The 39 Steps (1935)
written by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, based on a novel by John Buchan
Many consider this film to be Hitchcock's best of his British era, but I found it to be a lesser version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. It features essentially the same plot: the murder of a secret agent sends a regular person(s) into a world of spies, chases, escapes and assassination in order to save the Empire. Hitchcock certainly displays the same attitude here: both are fun, funny, suspenseful and filled with some real human moments.
For me, the key difference between the two films can be found in the main character. I don't think I like Hannay much at all. Everything's so effortless to him. This secret agent business literally falls into his lap and he assumes the mantle of super-spy with ease. Shove him in front of a crowd and he'll make up a political speech out of thin air to rouse the masses. Reveal yourself as the villain by displaying your nine-fingered hand and he'll react with bravado. Shoot him and he'll pretend to fall over dead, allow you to carry him to a dumping spot, escape and then make jokes about the hymnal that stopped the bullet. While this may be fun to watch in a proto-James Bond manner, he's not someone I can identify with. Personally, I'd be throwing chairs at people.
The little moments Hitchcock captures along the way make up for this improbably talented non-spy. There's this eye crinkle Professor Jordan does when he's discussing spy stuff with Hannay through euphemisms. There's the way Hannay tries desperately to read the newspaper story about him after the pair across the aisle from him stop discussing it. And, of course, the scene between Hannay, Margaret and her grumpy husband on the Scottish moors is full of great stuff: subtle manipulation by Hannay, the wistfulness of Margaret, the suspicious of the husband. That's the stuff you look forward to seeing in a good Hitchcock movie to fill in the gaps between the suspense and excitement. (7/10)
Watched the region 1 DVD released by Criterion in 1999. It's a pretty old Criterion disc (spine #56) and could probably use a good re-release. Not a bad print/transfer, still.
21 December 2008
The 39 Steps (1935)