The MAN who put the MAN in roMANce!
Richard Hannay (Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips) is an ordinary Canadian man who finds himself caught up in an extraordinary series of circumstances. After an evening of entertainment in London turns unexpectedly chaotic, Hannay attempts to provide aid to a counterespionage agent named Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim, Bunny Lake is Missing). Alas, when the agent is assassinated, Hannay looks like the obvious suspect. He’s forced to go on the run as he attempts to find the puzzle pieces necessary to prove his innocence. Can he solve the mystery and clear his name before it’s too late?
The 39 Steps is regarded by many as Alfred Hitchcock’s first genuinely exceptional film, but for whatever reason I hadn’t gotten around to seeing it until now. Still, I have long held onto the impression that it was a fairly important film, as a still from it was prominently featured in the “Movies” article in the World Book Encyclopedia my family owned when I was growing up. In truth, The 39 Steps isn’t anything terribly significant, but rather a solid nuts-and-bolts thriller that promised even greater things to come. It still deserves to be seen not because it is an essential part of one’s cinematic education, but because it is simply a whole lot of fun.
The plot often feels like it ought to be accompanied by exclamation points; it’s the sort of gloriously overheated, pulpy saga that was featured in books with shadowy villains, screaming damsels and concerned-looking heroes on the cover. The film’s final big plot twist (don’t worry, I won’t say a word) is the sort of enchantingly silly development that one might expect to find in an early Batman comic. However, part of what makes the movie somewhat special is that Hitchcock and writers Charles Bennett and Ian Hay (adapting a novel by John Buchan) manage to subvert a number of thriller formulas before such formulas were even firmly established.
For instance, there’s a scene in which our “Innocent Man Wrongly Accused” hero is desperately running from the police. He’s onboard a train, moving from car to car as he attempts to evade the cops. In one car, he sees a beautiful blonde. In the great tradition of Innocent Men Wrongly Accused everywhere, he makes a desperate move and kisses the woman passionately in the hopes that the cops will simply ignore him (because nothing camouflages a person quite like a public makeout session). Afterwards, he explains his situation to the befuddled woman. In most works of fiction, this is the point at which an unlikely romance would begin to develop. Alas, this irritated lady quickly proceeds to demand that the police arrest the amorous fugitive.
Another killer sequence is offered when Hannay visits a farm in rural Scotland. The place is owned by a man named Crofter (John Laurie, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), who begrudgingly invites Hannay to spend the night after Hannay offers to cough up a little cash in return. The cantankerous disdain of Laurie’s performance is hysterical, and the film buzzes with nervous comic energy for the duration of his screentime. Then there’s another cleverly-staged sequence in which a sweaty, uncomfortable Donat attempts to ad lib his way through a a political rally. Much like Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, it’s a thriller which is made exceptional by its cheerful willingness to undercut the format with cheeky comic brushstrokes. Though he was constantly jokey and playful in his public appearances, it could be argued that The Master of Suspense still doesn’t get enough credit for the entertaining irreverence he worked into many of his productions. The 39 Steps puts that particular attribute into somewhat sharper focus than many of his later works.
The 39 Steps (Blu-ray) looks about as good as it can under the circumstances, offering a satisfying 1080p/Full Frame transfer. Considering the film’s age, it’s no surprise that the movie looks a little weathered (not to mention quite soft) most of the time. For a reference point, let me say that it’s a bit rougher-looking than Criterion’s stellar release of The Lady Vanishes. Still, it’s likely about as good as the movie is ever going to look. Don’t expect any M-level miracles, and you’ll be content with what’s offered. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is similarly functional without ever really impressing. The audio is mostly clean and clear despite a bit of faint hiss which creeps in from time to time. The musical score sounds sturdy for its age, too. Supplements are diverse and generous: an audio commentary with Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane, a 25-minute piece on “Hitchcock: The Early Years,” 41 minutes of raw footage from a 1966 television interview with Hitchcock, a 24-minute visual essay entitled “The Borders of the Possible” (featuring scholar Leonard Leff), 23 minutes of audio from Francois Truffaut’s career-spanning interview with Hitchcock, a Lux Radio Theatre production of The 39 Steps starring Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino, some production stills and a booklet featuring an essay by David Cairns.
The 39 Steps is a fun, frisky thriller that sits comfortably alongside such other lightweight pleasures as The Man Who Wasn’t There, To Catch a Thief, and The Lady Vanishes. Criterion’s Blu-ray release isn’t exactly dazzling in the technical department, but their generous supplemental package helps compensate for that.