The 39 Steps

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #56: Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.

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I would like to pref­ace this review by say­ing that Mar­i­an Keane’s Cri­te­ri­on Essay linked at the end is going to be much bet­ter than any­thing I will write here. The 39 Steps is my favorite Hitch­cock film, made when he was still in Great Britain. In many respects his lat­er work in The Lady Van­ish­es is relat­ed to this film. I have pro­vid­ed more than my usu­al num­ber of screen­shots because there were so many strik­ing ones in this film. Some of the best can­not be repro­duced in still pho­tos, because the cam­era move­ment is the real star. I’m an unabashed fan of Hitchcock’s ear­li­er works, pos­si­bly because of their qual­i­ty in spite of bud­get and the British Board of Film Cen­sors.

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The plot of The 39 Steps is cen­tered around a Cana­di­an in Great Britain who becomes embroiled in a spy ring and is wrong­ly accused of mur­der. With only one clue and a tal­ent for on-the-spot sto­ry-telling, he flees to Scot­land from the cronies of a man with a short­ened pinky fin­ger in order to track down a Pro­fes­sor who turns out to have a short­ened pinky fin­ger. You see, they are try­ing to trans­port a gov­ern­ment secret about a new plane out of the coun­try to an unnamed for­eign pow­er. Of course, you don’t find out about this until the last minute or two of the film, in typ­i­cal Hitch­cock­ian sus­pense mode.

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Along the way, the Cana­di­an Richard Han­nay keeps bump­ing in to this blonde woman who keeps turn­ing him over to the police/spies from which he keeps escap­ing. Even in the most seri­ous of scenes Hitch­cock man­ages to place lit­tle bits of humor such as this to light­en the inten­si­ty of the action. And it isn’t the same sort of humor at every point, some is low-brow, some comes from awk­ward sit­u­a­tion com­e­dy and there is plen­ty of wry wit from the pro­tag­o­nist him­self.

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Most peo­ple think hor­ror when they think Hitch­cock, but it is mys­tery and sus­pense that are the bread and but­ter of his films. The deft­ness with which these traits are met­ed out in The 39 Steps, cou­pled with Hitchcock’s abil­i­ty to add a twist right when we think the sus­pense is going to be sus­pend­ed make the film inter­est­ing at every moment. The char­ac­ters we meet, though only briefly, have last­ing impacts through­out the film, and the most innocu­ous of items or actions cre­ate a sim­i­lar rip­ple effect. It takes a spe­cial sort of direc­tor to so eas­i­ly rough­en the waters and sub­se­quent­ly still them and have a good time while doing it. Thank­ful­ly Hitch­cock is that man.

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Cri­te­ri­on Essay by Mar­i­an Keane.
Detailed Film Site film review.
• Down­load the entire nov­el by John Buchan at Project Guten­berg.
Hitch­cock Online
Dr. Macro has scans and WMV clips.

2 Replies

  • If I was moti­vat­ed enough to adjust the con­trast and bright­ness on my mon­i­tor when I did the screen cap­ture it would be even more exquis­ite. There are a few details in the fore­ground that dis­ap­peared when I shrunk the pho­to.

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