It usually surprises people that I’m not a big Hitchcock fan. Oh, it’s not like I hate his movies. I love Psycho, enjoy Rope (flawed experiment though it may be) and the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that he himself directed. But I didn’t care for Vertigo, The Birds just sort of leaves me cold, and… well, you get the picture.
I’m spending a lot of Act Three of my life watching movies and often re-appraising how I relate to them. Given that a lot of my opposition to Hitchcock’s work was due to Contrarianism on my part (ask me how long I went refusing to buy any Beatles albums), it’s only fair that I give him another shot every now and then, so why not that most Hitchcockian of Hitchcock movies, The 39 Steps?
Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) has his evening at the Music Hall interrupted by a scuffle between drunken ruffians and police, which is itself interrupted by two gunshots. He helps a woman (Lucie Mannheim) out through the crush of panicked people, and she surprises him by asking to go home with him. Being a smooth operator, Hanny complies, and finds she is far more intriguing than he suspected: she fired those two shots to get away from two men who are pursuing her. She is, in fact, a spy trying to intercept some secret aircraft plans that have been stolen and are destined to smuggled out of England to some unnamed foreign power. She asks for a map of Scotland, and promises to tell Hannay just what the heck “the 39 steps” she mentioned is all about in the morning, if he is still interested.
Well, except the next morning, she has a knife in her back and collapses on the sleeping Hannay, a map of Scotland with a village’s name circled in red clutched in her hand.
Hannay, presuming the police will not believe him, sneaks out past the two spies watching the front of his building and heads for Scotland, ensuring that the police will think he murdered the lady in his apartment. Thus begins a series of chases and hairsbreadth escapes, as Hannay tries to find out what “The 39 Steps” is, where the plans are, and what he can do to stop the plot without going to jail for murder. Eventually he winds up handcuffed to the lovely Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who has turned him in twice, but the enemy agents assume she knows too much, and once she eventually finds out Hannay is telling the truth, falls in love with him. Which still leaves the problem of the police, the plans, the spies, and just what the heck the 39 Step are anyway.
Hitchcock was on a bit of a roll at this point in his early career; the year before had seen The Man Who Knew Too Much, featuring an exciting young actor from Germany named Peter Lorre, and the next few years would produce Sabotage, Secret Agent, and The Lady Vanishes, before Hitchcock dashed off Jamaica Inn to fulfill his contractual obligations and then split to America and the bigger toybox offered by David O. Selznick.
Here, you can see a lot of the elements that Hitchcock would repeat throughout his career: the man wrongfully accused and pursued by both the authorities and the bad guys (I think it’s this trope that causes me to avoid Hitchcock movies, it speaks to a persecution complex on my part), the shadowy McGuffin that drives the plot (and which pales in importance compared to the plot it sets in motion), the spunky blonde heroine who suffers all sorts of abuse. And it is all managed with such panache, perfect pacing and underlying jet black humor that it’s no surprise it was a huge hit. Donat and Carroll are absolutely perfect, but you can say this about any role in this movie. It is just so damn well-made.
For some reason, I had thought that Hitchcock remade The 39 Steps later in his career; though there are two remakes, Hitchcock didn’t direct either one. I can be forgiven for thinking this, as Hitchcock did remake several of his earlier pictures, and if you get right down to it, he did remake The 39 Steps – he just called it North by Northwest. Which, yeah, is another movie I need to give a second chance. I do recall enjoying it a half a century ago.
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