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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.
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Julia Roberts (with Clive Owen) in "Duplicity"
Julia Roberts (with Clive Owen) in "Duplicity"

As Hitchcock himself admitted, we're not meant to care about the titular secret of "The 39 Steps" — the pleasure's not in the details of why, but how. Too few makers of modern capers heed this warning, pausing so often to explain some obscure element of backstory that it's a wonder more of them don't go in for historical epics and literary adaptations. Not so for Tony Gilroy, whose 2009 film "Duplicity" is perhaps the genre's best recent entry: as soon as we learn the whole deal is one big MacGuffin, a contest over the formula for a baldness cure, we're free to enjoy it for what it is, a witty and well-built adult comedy.

Like Hitchock's cameos, Gilroy may be poking a bit of fun at himself here — he wrote each of the three prior "Bourne" films, and he co-wrote and directed the forthcoming franchise reboot. But his eye for pacing, honed on the genre's more serious (and high-quality) end, stands him in good stead in "Duplicity." Aided by funny, sharp-tongued performances from Julia Roberts and Clive Owen as romantic and clandestine antagonists, the film's structure, moving back and forth in time, manages to hide the truth in the side pocket of the story. In its pleasantly off-kilter hybrid of narrative discovery and romantic comedy, "Duplicity" is a worthy descendant of "The 39 Steps," squeezing more out of both by weaving them together so effectively.

The best example comes late in the film, as an executive at one of the two warring conglomerates (Tom McCarthy) rages, blindfolded, against an empty conference room. Roberts' character hits every imaginable roadblock in her attempt to steal the baldness formula, but every time the scene achieves a kind of tension, Gilroy cuts back to McCarthy's (self-) destruction. It displays exactly the understanding of restraint and absurdity that marks "The 39 Steps," and if Gilroy needs an entire sequence to match what Hitchcock does in a single frame, it's still a ringer: a dangerous business, indeed, but if you can pull it off, a lucrative one.  

"The 39 Steps" is available today in a new Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection. "Duplicity" is available on DVD from Netflix, and on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.

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


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.