The Film: 'The 39 Steps' (1935), Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll and Lucie Manheim.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: As a young movie buff, Alfred Hitchcock was the first "classic" director to resonate with me. I devoured 'Psycho,' 'The Birds,' 'North By Northwest,' 'Rear Window,' 'Vertigo' and countless others and to this day, I consider myself a huge fan and admirer of his work. Well, at least his American work. As you can infer from that list, my experience with his British films is, well, limited, at best. When I say that the only British Hitchcock I've seen is the original 'The Man Who Knew Too Much,' I promise you that my head is hanging in shame.
Pre-Viewing Assumptions: If you didn't know that Alfred Hitchcock directed 'The 39 Steps,' you could probably come to that conclusion just by looking at the plot: an innocent man, accused of a crime he didn't commit, goes on the run from the authorities while trying to find the people who set him up in the first place and clear his name. This is a set-up that Hitchock will exploit in every possible way in the decades to come (and will lead to thousands of imitators, both exceptional and tired), but this may very well be the birth of the "chase movie" as we know it today.
To a modern audience, the thrills of 'The 39 Steps' may seem a little quaint -- after all, the film is 75 years old and made during a time when the envelope couldn't be pushed because the envelope was still under construction (Hitchcock would do a good job smashing that envelope into oblivion with 'Psycho' twenty five years later). As a cultural artifact, the film remains remarkable, not only because it showcases Hitchcock building his voice but because you can see the entire suspense genre finding its footing here (it's the same feeling you get for the action genre when you watch Akira Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai'). While it may be tough for a modern viewer to derive visceral thrills from 'The 39 Steps,' it's easy to place yourself in the shoes of a viewer from 1935, to break down what Hitchcock is doing with the camera and understand how and why this movie is so damn important. It's like reading a novel published in the 18th or 19th century: the language is different now, but man, what language!
I expect to love 'The 39 Steps' in the same way that I love, oh, let's say 'Metropolis.' Older films (particularly those before 1940 or so) operate on a different level -- they're rougher than modern movies, but at the same time, more pure. They exist outside of the Hollywood style (the Hollywood language?) that would become the norm, meaning that films from the first half of the 20th century often feel fresher (well, at least more interesting) than the vast majority of modern releases.
But of course, I'm writing about this instead of sticking to 'The 39 Steps' because I really have no idea what to expect from the film and need to somehow pad this section out. Now, where did I put that DVD...
Post-Viewing Reaction: 'The 39 Steps' is a very good movie.
With that said, allow me to commit some potential cinematic blasphemy and say that it's not a great movie. An important movie, particularly to Hitchcock's career? Sure. An influential movie? Obviously. An incredibly entertaining movie that packs more than a handful of surprises and twists? It's Hitchcock, so, uh, duh. So whats the problem here?
Well, the real problem here is age.
Some movies age gracefully, their narrative shortcomings morphing into what I've heard Roger Ebert describe as "dream-like." I'd argue this is the case with (because I've already brought it up once before in this column) 'Metropolis,' which is filled with creative decisions that would feel primitive and odd if seen in a modern film but when viewed through the 80-years-later lens, they becoming entrancing and unique, not just an old fashioned style, but a style from another world altogether. On the other end of the "aged gracefully" spectrum are film classics like 'Citizen Kane' and 'Casablanca,' movies that remain well-regarded because they successfully blended cinematic technique with the storytelling freedom that came with the advent of sound recording.
'The 39 Steps' falls square into a period of painful growth for film as an art form. With sound film came bulky noisy cameras that had to sit in their own little bunkers to avoid ruining audio recording. Silent filmmakers, who had been finding exciting, amazing things to do with their cameras, were now almost completely locked down and something as simple as a tracking shot was now an ordeal. Perhaps this is why many of the best films from the early to mid 1930s are screwball comedies that rely on sight gags and witty dialogue -- you don't necessarily need exciting cinematography to laugh.
Of course, there are many, many exceptions to this (the original 1933 'King Kong' is the film that sits on the edge of my mind and tells me that I don't know what I'm talking about), but there is almost certainly a gap of quality between the pinnacle of silent film in the late 1920s and the massively sophisticated films that began to emerge in the late 1930s and early 1940s. With that little opinion-infused history lesson out of the way ... what does this have to do with 'The 39 Steps'?
'The 39 Steps' has not aged particularly well as a pure thriller. A massive chase sequence over the Scottish moors is an epic, exciting concept, but the mostly static camera does it no favors. There's a lack of urgency in the film's pacing and editing and characters stand around talking about how time is of the essence, but no one ever seems to be in a real hurry. For what's essentially a man-on-the-run movie, 'The 39 Steps' is oddly lethargic, a phrase you could never apply to the exceptional thrillers Hitchcock would be producing only a few years later like 'Shadow of a Doubt,' 'Saboteur' and 'Notorious' (and he'd later create the pinnacle of man-on-the-run movies with the giddily bombastic, far-stranger-than-most-people-ever-give-it-credit-for 'North By Northwest').
However, if you'll allow me the dubious honor of quoting myself:
"While it may be tough for a modern viewer to derive visceral thrills from 'The 39 Steps,' it's easy to place yourself in the shoes of a viewer from 1935, to break down what Hitchcock is doing with the camera and understand how and why this movie is so damn important."
If you ask me, this is a viewpoint that separates the men from the boys when it comes to movie fans. Sure, some movies are, on incredibly rare occasions, timeless, but most of them exist very firmly in a time and place and reflect them in every frame. To be a true film aficionado, to mature from that young movie fan to a seasoned cineaste, you've got to let yourself be absorbed into the world of the film, to take it in with a certain amount of context. This will certainly not save a bad film, but it will most definitely help you understand why many films are worth your time and effort -- especially those that may not have aged as gracefully as their makers would have hoped.
So, 'The 39 Steps' is not timeless. Not even close. However, it's protagonist, a shady man who is framed for the murder of a spy who's been tracking a stolen secret, is appealing, charming and has that dry sense of humor prevalent in most of Hitchcock's work. It's story is intriguing and surprisingly labyrinthine, with a final revelation that is beautifully and subtly set up in the opening moments of the film. The dialogue is as smart and fast as the best screwball comedies and the divisive relationship between our hero and the woman he finds himself handcuffed to while on the fun is playful and, in typical Hitchock fashion, often a little kinky. We so closely connect Hitchcock with his thrillers that we forget that there's a lot more to his work than a few tense sequences. Hitchcock's films weren't just thrill rides (to borrow a cliched critical phrase), they were romantic and funny and sexy and weird. So the "thrilling" aspects of 'The 39 Steps' hasn't aged well, but who cares? The rest has aged well enough and "the rest" is just as much Hitchock as a woman being stabbed to death in the shower or Cary Grant being run down by a crop duster.
In other words -- 'The 39 Steps' is a very good movie. I hope that's clear.
Next Week's Column: As per your votes, I'll be watching the infamous 'Cannibal Holocaust' for next week's entry (probably with my hands over my eyes and a barf bag on standby), leaving only one film from the original batch, the Charles Bronson semi-classic, 'Death Wish,' which will, by default, run after that. Voting will return next week with a brand new selection to choose from!
'The Sound of Music'
'Rebel Without a Cause'
'A Matter of Life and Death'
'Bride of Frankenstein'
'The Monster Squad'
'Colossus: The Forbin Project'
'A Boy and His Dog'
'The Thing From Another World'