The 39 Steps (1935)
An Alfred Hitchcock Film based on the John Buchan novel
The 39 Steps (1935) is one of those films that has always been important in the Powers family. Growing up in Petersham in the 1970s we pretty much watched the film every time it was on television but I’ve never appreciated it as much as I did tonight.
Although it doesn’t have the budget of Hitchcock’s American films (from 1940 onwards), it is by far the most carefully crafted and beautifully scripted of his British films to that point. Along with The Lady Vanishes (1938) it is the most confident and creative of the films from this period. The suspense that it builds is impressive, as are the light comic touches in the last half of the film.
The scenes of the pursuit across the Scottish highlands are beautifully photographed and the performance are all well done, throughout. The missing tip of the little finger, the bullet in the hymnal, the train trip, the realisation of how the British defence secrets are going to be disseminated to the Germans, all have those Hitchcock touches that are part of his tradition.
Donat’s performance is nicely timed, mixing fear and adrenalin. Madeleine Carroll is very amusing as the beautiful blonde who refuses to believe anything that Hannay tells her. The couple at the inn are beautifully cast, and the dialogue is exceedingly well written. One of the great gags in the film is the political endorsement that Hannay finds himself delivering off the cuff, peppered with amusing double-meanings.
The adaptation is credited to Hitchcock’s frequent collaborator Charles Bennett. The dialogue is by Ian Hay.
The producer was England’s Michael Balcon, the uncredited producer of many of Hitchcock’s British films. who later produced classics like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Eureka Stockade (1949) and Scott of the Antarctic (1948).
I reckon it’s been fifteen years since I last watched The 39 Steps and it is better than ever. The Criterion Collection DVD is impressive when compared to the prints I’ve had to endure over the years. Well worth the $50 it cost to import it, to finally see it in such pristine condition.