Most conversations entailing any scent of Alfred Hitchcock tend to revolve around the second half of his filmography; mainly his work from 1940 and on. Not to take anything away from that era, as his reputation and skill certainly rose over the years fortifying the greatness of his films. Even looking back to 1935 is not entirely far enough, but The 39 Steps is where we will begin.
This spy-thriller throws suave gentleman Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) into a world of conspiracies and murder, as he is forced on the run across Scotland in order to uncover the mystery that has caused his ignoble conviction. Along the way Hannay crosses path with the beautiful, but averse Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), putting both his charm and capabilities to the test. The tagline could quite simply be: “A common man put through the ringer!”
Obviously this should never be a tagline for any film, mostly for the lack of creativity, but also because this slim-worded description could describe thousands upon thousands of films – and that is the point. When watching films by Hitchcock or say a Kurosawa, it is easy to be bogged down from the cliches up on the screen. But the important notion comes from this thought, for it is the genius of these filmmakers that sparked a flurry of impressions, eventually creating the cliches of which we have grown tired.
Thus, The 39 Steps has it all, executing each moment with spectacular precision – A person stumbling into the room and dropping dead, but not before uttering a single sentence, a masterful use of foreshadowing in the opening scene, the two people on the run unfortunately handcuffed to one another, and making us ask why all bad guys on a stakeout stand under that one streetlight on the road.
At only eighty-six minutes, The 39 Steps holds its entertainment value all the way through, taking a turn here and there, making sure we stay glued to the game. Yet, Hitchcock’s cleverest trick comes with the easement he creates of suspecting the protagonist the entire time, making us highly skilled and incredibly professional film critics look like fools. Hats off to the Master of Suspense for creating a film that eighty years later, still holds up.
The 39 Steps (1935) directed by Alfred Hitchcock
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