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Hitchapalooza 6: The 39 Steps As Blueprint August 11, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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By the time he got to his 18th (count ’em!) film, 1935s The Thirty Nine Steps, Hitchcock had laid out a formula for a comically-tinged thriller that he’d go back to time and time again – that of the innocent man who by pure chance gets tangled up in intrigue, gets wrongly accused of a crime, and must go on the run to clear his name. Along the way, he will run into some beautiful icy blonde who will eventually become his ally. We’ll see this again in Saboteur and North By Northwest, as well as variations on this same theme in Young & Innocent and To Catch A Thief.

It’s amazing how many similarities there are between The 39 Steps and the formula in Hitchcock’s later refinements of it. Robert Donat’s glib character evokes the later Cary Grant variations on it. The hero and heroine are handcuffed together, reminding us of Bob Cummings’ handcuffs in Saboteur. The icy/later warm blonde played by Madeline Carroll would turn up later played by Grace Kelly or Eva Marie Saint. The villains are elegant and charming gentlemen who present a veneer of respectability and innocence. Only later in Saboteur and North By Northwest did Hitchcock combine this with an earlier trademark of his, that of staging his finales in large imposing settings, such as the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore (much like the setting of the British Museum in his first sound film, 1929s Blackmail.)

All in all, this one is great fun and a wonderful way to identify a lot of the director’s signatures across his other films, whether it’s the use of dysfunctional couples juxtaposed against our romantic protagonists (John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft serve that purpose here. In Rear Window, it’s nearly everyone Jimmy Stewart peeps on, for example.) or in the simple motif of revealing plot-determining conversations listened to from the tops of staircases.

This is the film that also got Hollywood’s attention, and that makes sense, since it’s an excellent example of a successful formula for a light thriller with a romantic tinge firing on all cylinders.

BUT – Hardcore Film Geek Alert! – Since this film is in the public domain, there are many different versions of it on DVD, and most of these are from flawed prints with bad soundtracks. Despite my deep love of being cheap, I highly recommend The Criterion Collection Version of The Thirty Nine Steps, which has excellent sound (and it’s the acid-test, understanding rapid-Brit-30s-speak) and a clean sharp print transfer – the chase across the Scottish moors and the nighttime escape look particularly crisp, much better than my fuzzy memory of a screening of this I saw many years ago. It also has some nice extras, notably a short documentary on Hitchcock’s early British films. It was definitely worth getting to see this film again in all its glory.

In case you’re curious, Criterion has also put out editions of The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Notorious & Spellbound. Remember, it’s nice to send Wagstaff gifts…

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