From the Desk of Bigger Boat Pictures: The 39 Steps (1935)

From the Desk of Bigger Boat Pictures:
The 39 Steps (1935)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Reviewed by James Rosario

39 Steps Poster
From its opening off kilter shot of a small time box office, to the cuffed hand holding of its closing shot, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) never misses a beat. It’s premise should be familiar to fans of Hitchcock, or mystery/intrigue movies, a genre he helped, if not singlehandedly defined. A man is accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and it’s up to him, with the help of a reluctant and beautiful young lady, to prove his innocence.

It’s a basic plot that has become old hat, but in 1935 it was a pretty fresh concept. Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is a Canadian in London on business. After gunshots interrupt the performance of  “Mr. Memory” (Wylie Watson), Hannay ends up helping a young woman who says she’s in trouble by taking her home to his flat so she can hide. She identifies herself as Annabella Smith (Lucie Manneim), a spy trying to prevent foreign agents from moving secret documents out of the country. That night she is murdered in Hannay’s apartment and he, of course, gets the blame. This sets off the mystery and the chase.

39 Steps - Fingers

The rest of the film deals with Hannay being pursued by both the police who think him a murderer, and the foreign agents who think he knows something. It’s hard to write about the plot without giving the ending away, but let’s just say that there’s plenty of twists and turns, and that the mystery pays off in a big way when it is revealed in the end. If you’re like me, and have been paying attention, you’ll find yourself screaming “Of course!!!” when you get there. I bet I know exactly when that moment will happen for you too.

A delightful mystery story for sure, but that’s not all the film has going for it. It also happens to be very funny, thanks largely to the chemistry between the leads. Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) initially meets Hannay on the train from London to Scotland where she proceeds to, without hesitation, turn him into the police. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I’d be willing to bet that 99 out a 100 “meet cute” scenes don’t end in an arrest, even though they probably should. They meet cute a second time during a very clever scene that has Hannay posing as a political rabble-rouser giving a very generic, yet effectively grand speech about how the world ought to be. Pamela spots him and immediately (again) alerts the authorities. Two meet cute arrests. Brilliant!. It’s funny and it’s effective, and it sets up the second half of the film perfectly.

39 Steps - Stockings

On a side note, I have to say I laughed out loud at the sheep joke that happens a bit later on. I won’t give it away, but keep your eyes and ears peeled for it. It’s subtle, much like all of the humor in the film, but it’s worth it.

The film is not overtly political, violent, or racy (although the scene in which Pamela must remove her stockings in front of Hannay probably raised a few eyebrows and caused a few flutters back in 1935), but it does offers a better story than anything you’re likely to see anytime soon. They just don’t seem to make them like this anymore. Not often, anyway. To put it simply, Hitchcock knew what the hell he was doing, and he was on fire in 1935.

 The 39 Steps is largely considered Hitchcock’s first masterpiece in a long list of masterpieces, and it’s films like this that set the bar for anything of worth that comes down the pike. Gore, nudity, and fart jokes aren’t what makes a film good. Storytelling is, and that’s what we’ve got here, a very good story told by a master. There’s no blood and only a handful of murders, but it is more fun, and has a better payoff than anything I can think of in recent years. Can you handle that?

39 Steps - Tunnel

 And yes, you do find out what “The 39 Steps” are, in case you were wondering.


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