Friday, June 17, 2011

The 39 Steps (Hitchcock. 1935)

"I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me, and those are things that no men or women ought to feel."


In a music hall that is packed from wall to wall we are introduced to a man who knows the answer to any question a person can ask him, Mr. Memory. As his act continues, the crowd starts to get wild and frantic. Suddenly, gunshots shatter the noise of the crowd as people run toward the door in fear. After everyone is out of the hall, Annabella Smith asks to be invited back to the home of a young debonair bachelor named Richard Hannay. Once she is in his home, Smith reveals that she is an agent for hire on the run from two dangerous killers; she fired the shots to escape them in the music hall. She is mysteriously murdered in the night by these killers. Hannay is blamed. He runs.

This is the beginning of the mystery thriller, The 39 Steps. From the start the audience knows that this film will constantly be moving. Because it was directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, I was expecting an intense thriller with several twists, turns and obstacles. I was disappointed when I did not get any of those things. The 39 Steps is one of the most straightforward films I have ever seen. I would not say that it was bad, but it was just really average.

By saying that a film of Hitchcock’s is average, I have almost surely alienated an entire subsection of my audience. But I was simply not impressed by the efforts in The 39 Steps. Do not get me wrong, there was some very fine mustachioed acting by Robert Donat (Hannay) and even a very good looking leading lady played by Madeleine Carroll. The chemistry is thick as their relationship grows from enemies to lovers.

At first it is impossible for Pamela (Carroll) to believe the outlandish story that Hannay tells her. I mean, who could believe a story that ridiculous? A man is framed for the murder of a mysterious female agent who is trying to protect a dangerous secret from leaking to the world? Sure, I’ll buy that. No way. But, after a series of unfortunate events, Pamela finally comes around to believe these stories – and even falls in love with Hannay.

I wish I could say that the rest of the film did not play out in a fashion this predictable, but everything in The 39 Steps seems to follow the basic formula. Conflict is caused. Conflict is continued. The main characters fall in love. Conflict is solved and the good guys win. Though this narrow storytelling style dominates the majority of the picture, two questions go unanswered until the very end. But sadly, the answers are breathtakingly anticlimactic.

These two questions center on the title of the film. What are the 39 Steps? What is the secret that Annabella Smith died trying to protect? I will not spoil the outcome of this widely considered classic, but I will assure you that these questions have very dull answers.

I guess I have to remember that Hitchcock had not yet reached his glory years by the release of The 39 Steps. But I have to admit that this seems to be a low point in the career of the great director. In terms of Hitchcock's "innocent man on the run" films, I much prefer North by Northwest (1959).

But still, Alfred Hitchcock remains the most influencial artist in the history of cinema, and The 39 Steps remains a classic. Though I will never understand why...

The 39 Steps: C


My Next Film...Earth (Dovzhenko. 1930)

*NOTE* Hitchcock is famous for his cameos in 39 of his films. He appears on screen just seven minutes into The 39 Steps. He is tossing paper in front of the bus. Try not to miss him.

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