d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 86 mins.
If The 39 Steps were a restaurant (I know how weird this sounds, just stick with me), it would be that cozy hole-in-the-wall that is never crowded because most people don't really know how great it actually is.
At least that's the impression I often get from discussions of Alfred Hitchcock's films. There is to be no denying that the director's devotees and fans of cinema recognize and glorify this film, and they're right. But those with a more tangential acquaintance with the director's work may never have seen, or even heard of it before (as I once found out in a college film class devoted to Hitchcock). Too often his entire time in Britain is dismissed as a mere introductory trial period to filmmaking. Indeed, he did many displeasing films during that time, but he also made some damn good ones, The 39 Steps chief among them. It is a Hitchcock jewel – not only his best British film, but one of his ten best films period.
The film is Hitchcock's first serious take on a theme that would recur regularly: a wrongfully accused man who goes on the run, both for love of country and to exonerate himself. Hitchcock had been exploring wrongful accusations since The Lodger, but the transition into making the scenario something that is on-the-go (later in Saboteur and the masterful North by Northwest). In fact, there is a great deal in The 39 Steps that bears a contemporary feeling of familiarity; it's one of those movies whose sequences you've seen emulated a thousand times and it's never until you see them in their original incarnation that you realize how smart they – and perhaps more importantly, Hitchcock – really were.
The 39 Steps is loosely based on John Buchan's 1915 novel "The Thirty-nine Steps," and changing it from words to a numeral is among the subtlest of changes. In all actuality, the script barely keeps with Buchan's novel, which was the first in a series that followed the exploits of Richard Hannay. In the film, Hannay (Robert Donat) is a Canadian citizen who has innocently gone to see a vaudeville performance when he runs into a secret agent (Lucie Mannheim), urging him to take her home with him. Of course, it's 1935 so there's another reason she wants to go home with him, namely two other spies are targeting her for assassination. When they do her in, Hannay takes the information she's given him and goes on the run, worried the police will think he is her murderer and convinced her actual killers are now after him.
Charles Bennett, working under the director's guidance and only wanting "a cheap original I knew would pay for the milk," helped transform Buchan's work into something truly Hitchcockian – a grand espionage thriller and unabashed romance, with Hitchcock treating the source material like a cafeteria buffet, taking what served his purposes and leaving aside what didn't. From a writer's standpoint, it may sound crude and harsh to imagine Hitchcock literally picking the meat off the bones of your work, and surprisingly the key scenes of The 39 Steps – Hannay's escape across the Scottish highlands handcuffed to an attractive woman (Madeleine Carroll) who believes he is guilty; Mr. Memory, the vaudevillian act who emerges at strategic times; the safe-harbor of a skeptical farmer and his obliging wife – are utterly (and surprisingly) original to the film. But the result is the director's first masterpiece, so maybe there isn't much room to complain.
"The 39 steps," as a plot device, is again another of Hitchcock's remarkable inventions for the movie. In Buchan's novel, the thirty-nine steps are a tangible staircase leading from a German spy compound down to the ocean. I won't reveal what it is in the movie – if you've seen it, you know, and if you haven't, you shouldn't know. One of the best shots of the entire film is predicated on discovering what it is: the camera peers in a long shot from the backstage of a theater as Mr. Memory performs, and Hannay, being dragged from the theater by the police, suddenly yells out, "What are The 39 Steps? Answer me!" Vintage Hitchcock. It makes me smile just thinking about it.
One important aspect of The 39 Steps speaks to the director's sublime instincts. In Buchan's novel, there is no romantic interest, and the cool blonde Pamela, played by Carroll, is a wholesale Hitchcock creation. (He would do this later with Rear Window, where Lisa, the lovely Grace Kelly's socialite-turned-investigator character, was not mentioned at all in the original short story.) Hitchcock recognized the potential of this sort of triangulation in the cinematic thriller – a protagonist, antagonists, and a fetching female – and, in many ways, it's a formula from which we have rarely deviated. It's difficult to imagine the film without her witty character, and moreover, without the sexual tension between her character and Hannay. Their chemistry is palpable, due to their acting skills but also to Hitchcock's playfulness. Donat and Carroll were initially unfamiliar with each other, and the director, always one to capitalize on his actors' ambivalent feelings toward each other, reportedly handcuffed them together and feigned ignorance at the whereabouts of key during the first day of shooting to film. (He began production with their harried escape across the moors, but it was hardly necessary to begin with that specific scene for any other reason than purposefully handcuffing his actors.)
Donat could have been – but never was – one of Hitchcock's "Leading Men," positions that eventually came to be filled by the likes of James Stewart and Cary Grant, who appeared in four of the director's films apiece. Donat had the magnetism and the charisma, the boyish handsomeness, and the talent that Hitchcock admired in a male lead. The director tried many times to reunite with Donat, first for Secret Agent and Sabotage in Britain (roles that went to John Gielgud and John Loder, respectively). Hitchcock urged him to take the role of Maxim de Winter in Rebecca (a role that went to Laurence Olivier, rightly so), then repeatedly floated the idea of adapting "Greenmantle," Buchan's second novel in the Hannay chronicles with Donat starring again. But prior obligations always interrupted, and the two never worked together again. It's too bad, really; J.C. Trewin, Donat's biographer, writes that Donat considered the filming of The 39 Steps his "happiest months in a film studio," and certainly it is one of Donat's best roles.
What is less clear as far as general discussions are concerned is whether The 39 Steps is among Hitchcock's finest films. I think it is, and laced with witty dialogue and sophisticated innuendo, as well as some magnificent chases and thrilling moments, it's also among his most entertaining. Later he would prove adept at producing large budget thrillers with sparkling locations and big-name stars, but as he did with the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock proved himself here to be not only the master of suspense but the master of economy. Perhaps it is a small and unassuming film by contemporary standards, but so are those hole-in-the-wall restaurants. As far as The 39 Steps is concerned, there's really not much of any flaws to be found.
08 October 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 86 mins.