The 39 Steps (1935)

20 12 2012

Hitchcock’s British period is a bit of a blind spot for me, and I’ll readily admit that in all likelihood, I won’t be able to bring much insight into these films, but I’ve decided to write about this one anyway. It’s close to being my favorite of his, but I get the impression that if I dive deeper into his earlier period, I’ll have similar positive experiences. I’m not going to use this space to launch into an attack on one of the most canonized filmmakers of all-time, especially since I don’t hate him. Most of Hollywood work, though, with the exception of North by Northwest, has always left me cold. This is probably because it came before I ever had any appreciation for genre, but that’s another story entirely.


This is a classic “wrong man” setup that has become something of Hitchcock’s trademarks. Richard Hannay meets Anabella Smith and he takes her to his place following her request. She warns him that she’s being watched and needs to stay the night. He wakes up to find a knife in her back. Hannay becomes the suspect, which leads him to being chased all over Scotland. It turns out Anabella’s murder came from the orders of Professor Jordan, who wanted to prevent her from releasing information. Hannay’s fugitive run leads him to Pamela. She becomes literally attached to him with hand cuffs, which leads to a romantic getaway.


The story here is pretty complicated, and there was a time when I would have criticized him for such a ridiculously intricate plot. To his credit, though, it unfolds naturally. Surely, the story itself is ridiculous enough just in its content, but this seems like complaining that the Bible is too religious. It’s these sort of stories that make up Hitchcock’s personality and it’s his legacy for making these movies not seem convoluted. It’s especially impressive here as such a complicated story is confined within the 85 minute running time. Hitchcock’s wit seems even sharper when the rest of the elements are building up so quickly.


Most of this fast-talking “witty” dialogue can be hit or miss, and most of the biggest punch-lines seem too close to Hitchcock’s pen to actually feel like the natural thoughts of the performers. For someone who finds himself in the unluckiest of situations, Hannay seems to have an equally potent level of wit and improvisation. He adapts maybe a little too quickly to the enormous curve ball that is the story. Cary Grant seemed (charmingly) stupid at first when put in a similar situation in North by Northwest but that film obviously has the time to extend that character’s learning curve. Donat’s performance as Hannay is charming, of course, but almost mechanically so, too much seems to contributed from Hitchcock’s pen (or Ian Hay’s) that the performance could have been delivered from anybody.


From my own limited experience with earlier Hitchcock, I struggle to not compare it to the American genre films of the time. The biggest difference might be in what I just mentioned: too much in the script, and not enough in the actual performance, stripping the film away from some vitality. It’s still wonderfully entertaining. It’s not calculated tone seems actually very screwball in nature. Indeed, the sequence with Hannay and Pamela running around in the middle of Scotland bears a striking resemblance to the extended outdoors scene in Bringing Up Baby. Once again, I think there’s “more” to the characters, because the form requires the filmmaker to flesh them out. The couple here is a bit more dull and their romantic potential seems like just another bizarre circumstance. Still, this a wonderfully crafted and economic thriller. It’s hard to get too angry about its faults.




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