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Hitchcock's Masterly Espionage Template
on 22 May 2013
This 1935 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock (which was based on John Buchan's novel of the same name) is, for me, one of the most brilliantly made and (for its time) innovative thrillers to ever reach the big screen, which, along with the same director's The Man Who Knew Too Much (made the previous year) set a template (and standard) for a vast swathe of other spy/espionage/chase films which followed, including Hitch's own Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, The Lady Vanishes and North By North West. The 39 Steps is a model in the art of visual storytelling, and is peppered with moments of great humour (much of it decidedly risqué for the time), adventure and suspense.
Hitch's (almost unique) visual sense hits home immediately as a result of his initial set-up of visiting Canadian Richard Hannay's (Robert Donat) strange encounter at a London theatre with Lucie Mannheim's mysterious, flustered and foreign-accented 'Miss Smith', via the words 'Music Hall' emblazoned across the screen and Hannay's feet and lower body (only) in screenshot entering the theatre. At the same time, the theatregoers' cockney humour and banter, as they quiz variety act Mr Memory, assures us that we're also in for a barrel of laughs. It is not until the enigmatic Miss Smith does her dying swan act that Hannay takes her story seriously ('Sounds like a spy story. That's exactly what it is'), setting off a chain of events taking in a visit to the Scottish highlands, where he initially takes refuge in a chauvinistic and puritanical crofter's house (John Laurie and subjugated wife Peggy Ashcroft both superb here), before encountering the Mr Big in the plotters' organisation, a certain Professor Jordan (a suitably menacing, but also rather blasé Godfrey Tearle), then picking up along the way the initially distrusting Pamela (an endearing turn from Madeleine Carroll), finding himself having to evade the twin pursuits of both the 'spies' and the police, before ending up back at the Palladium for the film's denouement and Mr Memory's final curtain.
Of course, whilst the fast-moving plot of The 39 Steps should be enough keep all but the most curmudgeonly viewer glued the screen, Hitch also displays his embryonic visual brilliance to great effect. For me, this film contains some of Hitch's finest cinematic touches and sequences, including Hannay suspiciously eying above the top of the newspaper on the train, the Forth railway bridge escape sequence, the 'crofting trio' exchanging furtive glances, Professor Jordan revealing his distinguishing feature, Hannay inadvertently being coerced into a public speaking engagement, Pamela's overhearing of the 'baddies' phone call, Hannay spying Professor Jordan's digit through opera glasses and Mr Memory's glance up into the theatre box (and I'm sure I've missed many others). The film was also notable for how Hitch pushed the boundaries of 'allowable morals' as he depicted Hannay planting a giant kiss on stranger Pamela's lips in their first encounter, salesmen discussing the latest in women's underwear in front of a man of the cloth, Peggy Ashcroft's frustrated and tempted crofter's wife and Hannay and Pamela's hotel bedroom encounter.
One final mention on the acting. Much of it is, of course, highly stylised (typical of the time) rather than very naturalistic by modern-day standards but, for me, this does not detract from (indeed, it could be argued that it adds to) the film's overall enjoyment rating. Robert Donat, in particular, is perhaps not ideal for the role, but his suavity and obvious qualification as a 'jolly good chap' enables him to carry it off.
For me, The 39 Steps remains a master-class in the art of visual, cinematic storytelling.