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Trust and betrayal have been a recurrent theme in several of Alfred
Hitchcock's works. The 39 Steps, made in 1935, has the all the classic
elements of the master filmmaker that set the standard for later Hitchcock
The 39 Steps has the classic Hitchcockian theme of an average, innocent
caught up in extraordinary events which are quite beyond his control. The
sexually frustrating institution of marriage is another major motif
in the film. The strained and loveless relationship between the crofter
his wife, the placid relationship of the innkeeper and his wife, the
(physical) bond between Hannay and Pamela can be examined in terms of
degrees of trust between the couples. In fact, the short 'acquaintance'
between Hannay and Smith and Hannay and the crofter's wife are also built
completely upon trust. It is these couples, and the chemistry between them
(or the lack thereof) that drive the entire film.
Over a span of four days, the smart and unflappable protagonist, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is involved in a circular journey to prove his innocence and expose the hive of intrigue. He is involved in chases and romantic interludes that take him from London to the Scottish Highlands and back again and he assumes numerous identities on the way - a milkman, an auto mechanic, a honeymooner, a political speaker among others.
The opening of the film, the first three shorts do not show him above his neck. With his back to the camera, he is followed down the aisle to his seat. He is then assumed to be lost in the crowd. This gives the audience the feeling that he could be anybody. Later when he takes in the identities of a milkman, a mechanic, a politician one realizes that he is Hitchcock's archetypal 'everyman' who unwittingly finds himself in incredible dilemmas.
In one of the brilliantly managed sequences on the train, Richard Hannay throws himself at a lone girl and forces a kiss just as a detective and two policemen pass by their compartment. It reveals his desperation to remain free until he can prove his innocence. In the scene after Annabella staggers into his room with a kitchen knife in her back, Hannay sees her ghostly image (which is superimposed) talking to him, `What you are laughing at right now is true. These men will stop at nothing.' The double exposure achieves a result which is a tad chilling and sad. The hallmark of Hitchcock's style is his ability to completely shock his audience by deliberately playing against how they would be thinking. In such episodes as the murder of the woman in Hannay's apartment or when the vicious professor with the missing finger casually shoots Hannay, the action progresses almost nonchalantly leaving the viewers stunned.
A great story, interesting and likeable characters, slyly incongruous wit, classic Hitchcockian motifs and a great MacGuffin are just a few things that make the The 39 Steps the quintessential Hitchcock.
Most people associate Hitchcock with suspense but he was also a master
of dark comedy. "The 39 Steps" illustrates his ability to blend the two
genres into a movie that works well on both levels. If he had turned up
the comedy a tiny bit it would be just as hilarious as the best 1930's
screwball comedies like "Bringing Up Baby" and "The Awful Truth".
Imagine Katherine Hepburn handcuffed to Robert Donat as they wander the
Scottish moors. But the chemistry between Madeleine Carroll and Donat
is too good to replace her.
Hitchcock cast a great ensemble for "The 39 Steps". Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Teale and John Laurie are outstanding. The supporting cast are all excellent. Yet in the midst of all this it is Peggy Ashcroft who absolutely shines.
Donat's misadventures while "on-the-run" from the law are the original "series of unfortunate events". It seems that he just can't go anywhere without being identified and chased. Hitchcock's technique is to lull you into thinking it will be an ordinary scene and then to casually throw something menacing into the scene, so the viewer can never relax. These are like getting a slap in the face before you have a chance to set yourself up for the blow. By comparison with the sinister delicacy and urbane understatement of "The Thirty-nine Steps," modern melodramas are obvious and crude.
There are many cool things to watch for:
CAMEO-As Donat and Mannheim board a bus early in the film, director Hitchcock makes his customary cameo appearance as a passer-by who tosses litter onto the sidewalk.
MATCH CUT-One of the most revolutionary edits in cinema history is in here; after the maid finds Lucie's body her scream dissolves into the hissing of a train whistle.
MISE EN SCENE-If you ever wandered what this was ("putting-in-the-scene" is a single shot sequence without cuts to another camera or transition to another scene), Hitchcock's closing shot is probably the all-time best example. As Donat, Carroll, and the police gather backstage around the dying Mr. Memory, on-stage behind them (visible from the wings) and performing for the Palladium audience is a chorus-line of girls high-kicking to the tune of Tinkle, Tinkle, Tinkle from the film Evergreen (1934). After Mr. Memory confirms the espionage plot, the camera angle changes slightly and Donat and Carroll fill the frame facing away from the camera. Donat still has the handcuffs dangling from his wrist. They spontaneously join hands - this time of their own free will.. The film fades to black.
If what you want from a thriller is in-yer-face mugging, special
effects, noise, a booming soundtrack, gore, nudity and flashy editing,
this one is not for you.
However if you are a more discerning moviegoer who values a great script, exquisite understated acting, wit, humour and intelligence, and you are willing to overlook the technically rough bits (come on, this was 1935, you cannot measure it by 2005 standards !!) - then enjoy, because you are in for a treat.
Robert Donat is one of the most charming heroes that ever graced the screen, and but for his frail health and loathing of the Hollywood pzazz (he later refused some great movie parts offered to him, which eventually went to the likes of Erroll Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks Jr) he might have become one of the greatest. Watch the dinner scene with the crofters, in which he manages to convey his plight to the wife entirely without words. Great acting. Also the wickedly funny bravura piece at the political rally.
Madeleine Carroll must be among the coolest and feistiest of Hitchcock's favoured blondes, not as insipid or irrelevant as many of the others were. She is a veritable icicle and it takes a long time for her to thaw, but then watch the sparks fly.
I feel a little sad for the people who cannot be bothered to check out this movie because of the tinny sound or the b&w photography. Forget about those superficialities and concentrate on the real values - the script, the acting, the lighting, photography and camera work -, just allow yourself to get carried away with the fast paced action, and you'll love it.
Film history was made in 1935 when Alfred Hitchcock, who was at the
time an active but little known and somewhat run of the mill film
director, received a contract to create a low budget potboiler type spy
thriller, and used the opportunity to provide his studio with a
masterpiece which has never been forgotten. In addition he established
his reputation as the master of suspense, something which remained
unchallenged throughout the remainder of his career. In style this film
is quintessimal Hitchcock, and those who know his films can pick out
sequences in any of his later ones which were based on, or inspired by,
his work in this early thriller. Similarly, sequences from this film
have also been imitated by many other directors - for example Richard
Pearce, in the thriller "No Mercy" (1986), included sequences that
imitated a famous sequence in Hitchcock's film where Robert Donat and
Madeleine Carroll were handcuffed together and on the run , by showing
Richard Gere and Kim Basinger fleeing pursuers whilst handcuffed
together. Because of this "The 39 Steps" has become a "must see"
classic that most movie buffs still regard as an essential element in
their personal film collection.
There are two criticisms commonly made of this film. The first is that there are logical imperfections in the story. This is true of almost all Hitchcock films (as well as those of most other directors). The point is that Hitchcock had an unsurpassed ability to maintain a flow in the unfolding of his story on the screen which totally distracts his audience from the type of mental agility required to even be aware of them. Only when dissecting the story on a sequence by sequence basis will such imperfections become significant. The second criticism is that this film, whilst based on John Buchan's novel of the same name, departs very considerably from the story in the book. I am not a purist about this, books and films are totally different media and must be judged independently. In some cases it must be recognised that a book is structured so that it is almost impossible for a film to remain true to the original book. What I do believe is important is that the film-goer should be entitled to know how true a film is to a previously read and perhaps long loved book. If a film is described as "the film of the best selling novel........", then it should be as accurate a dramatic presentation of the story in the book as possible. (Where the original is a play, not a book, the dramatic medium is already much closer to the movie form, and I believe such a description should only be used when most of the original dialogue from the play is accurately reproduced in the movie.) By contrast, if a film is described as "based on............" then the filmmaker should have considerably more freedom; and if the phrase used is "inspired by........" then a largely independent dramatic presentation should be expected. In the case of "The 39 Steps, Hichcock's film comes into the latter category, but a later (and in my opinion generally inferior) 1978 film of the same name can legitimately claim to be much more closely based on the book. In this instance I personally do not regard the original book as sufficiently important to be sacrosanct, but those who differ from me about this may feel they have an adequate reason for preferring the 1978 film.
Today "The 39 Steps" is seldom shown in movie theaters and, when a home video rather than the actual film is under consideration, attention needs to be given to the medium and technology with which it has been reproduced. The catch phrase "digitally remastered" is often used to reassure a purchaser that he is buying the best possible product, but this may be totally irrelevant. The nuances of shade in a good black and white photograph can often be artistically more significant than those of colour in a colour print, and the same is true for many early movies. But home video versions of black and white films are usually disappointing as these nuances are seldom reproduced accurately, if at all. It is regrettable that, largely because of this, many young people today have no appreciation of the artistic appeal a really good black and white movie film can have. Home video versions of "The 39 Steps" as both DVD's and videotapes have been released by a number of different distributors and these vary in quality enormously. In general DVD's are capable of better rendering of these subtle shade differences than videotapes, but either can be satisfactory. The first requirement is that the distributor has used a high quality master for the material copied, not an old tape that has already been played numerous times. The next is that proper equipment designed for copying from black and white masters is used. Too often copies of old black and white films are made with equipment that is designed only for copying colour films. In such cases the nuances of the multitude of grey shades present in the master are likely to be totally lost. Many of the copies of Hitchcock's film still being sold are particularly bad in this respect, with highlight areas that are totally burnt out instead of containing a mass of detail. The best advice is to consult a website such as that of Amazon.com, where the various versions available are listed and priced, with user comments that indicate how satisfactory the final product has been found by the purchaser concerned. My advice is DO NOT LET YOURSELF BE HAD - THIS WILL ONLY ENCOURAGE THE MARKETING OF SUB-STANDARD MATERIAL.
The Thirty Nine Steps is extraordinary in every conceivabe way. Anyone who
doesn't mind slightly old, black-and-white movies will be enraptured by this
Hitchcock classic, which was one of the first films to present sophisticated
and witty banter between two ill-matched characters. What makes it even more
extraordinary is that it virtually totally alters the source material (John
Buchan's novel), yet still comes across as a work of ingenuity.
The story concerns Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) a handsome young man who owns a London flat. A mysterious woman comes to him for help, claiming that she is being hunted by some spies. Hannay helps her, but when she is murdered in his home it look like he is to blame, and he has to go on the run from the police (who obviously want him for the "crime") and the spies (who want him to find out how much he actually knows). En route, he has many adventures as he flees across the South Scotland landscapes, including being handcuffed to a woman (Madeline Carroll) who happens to think he is guilty of the murder.
This is splendid from the word "go". It has enough memorable set pieces for a dozen films, its pace is invigorating, the plot is constantly turning up new surprises, and the performances are just about perfect. Hitchcock spent his career narrating tale of innocent men on the run (indeed, many consider it to be his "favourite" theme) and this is one of the very finest examples of that. Anyone interested in Hitchcock or cinema of the '30s simply must, must, must see this film.
While I personally prefer Hitchcock's darker, more troubling movies, especially 'Vertigo' and 'Psycho', as far as his straightforward thrillers go 'The 39 Steps' is still one of his most entertaining. The man on the run because of false accusations or "knowing too much" motif may or may not have been invented here, but it certainly influenced dozens of subsequent thrillers, all the way up until contemporary movies like 'Enemy Of The State' and 'Minority Report'. Robert Donat makes a great hero, and Madeleine Carroll is charming and funny as his reluctant partner. The chemistry and repartee between the two is something that has been copied countless times since. Some people seem to regard 'The 39 Steps' as a practice run for Hitch's later 'North By Northwest', but I prefer the earlier movie. It may not be complex and deep, but it's great fun, and full of old fashioned movie magic. A classic thriller that is still wonderfully entertaining, and should prove to be enjoyable to almost everyone who watches it. Recommended.
One of the most enjoyable Hitchcock thrillers.Still as good after repeated
viewing.Robert Donat stars as the innocent man with a murder charge on his
head and accidently mixed up in a spy story.Trying to expose a spy-ring and
clear his name he flees to Scotland and encounters a lot of people who help
and hinder him.
Robert Donat gives one of his best performances of his career as the protagonist.The chemistry between him and Madeleine Carroll,and especially a young Peggy Ashcroft (A brilliant performance)is wonderful to behold.John Laurie must also be mentioned,as the sinister farmer. One of the best chase-movies ever. Rating: ***** out of *****
Nearly every era in Hitchcock's directing career has incredible strengths. When we view a later film like "North by Northwest" we are tempted to say that "The 39 Steps" is simply a training film for the bigger budget, star studded film that came later. This is not true. This movie stands on its own. With wonderful actors like Robert Donat and Madeline Carrol, we are led on an intense ride, culminating in a crowded theater. There are amazing shots of the characters weaving their way through crowds, close ups used strictly for the purpose of moving the plot. With Hitchcock there is no excess. He is a poet with a camera. As the tension mounts and Donat's character becomes swept away in its arms, we are taken with it. His wisecracking character is out of words and must act, just as Cary Grant did in the aforementioned film. There is something lurking and we have to find out who it is and why does he need to know what he knows? I've seen this many times and will see it again.
Alfred Hitchcock followed up his first international success, The Man
Who Knew Too Much with an even better film, The Thirty Nine Steps.
Hitchcock must have had a particular fondness for this film because I
see elements of it North By Northwest, Saboteur, and Torn Curtain.
There is no director in the history of the cinema who liked a good chase film better than Alfred Hitchcock. This one's a beauty with a wrongly accused of murder Robert Donat, running from London to Scotland and back again to find some spies to clear his name. Along the way Donat picks up a lovely and first unwilling traveling companion in Madeleine Carroll who is arguably the first of his blonde heroines.
Donat and Ronald Colman rivaled for roles somewhat, they seem always to be cast as the same type of characters. Of course Donat worked primarily in the UK and on stage while Colman was strictly a movie actor since the silent days. Colman is the only other guy who could have done this and other Donat parts. It's a pity there are none like either of these guys around today.
When Geoffrey Tearle thinks he's disposed of Donat by shooting him, Donat's life got saved by a hymn book in his breast pocket. Whether that was a device in the original novel by John Buchan or something Alfred Hitchcock improvised the inspiration for it was definitely taken from the attempted assassination of former President Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. While running for president on the Progressive ticket that year, Roosevelt was shot in the chest in Milwaukee. What saved his life was a copy of his speech and an eyeglass case in his breast pocket.
The whole thing here is how the espionage is being carried out and I won't reveal it. But if you've seen Torn Curtain remember why Paul Newman was the only guy they could send on that espionage mission.
This is probably Hitchcock's best film from his pre-Hollywood period and shouldn't be missed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Movies are not like fine wines. Most of them, even most very good movies,
not improve with age. Some screen classics are barely watchable today.
Women" and "Stage Door" are maudlin weepfests, "Birth Of A Nation" and
With The Wind" enjoy their greatest popularity with the white-sheet crowd.
Chaplin's not all that funny. Musicals are nearly all insipid. Movies are
instant form of entertainment, and what works for crowds in one era won't
often do as well decades on.
So when a film like "39 Steps" comes around, you really feel a burning need to say something positive. Not because it's a brilliant film, a shining example of early Hitchcock, etc. It's because "The 39 Steps" hasn't lost a step since it was made 70 years ago. When does that ever happen? Even most great novels from the 1930s, or paintings or music, falter down the stretch.
We have all the elements of movie thrillers in times to come, to the point of parody. Lone innocent man on the run from something he doesn't understand. Strange woman appears at his doorstep and whispers vague warnings of a deadly plot. Strange woman turns up the next morning with knife protruding from the exact center of her back. Man on the run from the law finds himself bumping into a woman who may be able to help him, if she can get herself to trust him first.
It's all very cliché, and even though "The 39 Steps" gets credit since this was much more original when it was released, we the jaded viewers of today would still find it a tired exercise to watch a film loaded with clichés, whether or not they were novel at the time. But "The 39 Steps" takes these elements and does strange things to them, playing with audience expectations and throwing a curve. Just when you think something is going to happen, it doesn't.
In one funny scene, Robert Donat confronts a milkman while trying to escape his apartment building under the baleful eye of two sinister men. He tells the milkman he needs help, a woman has been murdered in his apartment and now they are after him. The milkman shakes his head. Donat realizes he needs a change of tack. He explains he is a bachelor who has been spending the night with a married lady friend, and one of the two men outside is her husband.
"Well, why didn't you say so in the first place," the milkman says with a conspiratorial grin, pulling off his white coat so Donat can put it on and get away unnoticed. "I only wanted to be told."
These curves grow only more clever and outrageous as the show rolls along. And roll it does, with very little stopping for breath. There's one poignant pause, at a crofter's cottage in rural Scotland where the tenant is a nasty, sanctimonious cheat with a sad young wife, a woman of soulful beauty played hauntingly by Peggy Ashcroft, not yet a Dame. Things happen between the Scotsman and Donat, in the usual not-as-you-expect-way, but just as things are looking their bleakest, the woman steps in and saves him, risking apparent cruelty from her husband down the road.
"Do all the women in London paint their toenails?" the Scotsman's wife asks, and Donat's Richard Hanney seems like he'd be one to know. He speaks in a singularly tweedy and under-the-breath way that suggests a sleazy schoolmaster trying to seduce a teenager while her parents sleep in the next room. All this Jack-The-Lad stuff's out the window when the fuzz arrives, and he finds himself up against suspicious sheriffs, an FDR lookalike with a missing digit, and a nagging tune he can't get out of his head. Finally, there's Madeleine Carroll, a woman who gets handcuffed to him and finds herself believing his shaggy dog story against her better judgment.
There's so many great scenes in this movie, and a lot of them verge into spoiler country. Best advice here is to see the film for yourself, and see what I mean. But my favorite moment is Hanney's improv stump speech for candidate "McCrocodile." It's a classic moment because while Hanney is an impostor, everything he says in his speech is true. When was the last time you saw a politician do that? No wonder they lead him from the stage in handcuffs...
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