The 39 Steps is one of the most deceptive of Alfred Hitchcock’s great movies. Like Rear Window later on, this charming, masterfully made British spy adventure from 1935 is a sigh of doubt, perhaps even a cry of anguish, disguised as a slick pop bauble. The film features a variety of disenfranchised characters trapped in worlds of their own making and briefly united by a potentially fatal misunderstanding. Once that misunderstanding is worked out, the characters, with two possible ambiguous exceptions, are either dead or returned to their previous existences of dissatisfaction and missed opportunities.
At times, The 39 Steps plays like a rebuke to It Happened One Night, which was released the year prior. Both films feature comically mismatched couples who fall in love while on the lam for this or that reason, but the respective filmmakers’ approaches distinctly differ. While Frank Capra played the class differences of his characters broadly, as was his wont, Hitchcock refused to relegate his supporting characters to the role of momentary punchline; he lingers on expressions of doubt and unhappiness, allowing them to haunt the film even during its exhilarating and often sexy set pieces. This unusual mixture of tones characterizes all of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, and it’s the heart of that still somewhat ineffable “Hitchcock touch.” Hitchcock was a closet humanist, though many viewers miss that out of understandable distraction with his technical acuity.
The 39 Steps is the filmmaker’s earliest “wrong man” picture (that narrative device figures partially into the plot of 1927’s The Lodger, but doesn’t drive the film). Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian recently transplanted to London, attends a performance by Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) in the film’s opening. Memory is a novelty act, a performer who can recall any arbitrary fact he’s ever read. Initially heckling him, the audience eventually pelts the man with a variety of arcane questions that he answers with a mixture of aplomb and uncertainty. Mysterious gunshots soon break out, and Hannay finds himself retreating to his chic yet empty apartment with Annabella (Lucie Mannheim), a beautiful woman he clearly assumes he’ll be bedding.
Hannay, of course, is the subject of a less fortunate twist of fate. Before dying at the tip of a knife in the middle of the night, Annabella reveals herself to be a spy who’s discovered that a nest of foreign agents are intending to smuggle important British military secrets out of the country. Hannay is soon on the lam for her murder, desperately trying to piece a few cryptic clues together to hopefully thwart the conspiracy, mostly for the sake of clearing his own name.
Late in his career, Hitchcock would sometimes belabor his themes and preoccupations, but The 39 Steps finds him at his most fleet and inventive. Unexpected ellipses propel the story, and every shot is loaded with subtextual meaning, yet the film still feels spontaneous and on the fly. The 39 Steps doesn’t have that overtly “worked out” quality that can sometimes mar Hitchcock’s films, as this is the work of someone whose sensibility hasn’t yet fully crystallized. There are suggestions here of German Expressionism and cinema vérité as well as of the traditional British comedy of manners that would continue to influence Hitchcock’s work.
Hitchcock, in one of the interviews included in this Criterion edition of The 39 Steps, said that he was drawn to films that explore the “violence in understatement,” which might be the most succinct and accurate description anyone has offered of the filmmaker’s guiding modus operandi. Hitchcock’s films, even at their darkest (Vertigo, Psycho, Frenzy), are social comedies of manners, the comedy springing from the acceptance that awfulness arises from his characters’ inability to set aside socially imprinted notions of etiquette for the sake of accepting what’s right in front of them. Immoral acts are committed, usually with ironic politeness, out of social repression, and these acts, due to people’s enslavement to what’s “proper,” are allowed to spiral into chaos.
That chaos is normally contained by the film’s ending, which usually finds a once-alienated hero engaging with society again out of gratitude for managing to get out of his predicament alive. Hannay belongs to this tradition of Hitchcock hero. Having been uprooted from his glib, lonely existence by a beautiful woman in danger, and having been afforded over the course of the film a variety of other visions of longing and despair (most prominently in the frank and justifiably famous vignette at the farmer’s quarters), Hannay tentatively reaches out to someone at the end for a sense of connection. But Hitchcock, a ghoulish joker, isn’t sentimental: There’s no indication that Hannay or anyone else’s happiness is assured, or that Hannay or anyone else will be alive tomorrow.
This Blu-ray predictably represents an improvement over the Criterion DVD issued in 1999. The black-and-white cinematography is crisp and vibrant, providing a greater level of visual information. This transfer also more faithfully maintains the graininess of the film, affording a viewer the best-of-both-worlds scenario of seeing a 1930s movie that probably looks better than ever before, but still preserves the aesthetic appropriate to the era. The sound mix boasts the expected monoaural and it's often bell-clear, with the exception of a few scenes in the beginning in which the voices are a little difficult to discern.
The commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane has been available on various other DVD issues of the film, but it remains a probing, erudite, and essential dissertation on the film's scene-by-scene meanings. "Hitchcock: The Early Years," also previously available, is a succinct 25-minute overview of Hitchcock's pre-World War II output of British films. The complete broadcast of the 1937 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation, starring Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery, is another holdover, and while it doesn't shed much direct light on the film itself, it still presents an interesting bit of context regarding the prevailing radio entertainments of the 1930s.
The original footage from British broadcaster Mike Scott's 1966 television interview with Hitchcock is a new feature, and it's a valuable compilation of unedited footage that shames the contemporary mode of celebrity interview. Over the course of 40 minutes, the director discusses motifs, methods for devising shots, as well as bluntly dispelling a few of his legendary quotations. Hitchcock presents himself as a brilliant, sometimes forthcoming, sometimes evasive, supremely egotistical control freak; it's a remarkable performance.
Also new to this edition are audio excerpts from François Truffaut's 1962 interviews with Hitchcock, and while the recording is scratchy and sometimes difficult to hear, it's still indispensable as a portion of a documentation of the writing of one of the greatest of all books on film. The visual essay by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff, also new to this edition, is a pleasant discussion of the film's themes, but it doesn't really mine any terrain that isn't covered in the Keane commentary. Rounding out the package are production sketches and an essay by David Cairns.
We have one hell of a package to anticipate in the future if this must-own Blu-ray isn't the definitive presentation of an early Hitchcock masterpiece.