Thursday, September 8, 2011

The 39 Steps (1935)

"What are The 39 Steps?"

- Despite his household name and prestigious reputation as a brilliant filmmaker, few outside of the film buff world realize that director Alfred Hitchcock's career spanned across six decades and produced over sixty films (not to mention all the many years he carried out non-directorial duties inside the film industry). Hitch's career features diverse periods, ups and downs, not unlike renowned painters; in fact, the majority of his most-known films were made later in his career (such as Rear Window (1954), North By Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963)). Following the successful The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), his first film for the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, The 39 Steps (1935) was one of Hitchcock's first big hits and is still one of his most acclaims works. Like many film fans, I found The 39 Steps to be an impressive and entertaining Hitchcock thriller; however, I do not regard it quite as highly as the best of the very best of Hitchcock.

Robert Donat stars as Richard Hannay, a Canadian visitor to London. While attending a performance by "Mr. Memory" - a man who seemingly knows the answer to every question because of his uncanny memory -  shots rings out and Hannay escorts a frightened woman, Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), away from the panic-stricken music hall to his flat. Annabella is not using Hannay for what you might think; Annabella claims that she is a secret agent on the run from an international group of killers who want her dead because only she knows of a secret threat to Britain's national security. In a shocking turn of events, Annabella is murdered in Hannay's home - his own knife stuck in her back. Hoping to alert the authorities to the secret she knows, Annabella gives Hannay a marked-up map of Scotland and one seemingly nonsensical phrase, "39 Steps," before she dies. Holding information of severe national importance and with the evidence in Annabella's death against him, Hannay must evade the police as well as trained killers as he attempts to clear his name and save Britain at the same time. Hannay is not in Canada anymore.... The plot contains many Hitchcock staples; including but not limited to murder, espionage, MacGuffins, wrongly accused men on the run and Hitch's seeming obsession with trains. As usual, Hitchcock tells the story of Hannay's struggle for survival very well, keeping character at the heart of the story.

Hitchcock is considered, rightly so, the "Master of Suspense." However, he is also, in my mind, the "Master of the Suspension of Disbelief." Who besides Hitchcock could make a story about an insurance salesman-turned-CIA operative, Kamikaze birds or an oedipal killer not only entertaining but interesting and meaningful as well? Most story elements that seem far-fetched and would not work effectively in other films work perfectly in an Alfred Hitchcock film because Hitch finds a way to make them relatable and believable. However - without giving anything away - some aspects of the story are a little too far-fetched in The 39 Steps, even for Hitchcock, because they simply lack any logic at all.

This failure to keep the suspension of disbelief going for the entire 86 minute runtime, for me, is the biggest flaw in The 39 Steps; however, there is one other problem I had with the film. Hitchcock is known for slow-burning suspense but The 39 Steps sometimes cannot even warm up to a light boil. The film is not short on exciting or memorable scenes but too many times The 39 Steps features, as Hitchcock himself defined with distain, "pictures of people talking."

The 39 Steps is not a perfect film but it, nonetheless, manages to be a high-quality Hitchcock thriller thanks to the good performances and Hitchcock's masterful visuals. The performances are good all around - from supporters to leads, the cast is quite convincing. Robert Donat is a classic lead; a perfect fit for the wrongly accused, fish-out-of water Hannay trying to clear him of a crime he did not commit and attempting a mission that he is not qualified to carry out. Madeleine Carroll really excels in her role as Pamela, an innocence bystander at the wrong place at the wrong time who is dragged into Hannay's dangerous predicament. A role far ahead of the times, Pamela is no damsel in distress; she can take care of herself just fine and helps Hannay along the way. The performances are compelling but Hitchcock's visuals are especially noteworthy. All of the things that Hitchcock is known for - interesting angles, atmospheric lighting, etc. - appear to great effect but The 39 Steps is also memorable in how Hitch beautifully puts the Scottish Moors on screen.

It is easy to see why The 39 Steps is considered by many as one of Alfred Hitchcock's finest films: the plot contains many elements that make Hitchcock a wonderful storyteller, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll create compelling lead characters and the visuals are stellar. But while The 39 Steps technically impressed and entertained me, it did not contain enough for me to echo the same amount of praise as others give the film. In my view, The 39 Steps is a flawed classic 1930s Hitchcock thriller that would lay the ground work for future brilliant Hitchcock films.

CBC Rating: 8/10

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