Skip to main content

Oh, it’s a whole flock of detectives!

The 39 Steps
(1935)

(SPOILERS) Hitch’s gamechanger and still one of the most purely enjoyable pictures in his oeuvre. Much of that, beyond simply telling a breathless narrative with endless invention and style, is The 39 Steps' pitch-perfect casting; he’d rarely be quite as lucky again with both his leads.

Of course, The 39 Steps gets all the attention, despite honing the elements established by the previous year’s The Man Who Knew Too Much; that’s probably because it does so in a yet lighter and frothier manner. Consequently, it cemented the thriller as the director’s synonymous genre, along with all the ingredients – mostly in the form of strung-together perilous vignettes, or set pieces, featuring our hero – later most identified with the modern action movie. Hitch confirmed this as intentional: “I saw it as a film of episodes, and I was on my toes. As soon as we were through with one episode, I remember saying, ‘Here we need a good short story’… each one would be a little film in itself”.

Which is why the picture doesn’t really show its age at all. The 39 Steps doesn’t waste a minute and is often extremely impressive in the way it speeds creatively from scene to scene. Hitch was quite correct to be both dismissive of the need for the plot to make perfect sense and to admit to what he had done well: “What I like in The Thirty-Nine Steps are the swift transitions”. He uses as an example Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), arrested by the police; Hitchcock cuts to the street outside, and we see Hannay burst through a window, head off, take cover as part of a Sally-Ally band and then slip into a conference hall (where he is a victim of a case of mistaken identity and gives an impromptu speech in support of whoever the political candidate – “Mr McCrocodile” – is). Hitch really wasn’t blowing his own trumpet when he commented “The rapidity of those transitions heightens the excitement. It takes a lot of work to get that kind of effect, but it’s well worth the effort”. The 39 Steps exudes that effort.

Hannay: A beautiful mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story.

A sense of urgency intrudes from the first, when the picture’s running theme of playful innuendo is introduced and Hannay agrees to Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) accompanying him home. There, he cooks her a hake (not the most romantic of dishes), and she reveals she is an agent to “any country that pays me”. From there, Hannay’s intrigue at his guest rapidly escalates into desperation when she staggers into his bedroom with a knife in her back.

Hitchcock pocks the picture with such sublimely-staged sequences, from Hannay being pursued across the Highlands, to hiding under a bridge with a reluctant Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), to being shot by Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle as the man with a missing finger Hannay was warned about; in a lovely ironic touch, he reveals his lack of appendage to Hannay just as the latter relates Annabelle’s information).

But the key to the picture is that it’s every bit as good with the character work as it is with the set pieces. Hitch waxed approvingly of Buchan, commenting that the appeal of the author was “his understatement of highly dramatic ideas”. For all the director’s changing of the text – courtesy of Charles Bennett, the peak of his string of collaborations with Hitch that decade – this element comes through most in Donat’s marvellously capable Hannay. He received great notices at the time for how he “suddenly blossoms out into a romantic comedian of no mean order” with his “easy confident humour” (CA Lejeune in The Observer). Lejeune was absolutely right to compare Donat’s potential to Gable or Coleman, but he never really made the most of the kind of roles Hitch would later provide Cary Grant.

Hannay’s sprightly quick wit is weighed and balanced against an unerring ability to make the wrong decisions. He wants to tell the truth from the off (as he does in a nice little sequence with Frederick Piper’s milkman, before winning his cooperation by telling him he’s having an affair with a married woman, right up a milkman’s street). Unfortunately, he fails to learn from his mistakes, first confessing to Pamela, who promptly shops him (and later, she shops him again for good measure). Then to John Laurie’s crofter (who takes his money and then shops him). Then to Jordan. And then to Frank Cellier’s sheriff. It’s well after the hour mark that Pamela finally believes him, and only because she overhears the fake policemen discussing their plan.

Hannay: For all you know, I murder a woman a week.

Beyond that, though, the chemistry between Donat and Carroll is on It Happened One Night levels; even if there weren’t a thriller element, the love/hate back and forth between Hannay and Pamela would be hugely entertaining. That they’re stuck together, due to the inspired handcuffs conceit, only makes the sexual tension that much more effective. The extended bedroom scene, full of suggestion while remaining entirely chaste, is a suspense-free highlight of the film, relying as it does on its stars’ timing and Bennett and Hitch’s ready wit. The reluctant couple have already proved a hit with the innkeeper’s wife (Hilda Trevelyan), who can only see how in love they are (“Mr and Mrs Harry Hopkinson, the Hollyhocks, Hemel Hempstead” intones Hannay breezily as they check in). The wonderfully-timed business that follows involves removing stockings, eating sandwiches, and attempting to pick handcuffs.

Carroll is absolutely terrific, a funny, headstrong Hitchcock blonde who more than holds her own against her leading man (she’d be rather let down by their second and final team up Secret Agent a year later; even given that the director was unable to bring back Donat, her role simply wasn’t up to snuff).

As I said, there’s no waste here at all. The apparent interlude where Hannay stays with crofter John Laurie and his lonely wife Margaret (Peggy Ashcroft) is both an exercise in suspense (Laurie quickly becomes suspicious that he has designs on his Margaret, but the reality is that she has figured out Hannay is wanted for murder) and a very sad little tale in miniature (“He’ll pray at me, but no more” she assures Hannay of potential repercussions for her helping him escape; the last we see is John moving to hit his wife on learning Hannay took off in his best coat).

Audience Member: Where’s my old man been since last Saturday?

Hannay boards a train replete with double-act corset and bra salesmen. Godfrey Tearle is the first of a run of extremely polite, genteel villains that culminates in James Mason. More still, he’s humanised by having a family (see also Sabotage and Foreign Correspondent for villains who really do care for their relatives). Mr Memory (Wylie Watson) is both part of the slightly dappy loop plotting that doesn’t withstand much scrutiny – the film kicks off with Hannay at his performance, and it turns out that he’s the key to the entire affair – and an instantly, er, memorable character in his own right. The opening scene, in which the audience doesn’t pay much attention to Memory’s requests for sensible questions (“How old’s Mae West?”) is highly entertaining in itself, but his climactic delivering of his secret after being shot, noting the 39 Steps is an “organisation of spies”, is touchingly pathetic (and the sort of thing ripe for comedy riffs).

Pauline Kael called The 39 Stepsone of the three or four best things Hitchcock ever did” and it’s difficult to dispute her assessment. If anything, the picture impresses more every time I revisit it, for the sheer confidence and also how fresh it remains. Hitch would later command bigger budgets and bigger stars, but this is where he is at his most consistently assured.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.