It now seems more inconceivable than ever to realize that for over three decades Alfred Hitchcock’s English period (1926-39) was valued by film critics and historians far above his American (1940-76). Throughout the 1940s,‘50s and much of the ‘60s—-while Hitch turned out such superb and challenging work as Shadow of A Doubt, Notorious, Strangers on A Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest, to name only a few of the highlights—-these were denigrated and the early British movies were held up as the great pinnacle of achievement from which he had fallen. Supposedly, The Lodger, Blackmail, the first Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes, among others, were the vintage Hitchcock, and the newer stuff merely commercial Hollywood sellout.
Not until the French New Wave’s critical influence of Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and others made itself felt here in the ‘60s and ‘70s did the tide begin to turn. When in 1963, New York’s prestigious Museum of Modern Art presented its first Hitchcock retrospective (also the first in the U.S.), the position taken in the accompanying monograph that I prepared-—calling the American films notably superior to the English-—was anything but the prevailing wisdom.
Of the 20-odd British films Hitchcock directed, certainly the best is 1935's The 39 Steps (available on DVD). Seen today, the picture looks like an extremely talented, youthful sketch for 1942’s more ambitious and complicated (but far from perfect) Saboteur, and the brilliant crowning glory of 1959’s North by Northwest. All three are innocent-man-on-the-run spy adventures---The 39 Steps made when Hitch was only 35, already very successful but still learning---North by Northwest when he was 60 and at the absolute peak of his powers. Among the most entertaining aspects of seeing The 39 Steps these days is in observing how very many of the ideas and themes of his later work are here in embryonic form.
In the ‘60s, when I asked Hitchcock about The 39 Steps, he responded: “What I liked about it were the sudden switches and the jumping from one situation to another with such rapidity. [The star Robert] Donat leaping out of the window of the police station with half a handcuff on, and immediately walking into a Salvation Army Band, darting down an alleyway and into a room. ‘Thank God you’ve come, Mr. So-and-so,’ they say, and put him onto a platform. [A bit later borrowed by Graham Greene for The Third Man.] A girl comes along with two men, takes him in a car to the police station, but not really to the police station—-they are two spies. The rapidity of the switches, that’s the great thing about it... but it really takes a lot of work. You have to use one idea after another...” He could have been describing North by Northwest, which he did often refer to as “the American 39 Steps.”
The irony is that part of what makes The 39 Steps still so charming in the 21st century, over 75 years after it was released, is to know the mature Hitchcock and to see in his youth the almost innocent sense of wonder and excitement he brought to the making of movies.
The other part of this particular film’s durability is the extraordinary presence of, and performances given by, the two stars, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Ms. Carroll had the distinction of being the first of Hitchcock’s cool, imperturbable blondes (in a line that led to Grace Kelly as a kind of climax), and bringing it off brilliantly, in the performance that took her to Hollywood.
My dear mother always loved Robert Donat, who is probably best remembered in the U.S. for his Academy Award-winning role in the original 1939 Goodbye, Mr. Chips. As a child, my parents took me to see Donat playing a dual role in a revival-house running of Rene Clair’s and Robert E. Sherwood’s charming satirical fantasy, The Ghost Goes West (1935), and it instantly became one of my favorite films. I must have seen it five times before I was twelve. Donat died in 1958 at the age of only 53, so he is not often remembered now, but his eloquent voice, poetic good looks and easy gift of honesty and reticence is especially well captured in The 39 Steps.