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Flashback: on 1935’s The 39 Steps

My second official watch of this Hitchcock classic, but it’s probably been a quarter of a century since the first. And via the gorgeous Criterion Collection DVD transfer, I can ascertain—it holds up marvelously. Shot towards the end of the great director’s British film period spanning the mid 1920’s through the late 1930’s—Hollywood soon beckoned. And Alfred’s first production in Tinseltown? The winner of the 1940 Best Picture Academy Award, “Rebecca”. So, a pretty good start, don’t you think? After arriving in America, Hitch’s films would get bigger and grander and much more expensive. And they would get longer too. Renowned masterpieces like “Rebecca”, 1958’s “Vertigo” and 1959’s “North by Northwest” all clock in at over two hours. “The 39 Steps”, however, is a brisk and trim 86 minutes. No fat, no messing around, but still rife with Hitchcock touchstones—including a cameo from the director(he walks past a bus early in the film). The movie stars a dashing Robert Donat as Richard Hannay—a Hitchcock standard wrongly accused man. And beautiful Madeleine Carroll is Pamela—the very first of the director’s soon-to-be lengthy list of icy-blond female leads. And who that has seen it can ever forget Mr. Memory(Wylie Watson), along with his entertaining music hall act that opens and closes this 1935 thriller? “Am I right, sir”! Quite right.

Richard Hannay(Mr. Donat)is watching a London theatre demonstration of the recall powers of someone monikered “Mr. Memory”(Wylie Watson). “Mr. Memory” has the talent of being able to answer, in great detail, virtually anything asked of him. This includes questions ranging from knowing the exact distance in miles between two cities in Canada, to naming which fighter was the last British Heavyweight Champion of the World(although he never quite seems to answer the repeated queries of “how old is Mae West”!). The music hall crowd, which has been rowdy since the show started, gets more boisterous in the attempt to yell out their questions—when suddenly shots are fired. During the panicked rush outside, Hannay finds himself in the company of the frightened Annabella Smith(Lucie Mannheim). She persuades Hannay to usher her to a safe place(his apartment!), where she weaves a tale of her being a spy, on-the-run from assassins, claiming she’s uncovered a plot involving the theft of British military secrets. During her diatribe, Ms. Smith alludes to the mysterious “39 steps”. Hannay assures Smith that she will be safe with him, as the strangers retire to separate rooms. Overnight, Annabella bursts into Hannay’s room—with a knife in her back! Soon on the run, mistakenly blamed for her murder, Hannay eventually has an encounter on a train with the pretty Pamela(Ms. Carroll). Asking her to help him steer clear from police, she refuses, and attempts to turn him in. A series of exciting chases and close shaves ensue, leading us through the foggy countryside and eventually another encounter with Pamela—upon which they end up handcuffed together! It all leads right back to the London music hall, where the mystery of the “39 steps” is finally revealed.

This is an early Hitchcock masterpiece that is richly detailed despite its brevity. Derived from a 1915 book-of-the-same-name by John Buchan, the story has inspired a number of film versions, radio programs—and even a much-admired 2007 Broadway and West End play. But the late Sir Alfred’s 1935 film version is the most famous by far. It’s a spry, little thriller with a sprinkling of elements from screwball, romantic comedy. And there’s a wowser of a final reveal. It’s a film that has aged extremely well. Crisply paced and very well acted—it also sports a crackling screenplay. I am especially found of the almost throwaway shouts and mumblings from the music hall crowd as they battle to get their questions answered by the remarkable Mr. Memory. “The 39 Steps” is can’t-miss work from the “master of suspense”… and one of his very best films.   Grade:  A

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2 comments on “Flashback: on 1935’s The 39 Steps

  1. We saw the broadway adaptation of this when it ran and were completely surprised by how original and creative it was. Using a minimal cast, set, and props they stayed surprisingly true to the movie. If you ever get a chance to see a revival check it out.
    It’s much more successful at comedy than Hitchcock’s own attempt in Family Plot.

    • I’m sorry I missed it when it ran in New York, Sandy. It was very well received, I remember—glad that you got the chance to check it out. But give Hitch a break on “Family Plot”—it was the last gasp! ML

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