Thursday, March 10, 2011

The 39 Steps (1935)

When 12 Steps are not enough...!
Hokey smoke, Bullwinkle!  I've been blogging for what feels like forever, and I haven't covered a single Alfred Hitchcock movie; that means I haven't seen a Hitchcock movie in about a year.  How disturbing!  I've always been a fan of the fat man, although I will readily admit that I do not have an overwhelming familiarity with his body of work.  Noting my lack of Hitchcock reviews and my ignorance on his pre-Hollywood career, I decided to try this one out.  Why this particular title?  I checked out the British Film Institute's website and found that this was Hitchcock's highest-ranking film in the BFI's top 100 (it was #4).

The film opens at a theater, where it seems a variety show is going on.  Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) was enjoying the memory recall demonstrations of Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) when shots ring out in the theater.  Everybody rushes for the doors and, when he finally makes it outside, Richard finds that he is holding a frightened-looking woman, Anabella (Lucie Mannheim).  She asks if she can go home with him and, as most single men will do when an attractive strange woman asks to go home with them, he obliged her.  Once inside his apartment, Anabella gets a little mysterious, insisting on staying in the dark and away from windows.  Anabella tells Richard that she is a spy that has information about a plan to steal British military intelligence, masterminded by a man that is missing part of a finger.  She mentions something about "the 39 steps" in passing, but goes into no detail.  More importantly, she is being followed by men who intend to kill her.  Being a chivalrous chap, Richard lets her stay at his place until the heat is off, which doesn't take long; a few hours later, Anabella bursts into Richard's bedroom with a knife in her back.  Way to protect a lady, Richard.  With her dying words, Anabella tells Richie to escape, so he grabs the only real clue he has --- the map of Scotland with a city circled on it that Anabella had in her hand --- and hops on the first train he can.  On the train, Richie notices that he is front page news; he is wanted for questioning in Anabella's murder!  Can Richard clear his name, or will he have to move South and call himself "Ricardo?"  Can he foil the espionage plot?  What are the 39 steps?

Oddly enough, that last question is the least important in the film.  This is one of the quintessential MacGuffins in film history.  In case you are unfamiliar with the term, a MacGuffin is a plot device that gets the story rolling, but fades in importance as the film progresses (sometimes vanishing from the movie entirely).  It's used in thrillers and crime stories more than anything else.  Quentin Tarentino has used MacGuffins in both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction; neither movie was really about the heist money or Marsellus' suitcase, but they were used as tools to tell more interesting stories.

The 39 Steps begins as a thriller, but hits its stride when it changes gears.  This is actually an odd design for a movie.  The beginning and end are clearly taken from the classic thriller mold, but the middle third is almost a classic romantic comedy.  Through a series of coincidences and unfortunate honesty, Richard and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) find themselves on the lam together, despite hating each others guts; in classic romantic comedy style, though, the two quickly fall in love.  While I find the change in tone rather abrupt, I have to admit that the two actors had chemistry on-screen.  Robert Donat's performance even foreshadowed Cary Grant's work.
"Don't you two look deeply in love!  And not at all on edge!"

The main reason to watch an Alfred Hitchcock movie is to see how he tells a story; the man famously quipped that actors should be treated like cattle, so you usually don't find standout performances in his work.  The 39 Steps is certainly a bit rougher than many of his later classic films of the 50s and 60s, but it is still pretty good.  Hitchcock's camera work is still good, even at this early stage.  The use of lighting and the cropping of shots (especially of Richard in the first few scenes) shows a master at work; you might not actively realize it when you're watching, but Hitchcock does a fabulous job of using the camera to imply meaning.  As for the story itself, it made sense, even if it was a little silly at times.  Still, the pace was good, the dialogue clicked, and the cinematography was good, if a little basic.

In its defense, The 39 Steps was made in 1935.  Many of the film tricks used in this movie may have been revolutionary or novel at the time, but have since lost their luster.  For instance, when Anabella's body is discovered, the woman who found the body screams, and that scream blends with a train whistle as the scene shifts to Richard at the train station.  Another overused trick can be seen when Richard remembers Anabella's words and her face pops on screen and does the whole repeating lines fading trick...repeating lines fading trick...repeating lines fading trick.  While these and some of the other techniques used in the film are a little hokey now, they weren't overused at the time, so I try to cut them some slack.

The acting in the film is okay.  I think Robert Donat showed off some real star talent here, but he never quite made the big time, for many personal reasons.  That's too bad because he was pretty charming.  Madeleine Carroll wasn't as good as Donat, but served as an adequate foil for him.  It was nice to see a female character not willingly help the hero in a movie; if I was her, I wouldn't have trusted someone on the run from the police, either.  Lucie Mannheim was less good as a spy, but she did have an accent and she did play up the whole "take me home tonight" card pretty well.

This isn't one of Hitchcock's strongest films, and I don't understand the feverish acclaim it gets from the British press.  It's not bad, though --- Hitchcock doing a decent job is better than most directors on their best day.  I just wish he had been able to maintain a more even tone throughout the film.  Definitely worth a viewing, if only to see someone other than Cary Grant doing his shtick. 

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