hitchcock documentary - narrated by Douglas Fairbanks Jr - traces his rise from Title card illustrator for Famous Players Lasky, through his time at UFA studios in Berlin where he was heavily influenced by the great German expressionist G.W. Papst, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. With lengthy chunks from some of his early productions including ‘Young and Innocent’, ‘Blackmail’ and ‘The Lady Vanishes’ we see the development of his own emerging style. Great for film buffs but it looks as if a fuzzy, ropey old print has been mastered via a milk bottle lens to SD and then upscaled to HD. I had to refocus my eyes on a distant object afterwards.
Lux Radio Show Audio Feature (Audio only, 60 mins) - Sponsored by Lever Brothers (makers of Lux soap) this great 1937 radio show stars Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino in their version of ‘The 39 Steps’. It’s also a good opportunity to hear legendary Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille hosting the broadcast. The best thing about radio is that your imagination provides superb pictures.
On Location (SD, 13 mins) - Actor Robert Powell (who played Hannay in 1978) takes us to the locations used by three versions of ‘The 39 Steps’ - the 1935 Hitchcock version, the 1959 Kenneth More version and the 1978 version, directed by Don Sharp. We visit the south steps of the Albert Hall, the London Palladium, The Forth Rail Bridge and the Scottish Highlands. Clips from the movies are intercut with more recent shots of the locations, so we can see how little they’ve changed.
Photo Galleries - Here we have two separate galleries of stills from the movie. The first covers On Set Photography with wonderfully lit scenes, while the other covers Posters and Publicity and includes some lovely hand tinted Lobby Cards from the period of the film’s release. I just wish the quality of the movie transfer was as good as the stills.
That early Hitchcock classic ‘The 39 Steps’ is available on UK Region B locked Blu-ray with a rather disappointing looking 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer framed in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Sharpness, contrast and blacks aren’t as good as you’d expect from Blu-ray but it looks like it has had a limited digital restoration.
The original mono sound is carried on a Dolby Digital 2.0 track that has had some age related snap, crackle and pop removed but some low level hiss remains – although dialogue is clear throughout.
A commentary track, a couple of featurettes and some photo galleries make up the extras on this release from ITV-DVD.
The film itself is engrossing, involving and entertaining with Hitchcock’s take on the John Buchan novel and good performances from Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll.
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