Monday, July 25, 2011

The 39 Steps (1935)

Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll hide from
dangerous spies in Alfred Hitchcock's
comedy/thriller The 39 Steps
I don't know if The 39 Steps is the best of film in Hitchcock's British oeuvre, but it's certainly the most popular and a personal favorite of mine. Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll star in this extremely fun yarn following Hitchcock's favorite plot device: the ordinary man caught in a spy intrigue, a trope he used again and again in such films as Sabotage, Saboteur, The Lady VanishesForeign Correspondent, Secret Agent, NotoriousThe Man Who Knew Too Much (both versions), and North by Northwest - I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting in there as well.

 What makes this movie work so well is the combination of a fast, suspenseful plot, colorful characters, and great situational humor that is often hilarious. When a beautiful spy is found murdered in Richard Hannay's (Robert Donat) apartment, the police naturally assume he's the culprit when in reality though, he was just an innocent bystander. Before she died, however, the spy confided her mission to him, so now Hannay must go on the run from the police in order to stop a dangerous group of foreign agents before they smuggle sensitive information out of the country. That's the plot in a nutshell, and of course there are exciting and funny complications along the way such as quirky Scottish farmers and a political rally that Hannay crashes. He ends up hand-cuffed to a young woman (Madeleine Carroll), whom he must convince of his innocence in order to continue on his journey.

Apart from an abrupt ending, which is typical of films from the '30s,  I really can't find many faults with this movie. Robert Donat is an absolute delight as Richard Hannay: quick-witted, erstwhile, sarcastic, occasionally playful, and completely believable as an ordinary man drawn on an extraordinary quest. Madeleine Carroll is also perfect as the woman who unwillingly comes to believe in his improbable tale and falls for him in the process. As good as the two lead actors are, however, the show is really stolen by the wonderful and silly cast of minor characters, my favorite of which are the Scottish innkeeper and his wife.  In addition the dialog is crisp as a bag of chips and Hitchcock's direction really gets the most out of each scene in terms of suspense and irony. In all, it's about as much fun as you can have with a Hitchcock movie, which is saying something indeed.

Many people compare this movie to the other great early/British Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes, which is also a wonderful film, but I think this one works better simply because the pacing is much faster. Whereas, as my colleague Publius already noted in his review of The Lady Vanishes, the first twenty minutes of the aforementioned film are rather slow, The 39 Steps starts quickly, with an attempted murder within the first five minutes, and things only escalate from there. Things are kept, however, from getting overly intense by the comical situations, making this one of those movies you can watch over and over again with pleasure.

I give this movie an 8.3 out of 10, a true Hitchcock masterpiece.

Buy from Amazon
The 39 Steps,  Sabotage / The LodgerThe Lady Vanishes: The Criterion CollectionSaboteur,The Man Who Knew Too MuchNorth by Northwest (50th Anniversary Edition)Foreign CorrespondentThe Secret AgentNotorious

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