Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Spiral Stare Case: "The 39 Steps" (1935)

Although the two remakes are pretty well known, this early film by Hitchcock is fantastic, one of the best films of the 1930's.

Hannay (Robert Donat) is a typical Canadian in London on business when he goes to a music hall to see some vaudeville-type acts perform. During the set by Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), the man who can remember anything, a fight breaks out in the unruly crowd and gunshots ring out. Hannay escapes into the street on the arm of the pretty Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who asks Hannay to take her home with him.

Annabella is not after what you, or Hannay, thinks she is after. Annabella was at the show to try and stop a state secret from leaving Great Britain. She is a spy who caters to the highest bidder, and is trying to get to Scotland to contact a gentleman there who knows more about the case. The couple retires for the night (in separate bedrooms), but someone stabs Annabella to death and Hannay escapes the two men who were following them earlier that evening.

Hannay wants to go to the police, but ends up on a train bound for Scotland himself. He is suspected of Annabella's murder, and now being pursued by the two men (foreign agents), and the police. On the train, he tries to find help from Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who does not believe him and turns him in. He escapes into the Scottish countryside, and eventually finds the man Annabella was looking for. The climax takes place in the packed London Palladium. As with complex mysteries like this, I cannot give away too much information or else it would spoil the entire film.

"The 39 Steps" is one of many "innocent man on the run" films Hitchcock would direct over his career, and this is right up there with more expensive films starring James Stewart or Cary Grant. Robert Donat is handsome and winning as the lead, looking like the theoretical love child of Liberace and Errol Flynn. Madeleine Carroll is lovely, and a perfect foil for Hannay, rightly not believing him.

Most impressive here is the screenplay and direction. The supporting cast are not just figures who show up to move Hannay and the story along, but well drawn characters who are all memorable. Watch for the isolated farm couple Hannay stays with, played by John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft. Or the Professor's family. Or Annabella. Or the two women's underwear salesmen on the train. They all could have been given more scenes and dialogue, but they are perfectly written in their respective parts, and never seem "thrown in" just to be there.

In the 1930's, film makers were still getting used to working with sound, and there are some real clunkers out there from the period. Hitchcock shows grand finesse with his camera, using stunning movements and great cinematography. The sound is actually pretty good for this period of film, and the pace is just as quick as any film released today. The only two drawbacks are a badly done special effect involving a flying machine, and having Hannay "remember" clues Annabella gave him, but these are both brief and minor. The final shot of the film says so much about Hitchcock's favorite innocent man theme, it is beautiful.

"The 39 Steps" is one of those films I am sure you have passed over at the video store on the way to something else you really wanted to see. Go back and check it out, it is a wonderful eighty or so minutes. (* * * * *) out of five stars.