The 39 Steps

        Despite having made such Hollywood films as Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960) — to name just a few of his many great movies — there are some who make the case that Alfred Hitchcock actually did his finest work in England, prior to his move across the Atlantic (his first American film, Rebecca, in 1940, would be his only to ever win a Best Picture Academy Award).

In this view, 1935's The 39 Steps, just released on a new Criterion Collection Blu-ray, is a picture typically cited as one of his British best. It’s not difficult to see why. The 39 Steps, aside from featuring much of what we would come to associate with Hitchcock’s unique style, is simply a hugely entertaining film. It’s brisk, funny, suspenseful, and, given its construction, where scenes are acted out in rigidly established set pieces, it is remarkably economical in terms of aesthetic and narrative.

While making films in England, Hitchcock was not known exclusively as a director of thrillers. He dabbled in a variety of genres. He was not yet the Master of Suspense. But from his silent masterpiece The Lodger (1927) to The Lady Vanishes (1938) he no doubt excelled in the form. The 39 Steps, which refers to an ambiguous code name for an ambiguous group of spies, is a prime example.

Shots ring out at a music hall and Hannay (Robert Donat) ends up fleeing with a "Miss Smith" (Lucie Mannheim). The shots, it turns out, were from her gun. She was trying to stop a group of spies from receiving secrets detrimental to England. She fears the spies are now on her trail and, subsequently, also after Hannay. Back in his apartment, a glimpse out his window confirms this. Over night, the spies somehow make their way into his flat and kill the girl. Hannay manages to escape and becomes, in archetypal Hitchcock fashion, the wrong man in over his head in a situation he doesn't fully understand. This is a theme Hitch would revisit time and time again. In The 39 Steps we also see the emergence of another famously frequent Hitchcock component: the blonde. After some initial and prolonged reluctance to side with Hannay, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) becomes stuck with the fugitive. Though not buying his story at first, she gets the proof she needs and their relationship becomes solidified. But can they discontinue their bickering long enough to figure out who is after Hannay, and why, what do they want, and why does he continue to hum that strange tune?

Pamela doesn't quite have the icy composure that would characterize many of Hitchcock's later leading ladies, but Hannay is certainly one of the filmmaker's most interesting and compelling male figures. Donat performs in a perfectly understated, very wry, very British manner. Mostly he's calm, cool, and collected, and frequently very funny.

A third element at work in The 39 Steps, another that would remain in Hitchcock's later films, is the MacGuffin. This is basically a plot device ostensibly driving the film, one quickly becoming inconsequential to the audience. These features are merely a pretense for the action, the drama, and the romance. This goes along with Hitchcock's penchant for blatantly disregarding logistical issues, parts of the plot that perhaps defy reasonable explanation. Why do the spies not kill Hannay when they're in his apartment? What information are the spies after? What exactly are the 39 steps? Who cares.

Now I have to admit, I am certainly not in the camp that prefers Hitchcock's British films to those he made in America. As good as The 39 Steps is, and it is very good, it still represents to me more of a preview of what's to come. Visually and thematically, many of the Hitchcock hallmarks are there, as they were in several of his better English pictures, but for whatever reason the director was most profoundly able to flourish in the Hollywood system. Still, if you want to see some wonderful Hitchcock films made before the filmmaker was an icon of the cinema, The 39 Steps is an excellent selection to start with; I would also suggest The Lodger, Blackmail (1929 - Hitch's pioneering first sound film), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Secret Agent and Sabotage (both 1936).


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