Monday, June 20, 2011

The 39 Steps (1935)

Don't walk away from this early Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

The 39 Steps: The Criterion Collection, one of the last films the master director made in his native England before leaving for the United States, is a must-see gem.


The 39 Steps boasts plenty of humour, suspense and several sequences that are a great treat to watch more than 75 years later. How rare it is to see present-day filmmakers create stunning scenes that Hitchcock did, repeatedly, so many years earlier.

A chance encounter at a London music hall brings Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) together with the aptly named Miss Smith (Lucie Mannheim), a female spy for hire.

She tells him sensitive information is in danger of being smuggled out of England. When the woman is murdered in his apartment, Hannay is believed to be the killer. He finds a map of Scotland with a community circled in her hand. The race is on.

While eluding capture from police, Hannay goes searching for a quarry of his own -- those who want to make off with secrets vital to the British government.

He unwittingly walks right into the lair of Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), a well-respected community leader who's good friends with police brass, and the top henchman.


When Hannay is turned over to Scottish police, he escapes and takes refuge in a meeting hall. He's mistaken for the featured speaker at a political rally. What follows is one of The 39 Step's best scenes -- Hannay speaking from all-too-familiar first-hand knowledge of the little guy being persecuted. The crowd becomes wildly enthusiastic during his passionate, off-the-cuff address.

It's at that hall he's reunited with Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). She didn't believe his claims of innocence during an earlier meeting on a train and turned him in to police. There's some nice chemistry between the two, especially when they rent a room at an inn and are mistaken by the owners as illicit lovers having a fling.

When she learns he really is an innocent man on the run, Pamela helps him during a final showdown at another concert hall. Hitchcock used a similar setting for both his versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much. In The 39 Steps, the payoff is the staging of police moving in on Professor Jordan when the curtain literally comes down.


Peggy Ashcroft impresses as a young wife of dour Scottish farmer. Her career would continue for almost another 55 years, including a major role in David Lean's A Passage to India (1984).

Watch for an impressive, quick shot of Hannay standing behind bars of a kitchen chair suggesting the very imprisonment he fears. There's a neat cut between Hannay's apartment building superintendent finding the dead woman's body and a train's whistle. Verbal jabs about clueless police and wisecracking audience members offer solid laughs.

The 39 Steps is great entertainment from one of the best directors ever.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Donat appeared as the title character in Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1939. The 39 Steps was Ashcroft's second film credit. John Laurie, who appeared as Ashcroft's husband, made his film debut in Hitchcock's Juno and the Paycock (1930).

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