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The 39 Steps

by Peter Bogdanovich
July 20, 2011 3:25 AM
10 Comments
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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.

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10 Comments

  • Joe De Sousa | December 8, 2011 10:21 AMReply

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  • jerome s | August 3, 2011 10:49 AMReply

    @ peter b we do have a new hitchcock film to look up a 1923 silent discovered in new zealand called the "white shadow" hitch was credited as : writer, assistant director,editor and art director

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  • Blake Lucas | July 23, 2011 6:59 AMReply

    For me, MAK has a point. There was at one time good reason to pull the British period of AH down--and you've said the reasons for this eloquently. The mature sensibility that animates the period from REAR WINDOW in 1954 through MARNIE in 1964 shows Hitchcock at his absolute peak--most of those films are masterpieces and the few that are not also have something great about them--and I don't believe the Hitchcock of the British years could ever have come close to doing anything as profound and eternal as VERTIGO.

    But he was clearly a brilliant and creative artist from the beginning, and quickly mastered every aspect of filmmaking, and it's evident so often in the British films. And while it's also true he has great films in all periods, I think the 40s--his first American decade--is kind of choppier than the British films. It has SHADOW OF A DOUBT and NOTORIOUS, both among his masterpieces, and other films that if they miss at all it's not by much (LIFEBOAT) or they are at least intensely fascinating (UNDER CAPRICORN) but there are also some missteps, and a special problem, interference from David O. Selznick that makes all three Selznick/Hitchcocks less than they might be, certainly less than great Hitchcock (I should add that Selznick is one of the most overrated people in Hollywood history to me because of the way he overstepped with directors--and I think only two films he was associated with are great, both 1933, LITTLE WOMEN and KING KONG, and kind of doubt he deserves much of the credit for those.

    Some of the British producers were more supportive, like Michael Balcon. Personally, I don't rate THE 39 STEPS at the top of the British ones, precisely because it is so handily surpassed even by the admittedly less than perfect SABOTEUR let alone the definitive masterpiece of this kind of narrative NORTH BY NORTHWEST. I really love the charm of THE LADY VANISHES and like some others here rank that high, but for me, even that is second best.

    My favorite of the British ones, and I think there are a few others out there who might agree, is YOUNG AND INNOCENT. This too is "innocent man on the run" but the emphasis is different--it's really on his girlfriend, played so endearingly by Nova Pilbeam, and is kind of about her coming of age, and she is the center of a film so charming and one of my favorites of Hitchcock. And if that weren't enough, it has one of the most memorable shots he ever did in the climax--that stunning boom shot that moves in long shot from one room to another and then slowly moves into the twitching eyes of the blackfaced drummer (whom we know is the murderer because of the twitching) during the "Drummer Man" number as the character starts to melt down. Just a great sequence. What one wouldn't give to see something this great in any contemporary
    suspense thriller.

  • MAK | July 23, 2011 3:56 AMReply

    @Jerome S. -

    East of Shanghai? (aka - RICH AND STRANGE)
    For a moment I thought there was a new Hitchcock film to look up!

    But Peter -

    Why must we choose? - there are different periods in Hitch's career and they all have there own masterpieces - of the late British pics, 39 STEPS might be called the most forward-looking of his films, and one that he surpassed -

    But I don't think he ever surpassed THE LADY VANISHES with anything similar in his later pics. It captures a note of emotion & joy within the suspense & high good humor like nothing else he ever did.

    Is it better? - Can't say. But it is unique.

    MAK -
    www.maksquibs.blogspot.com

  • jerome schuetz | July 21, 2011 7:28 AMReply

    my feelings are that hitchs film east of shanghaii was one of his best british pics. it moves very fast like the 39 steps except its not about spies and danger but a relationship between a husband and wife and their relantionship with money

  • Andrew Willis | July 21, 2011 4:15 AMReply

    I have to agree with Chris Stilly. The 39 Steps is probably my 3rd or 4th favorite early Hitchcock film (Which is still very high praise). The Lady Vanishes is what I think is his best British film. The films structure and set pieces were mind blowing in their day and still impressive today.

  • Christopher Stilley | July 21, 2011 3:57 AMReply

    While it may not be my favorite Hitchcock film,it is certainly the one I've seen the most (thanks to all those public domain tv showings over many years)and its the one I never tire of seeing over and over..There is something cozy and appealing about being chased all over the dark highlands of scotland and few things bring me joy than to here that jaunty intro music for Mr. Memory.

  • Bobby Wise | July 20, 2011 12:21 PMReply

    Can't agree with you on "The 39 Steps" being "certainly the best" of British Hitchcock. As good as it is, that honor must go to "The Lady Vanishes" instead. There are scant few films in the history of cinema that I would call flawless gems. Absolutely perfect. This is one of them.

  • Oskar | July 20, 2011 11:27 AMReply

    I remember seing this at quite a young age for the first time, and to this day I still find that it is one of the most entertaining films Hitchcock ever made. A great demonstration of the craft of film. Thank you Mr. Bogdanovich for an eloquent, informative and as usually very interesting read.

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