Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The 39 Steps (1935)

Back again, and this time, I'm reviewing another film from the incomparable Alfred Hitchcock-1935 thriller The 39 Steps!

This is one of those rare movies that are much better than the books they're based on. In this case, the movie 39 Steps wasn't anti-semitic, the good guys actually win, thus not making the entire story pointless, and it fixes plot holes the book had. Oh Hitch, you could make the phone book into a gripping movie!...Actually, come to think of it, that's exactly the kind of thing he'd do-There's a conspiracy afoot, and a random guy notices some irregularities in his phone book, eventually uncovering a terrifying secret...

British-Canadian Richard Hannay is enjoying his brief stay in London, when during chaos at a Palladium, he meets a woman named Annabella, who wants to go home with him. Once they arrive at his flat, Arabella acts paranoid, traversing through rooms in the dark and hiding out of the windows' field-of-vision until Hannay turns the lights on. She starts to tell Hannay that she's a spy, working a job for the British government. An important piece of knowledge has been stolen by an enemy nation, and the consequences will be dire if the information gets out of the country. Before Arabella can say much else, she's stabbed in the back while Hannay's sleeping. Knowing the police won't believe his story, Hannay escapes his apartment, avoiding being shadowed by the two men who were watching him all night, and soon branded a fugitive, he heads to Scotland, to clear his name, and try and uncover what exactly the 39 steps are...

The 39 Steps, as far as I think, at least, isn't widely beloved and considered as one of Hitchcock's best because it's an amazing film that challenges you, and leaves you shaken by its stark intricacies of our world, or scared senseless by terrifying chills, but moreso because it's just so good at what it is-A thoroughly enjoyable man-on-the-run crime caper, a simple story that does exactly what it sets out to do-Entertain.

The writing and directing is all good, with some scenes tense, and others humorous. The movie's best line by far is when Hannay and Pamela (a woman who ends up getting dragged into the whole mess, believing what the news is saying about Hannay) are cuffed together-Hannay: "Now look here, Miss, once more, I'm telling you the truth. I told you once in the train last week, and I tried to tell you after the election meeting this evening, and I'm telling it to you now for the third time. There's a dangerous conspiracy against this island, and we're the only people who can stop it..."-Pamela: "The gallant knight to the rescue."-Hannay: "Alright, then I'm just a plain common murderer, who stabbed an innocent defenseless woman in the back not four days ago, how do you come out over that? I don't know how innocent you may be, but you're a woman, and you're defenseless, and you're alone on a desolate moor, in the dark, manacled to a murderer who'll stop at nothing to get you off his hands. If that's the situation you prefer, have it, my lovely, and welcome!"

Like I said, the story here fixes a huge plot hole from the book. Here, Hannay knows how to find the character Jordan because of the missing finger Annabella told him about, and because she has a map of Scotland, with a small district/town/whatever circled, where she intends on going. In the book, it's a mite different-Hannay has no such direction, or clues. He runs off from the police, and in all the places he could possibly hide in, he hides in the house that just so happens to be where the spy ringleader lives! Did I already say don't read the book, because seriously, don't!

There are some Hitchockian tropes here, such as memory, trains, and the bread knife gets due foreshadowing. No cameo I could see anywhere though. Hitch does have one here apparently, and I even know where it supposedly is, but I still can't see him-believe me, I've looked thoroughly.

The acting is all good, with the two leads, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, being the best. The only weak link is Lucie Mannheim, who plays Annabella. Her delivery is pretty subpar when her character is alive, but the lines in the flashback montage of her after her death are delivered extremely poorly.

While it is very good, The 39 Steps isn't without problems. When Hannay is at Sir Jordan's house, and is shot, he falls down, seemingly dead, and after a brief interlude of the Scottish farmer, we cut to the very next scene and Hannay is suddenly alive and well, in a different building, talking to a police officer, about his miraculous survival and escape...which happened entirely offscreen! The two laugh like old chums, and then the man, a police commissioner, suddenly calls in his men, as he doesn't believe Hannay's story, and it's at this point when your brain will have finally realized what the hell's even happened! Did they run out of shooting time, or what?!

Oh, and Hannay just so happens to survive getting shot because the jacket he just so happened to be wearing just so happened to have a friggin' hymn book in the exact spot where the bullet struck!

Godfrey Teale does an ok job as the villainous spymaster Jordan, but he only has a bare handful of scenes, and thus doesn't leave an impact at all.

Also, I wish that we could have gotten at least one more scene with Margaret, the farmer's wife, as the last we see of her is her brutish husband finding out that she helped Hannay escape, and he starts bashing her. Next scene, and she's never seen again, as if the scriptwriter forgot about her.

And finally, there is no denouement. Only a climax, which resolves quickly, then Hanney and Pamela hold handsMOVIEOVER! Not even any ending credits, as everything, even the cast listing, was shown at the start, as some movies of this era were wont to do.

The 39 Steps is in the public domain, and thus, it's very easy to find it cheaply. The PD print quality is obviously not perfect, but it's still good, and isn't bad enough to detract from the viewing experience in the slightest. Though I suppose at this point in time, someone's released an HD DVD of the movie.

So, yeah, I absolutely recommend The 39 Steps! It's a fantastic Hitchcock thriller, and well worth your time!

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