Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Kristen Stewart Is First American Actress Nominated for César Awards in 30 Years; 'Saint Laurent' Leads with Ten Kristen Stewart Is First American Actress Nominated for César Awards in 30 Years; 'Saint Laurent' Leads with Ten How They Sustained the Times Square Momentum in 'Birdman' VIDEO How They Sustained the Times Square Momentum in 'Birdman' VIDEO 6 Things to Know About Sexy Sundance Breakout 'Diary of a Teenage Girl,' Part of Sundance's Women's New Wave 6 Things to Know About Sexy Sundance Breakout 'Diary of a Teenage Girl,' Part of Sundance's Women's New Wave Sundance Raves About Ewan McGregor as Jesus and the Devil in 'Last Days in the Desert' Sundance Raves About Ewan McGregor as Jesus and the Devil in 'Last Days in the Desert' Watch: Jason Segel on Playing David Foster Wallace in Sundance's 'End of the Tour' (Exclusive Interview) Watch: Jason Segel on Playing David Foster Wallace in Sundance's 'End of the Tour' (Exclusive Interview) Filmmakers, Give Us Your Numbers! Sundance and Cinereach Unveil The Transparency Project Filmmakers, Give Us Your Numbers! Sundance and Cinereach Unveil The Transparency Project Sundance Market Explodes with 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' and 'Diary of a Teenage Girl' Sundance Market Explodes with 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' and 'Diary of a Teenage Girl' Top Ten Takeaways: Polarizing 'American Sniper' Speeds Past $200 Million; Lopez Trounces Depp Top Ten Takeaways: Polarizing 'American Sniper' Speeds Past $200 Million; Lopez Trounces Depp Arthouse Audit: Panic Time? 'Mommy,' 'Red Army,' 'Black Sea,' 'Cake,' 'Duke of Burgundy' All Disappoint Arthouse Audit: Panic Time? 'Mommy,' 'Red Army,' 'Black Sea,' 'Cake,' 'Duke of Burgundy' All Disappoint 2015 PGA Winners: 'Birdman' Steals 'Boyhood''s Awards Season Thunder 2015 PGA Winners: 'Birdman' Steals 'Boyhood''s Awards Season Thunder Watch: Nicole Kidman Talks 'Strangerland' at Sundance (Exclusive Video Interview) Watch: Nicole Kidman Talks 'Strangerland' at Sundance (Exclusive Video Interview) Sundance Acquisitions Market Heats Up with 'The Bronze' and 
'The Witch' Sundance Acquisitions Market Heats Up with 'The Bronze' and 'The Witch' Sundance: Netflix Inks Four-Picture Deal with Duplass Brothers Sundance: Netflix Inks Four-Picture Deal with Duplass Brothers Early Reviews Portend Sundance Breakout in Stylish Historical Horror 'The Witch' Early Reviews Portend Sundance Breakout in Stylish Historical Horror 'The Witch' Sundance: 5 Things to Expect From Alex Gibney's Damning Scientology Doc 'Going Clear' Sundance: 5 Things to Expect From Alex Gibney's Damning Scientology Doc 'Going Clear' Martin Scorsese Breaks Long-Awaited 'Silence,' Set to Begin Filming This Month Martin Scorsese Breaks Long-Awaited 'Silence,' Set to Begin Filming This Month Watch: Meet the Women of 'Birdman' (Exclusive 4-Minute Featurette) Watch: Meet the Women of 'Birdman' (Exclusive 4-Minute Featurette) Watch: Hitchcock's Thwarted Holocaust Documentary Comes to HBO Watch: Hitchcock's Thwarted Holocaust Documentary Comes to HBO Best Actor Oscar Predictions 2015 UPDATED Best Actor Oscar Predictions 2015 UPDATED Oscar Predictions 2015 Oscar Predictions 2015

Now and Then: Hitchcock's First Classic, and an Underrated Modern Descendant

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! June 26, 2012 at 2:53AM

Alfred Hitchcock had been working as a director for more than a decade when he made "The 39 Steps" (1935), a film that's half trench coats, street lamps, and foreign agents. The other half is English wit, a marriage plot, and a MacGuffin: the first proof, long before his later masterworks, that he was a maestro of the unbalancing act.
0
Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll in "The 39 Steps," directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll in "The 39 Steps," directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock had been working as a director for more than a decade when he made "The 39 Steps" (1935), which he filled with trench coats, street lamps, and foreign agents--along with English wit, a marriage plot, and a MacGuffin: the first proof, long before his later masterworks, that he was a maestro of the unbalancing act.   

He'd already produced laudable efforts like "The Lodger" (1927), "Blackmail" (1929), and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934), all of which contain a kind of audacious, public danger — especially the latter, whose climax in the Royal Albert Hall was so good he used it again in the 1956 remake. But never before "The 39 Steps" had he achieved such amazing economy, each frame of the central caper barbed with humor, such as the dining car waiter who successfully dodges in an out of the aisle as our hero flees his pursuers. Or this brief exchange, after the music hall gunshots and subsequent murder that set the plot in motion, between protagonist Richard Hannay (a dashing Robert Donat) and a milkman:

Hannay: You married?
Milkman: Yeah, but don't rub it in.

Sharp lines, and in "The 39 Steps" they're plot points, too. Hannay, trying to engineer the first of innumerable escapes by getting the milkman to give him his uniform, starts off by telling the truth — he's out to stop a foreign agent from smuggling military secrets out of the country. Unsurprisingly, the milkman's incredulous. It's his clear disdain for his wife that opens the door to Hannay's second story, about an illicit affair, and the milkman approves.

We're off to the races: "The 39 Steps" is a film so full of hairpin reversals it'd give you whiplash if it weren't so much damn fun. Sometimes this calls for restraint — the way the camera remains on Donat for a searching moment, as he listens in on the attendees at a Scottish country party discuss the murder for which he's been wrongly accused. Sometimes this calls for the absurd, as when Hannay stumbles into a political meeting and gets dragged on stage, only to give a brilliant, funny, rousing speech. He wants a world "where everyone gets a square deal and a sporting chance," he says, and in that moment you can feel him, and by extension Hitchcock, find his voice.

More than anything, "The 39 Steps" is about performance — people who play roles to the hilt, as politicians and cops, married couples and secret agents, barons and baddies. Just because Hitchcock uses a lighter touch than some of his great mysteries doesn't make "The 39 Steps" less smart, and canny, and even a little brave. Of course they'll end up back on stage, where even the denouement can't stop the show from going on, with a chorus line of leggy girls. After all, it's a dangerous business.

This article is related to: Now and Then, Reviews, DVD and VOD, Genres, comedy, Romance, Action, Blu-ray, Headliners, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Directors, Classics


E-Mail Updates