THE 39 STEPS (1935) B/W 85m dir: Alfred Hitchcock
w/Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, Helen Haye, Wylie Watson, Frank Cellier, Peggy Simpson, Gus McNaughton, Jerry Verno
From The Movie Guide: "Along with THE LADY VANISHES, one of Hitchcock's best British films, and a prototype for so much of what would follow in his American career. For those who love a grand spy mystery, a wild chase, and a harrowing portrait of an innocent man struggling to prove his innocence while the world turns inexplicably against him, THE 39 STEPS is ideal. ...
"This is one of the best films of its genre and it richly displays Hitchcock's complete and playful mastery of the language of filmmaking. The handcuffing sequence (which still influences films today, e.g., the remake of D.O.A.) is one of the cinema's greatest. Hitch also has great fun with the sound bridge linking a screaming woman with a train whistle, and the final assassination attempt recalls THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Carroll makes for an appealing heroine and Donat brings his oddly wispy quality to the man on the run. He looks curiously androgynous in this film; the oh-so-trim mustache and his lilting voice add a vulnerability to his character which distinguishes it from the run-of-the-mill hero. Tearle [as Professor Jordan] is splendid, as is Watson [playing Mr. Memory] in his most famous role, but who we really like are Peggy Ashcroft and John Laurie. This gifted stage actress and this striking, reliable actor of many films lend something in tense to the married couple Hannay [Donat] encounters while on the run. Ashcroft is extremely moving as a woman strangled in her marriage and home life, desperately grateful for whatever the strange Hannay may bring into it. Such scenes as this linger in the memory as long as the more typically Hitchcockian setpieces, and it does credit to the master director's versatility. (It somehow seems more his style that he actually handcuffed Carroll and Donat on the set one day to get them used to their scenes together ... he of course then vanished from the set!)"
From the Criterion website (www.criterion.com), "The 39 Steps" by Michael Wilmington:
"Movie thrillers may come and go, but after half a century, Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps still reigns supreme. And not only for the sheer, breathless excitement of the story; the seamless construction; the chilling, beautifully realized atmosphere; and the constant, startling stream of plot twists. Nor for its historical importance, though almost every chase and spy thriller since 1935 copies it slavishly. Nor for its actors --- despite a truly excellent ensemble: Madeleine Carroll as Pamela, the cool Hitchcockian blond; Lucie Mannheim as a seductive lady of mystery; Godfrey Tearle as an urbane master criminal; Peggy Ashcroft and John Laurie as a moody farming couple on the barren Scottish moors; Wylie Watson as that Proustian prodigy, Mr. Memory --- and, at the center, Robert Donat as the endlessly suave and resilient Richard Hannay, a fugitive who keeps his quiet wit and brilliant resources, no matter what dangerous curve Fate (and Hitchcock) manage to throw him.
"More than anything else, the film keeps its preeminent place because this is the movie in which Hitchcock became 'Hitchcock' and for which he earned the reputation which he never relinquished as 'The Master of Suspense.' Hitchcock had major successes before, but The 39 Steps was the first with major international impact. No previous Hitchcock so gripped, amused or thrilled audiences from Europe to America, Australia to Asia. More than any of his previous 19 British films, or the five which followed, it is the movie which was responsible for his emigration to America, as a first-rank filmmaker. In fact, for many years, most critics insisted that Hitchcock had never equaled or surpassed The 39 Steps. Well into the 1960s, it was still commonly called his best movie. Andre Bazin: 'It remains indubitably his masterpiece and a model for detective comedies.' Pauline Kael: 'This suave, amusing spy melodrama is ... charged with wit; it’s one of the three or four best things Hitchcock ever did.'
"The Hitchcock of 1935 was a director of a decade’s experience, the master of his craft, adapting a novel by one of his favorite authors, John Buchan. And Hitchcock was telling a story of strong personal appeal --- so strong that he used bits and pieces of it throughout his career. In Young and Innocent (1937), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Saboteur (1942), To Catch a Thief (1955), North by Northwest (1959), Torn Curtain (1966), and Frenzy (1972), we get part, or most, of the basic situation here: the 'wrong man,' wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit, fleeing through dangerous or colorful locales --- sometimes engaged in erotic sparring with a woman both desirous and fearful of him, trying desperately to find the evil doppelganger who has committed the sins which cling to him.
"In discussing the film with Truffaut, Hitchcock said: 'What I like best about The 39 Steps are the swift transitions.' And it’s that swift, unremitting pace, those lightning transitions, that keep it fresh, bewitching. The editing is so ingenious that some examples have become textbook legends: the landlady’s scream, on discovering a corpse, which, before we hear it, becomes the shriek of the train whistle as Hannay escapes. We race at breakneck speed, from the seedy London streets and the Palladium Music Hall, through the forbidding Scottish moors under eternal, glowering skies, and back to London, where another Palladium performance squares the circle.
"But the swift transitions are more than geographic or physical. Hitchcock, as he would many times again, offers a dizzying set of moral alterations: a world where love and death, fear and desire are in constant, nerve-wracking, and sometimes acidly humorous juxtaposition. Hannay begins his perilous odyssey with what seems an innocuous peccadillo: meeting and taking home a woman who calls herself 'Mrs. Smith.' Romance leads to danger: the woman is not a pickup; she is a hunted spy, fearful for her life. Hannay escapes from his London flat by pretending to a milkman that he is a lady-killer, ducking a vengeful husband --- something he very nearly becomes later, on the moors, when a dour farmer mistakes his desperation for lust. Later he tries to escape the police by passionately embracing a total stranger (to her fury); while still later, he winds up manacled to that same stranger, taking refuge at an inn where the beaming landlady, impressed at their constant togetherness, exclaims: 'They’re so terribly in love with each other!' Love and death, sex and slaughter --- these are the poles of the universe so playfully presented here: supplanting each other, reversing and replacing each other, becoming a shadowy, deeply disturbing double mirror.
"The 39 Steps is that rarity: a bona fide cinematic masterpiece which the public clasps to its bosom, a great work which is also a great crowd-pleaser: amusing and scary, engaging and engrossing, full of dazzling light and eerie shadow. Hitchcock liked to remark, with what may have been a sly touch of self-deprecation: 'Most films are slices of life. Mine are slices of cake.' This particular cake is one of his most luscious: dark, savory, a richly compulsive treat."
THE 39 STEPS WAS adapted from the John Buchan novel by Charles Bennett, Alma Reville (Mrs. Hitchcock), and Ian Hay. Hitchcock's American film which most resembles THE 39 STEPS in narrative, structure, and themes is the equally stunning NORTH BY NORTHWEST with Cary Grant.