The 39 Steps
THE 39 STEPS
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production: Gaumont-British; black and white, 35mm; running time: 81 minutes. Released June 1935. Filmed in Lime Grove studios.
Producers: Michael Balcon with Ivor Montagu; screenplay: Charles Bennett and Alma Reville, additional dialogue by Ian Hay, from the novel by John Buchan; photography: Bernard Knowles; editor: Derek Twist; sound: A. Birch; production designers: Otto Wendorff and Albert Jullion; music: Louis Levy; costume designer: J. Strassner.
Cast: Madeleine Carroll (Pamela); Robert Donat (Richard Hannay); Lucie Mannheim (Miss Smith/Annabella); Godfrey Tearle (Professor Jordan); Peggy Ashcroft (Margaret); John Laurie (John); Helen Haye (Mrs. Jordan); Wylie Watson (Mister Memory); Frank Cellier (Sheriff Watson); Peggy Simpson (Young girl); Gus McNaughton and Jerry Vernon (2 Voyagers); Miles Malleson (Director of the Palladium).
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* * *
When he completed The 39 Steps, director Alfred Hitchcock explained his reasons for doing the film: "I am out to give the public good, healthy, mental shake-ups. Civilization has become so screening and sheltering that we cannot experience sufficient thrills at firsthand. Therefore, to prevent our becoming sluggish and jellified, we have to experience them artificially." The film first brought Hitchcock to the attention of United States film-goers and initiated reference to the director as "the master" in his native England. The pairing of Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll—the suave, clever, attractive man and the cool, intelligent blonde—helped to reinforce the pattern of Hitchcockian protagonists that would recur in many of his later films.
Many critics and viewers alike feel the The 39 Steps is one of Hitchcock's finest films; in fact, viewer response to the film today is often as enthusiastic as during the time of its release. Adapted from a novel by John Buchan, the movie gave Hitchcock the opportunity to display his finest non-stop action sequences. Most notably, it combines what would become Hitchcock's most often-treated themes with imaginative sound and visual techniques.
Numerous scenes in The 39 Steps have become cinema classics, particularly those merging suspense with surprise, humor with anxiety: the murdered, mysterious spy who, after warning him that "they'll get you too," slumps over Donat's bed revealing the knife in her back; the surprise when master-spy Geoffrey Tearle shows Donat his "half-pinkie," the top-joint of his finger missing; the funny and ironic sexual implications of adversaries Carroll and Donat handcuffed together, pretending to be newlyweds, "forced" to spend the night together. (As she removes her stockings, his hand must coast along with hers down her legs—"May I be of assistance?" he asks.)
And Hitchcock's technical virtuosity highlights what is perhaps his most famous scene transition, used first in Blackmail: the chambermaid finds the spy's body and shrieks, her cries blended to the screaming whistle of a train as the plot "relentlessly moves forward." Hitchcock's use of sound and careful lighting heighten the suspense— and humor—of the film. Throughout the melée in the music hall during the first sequence, persistent members of the audience ask, "What causes Pip in poultry?" and "How old is Mae West?" as the crowded mise-en-scène and the fast-paced editing reinforce the confusion. The 39 Steps also featured one of Hitchcock's favorite themes: the innocent caught in bizarre circumstances that he or she doesn't understand. The plot and its loopholes, however, provide the forum for the hero to do his or her "stuff," to demonstrate a charm and cleverness in getting out of tight spots. As the confusing plot plays itself out, however, audiences are far more interested in the characters' relationships than in the overall impetus for the narrative. In fact, the original point of the title was forgotten, and a line had to be added to the script at the end by way of explanation. The 39 Steps then also illustrates the celebrated Hitchcockian "McGuffin"—"what everybody on the screen is looking for, but the audience don't care."
Particularly effective in the film are rapid changes of situation and Hitchcock's obvious contention that nothing is sacred, especially if a location or situation can be used to demonstrate the cleverness of his protagonist. Even patriotic parades and political lectures aren't safe from the thrilling chase: Donat escapes from a police station, ducks into a public hall where he is mistaken for a guest speaker, then gives an impromptu, rousing political address to a responsive audience. All of these events foreshadow Cary Grant's escape from killers at an auction and his flight from the same murderers around the Mount Rushmore National Monument in North by Northwest (1959); with Hitchcock, traditional connotations of safety and danger often reverse.
Visually, The 39 Steps enabled Hitchcock to transfer some of his skills as a director of silent films: the camera at long-shot lingers on an open window, curtains blowing in and around its frame on a stormy London night. This effective bit of "mood-setting" precedes revelation of the woman spy's murder. Later on in the film, we look through the window of a crofter's cottage from his point of view; within that tight frame, we witness the conspiritual, silent "dialogue" between Donat and Peggy Ashcroft, the crofter's kind wife. As with his use of sound, these sequences illustrate Hitchcock's mastery of a medium in which absence of dialogue or music can be strikingly effective. Sydney Carroll, writing in the London Sunday Times, said: "In The 39 Steps the identity and mind of Alfred Hitchcock are continuously discernible, in fact supreme. There is no doubt that Hitchcock is a genius. He is the real star of the film." And interestingly, two "modern" remakes of the film pale miserably in comparison with the original.