The 39 Steps (1935)
Just at the beginning of his career and fame, Alfred Hitchcock made a movie very similar to one of his other classics "North by Northwest". Whether it was dissatisfaction with how "The 39 Steps" turned out or just wanting to relieve the story of a man falsely accused of murder on the run from the police, Hitchcock's two movies have a striking amount of similarities.
"The 39 Steps" doesn't hesitate before kick-starting the plot. Within five minutes of the movie's opening, there are gunshots, government spies, secrets, false identities, and a heavy amount of intrigue.
The crime genre belongs to Hitchcock, he helped turn it into what it is today.
Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is attending a music hall where odd variety acts seem to abound. There is a man who memorizes 50 new facts a day, he is a trivia master and the audience will try to fool him with trick questions and impossible inquiries. But as the crowd yells their questions louder and louder a minor riot starts to break out...and then a gun is fired. People run for the door and Richard is trapped next to a young woman. This mysterious woman who refers to herself as "Miss Smith", asks to be taken home with Hannay. When asked why she says simply because she wants to.
Here as with "North by Northwest" is the story of a man who is just trying to clear his name...that's what he tells himself. I hypothesize that both protagonists from Hitchcock's two films are wanting something more out of life...they want to live a little more; and by "live" I mean "have adventure".
Both Thornhill and Hannay are really smooth characters, they don't panic and always have some sort of exit strategy. It's easy to see where Captain Jack Sparrow has his roots—characters like these.
So Miss Smith tells Hannay about the 39 steps...but what they are, she doesn't say. She says that she's going to Scotland to meet a person (cue espionage themed music). In a somewhat Bond-feeling move, she says to beware a man with a knuckle missing on his pinky finger.
Then, during the night, Miss Smith stumbles into Hannay's room with a paper clutched in her hand. She falls onto the bed with a knife sticking out of her back.
Hannay knows that he will be blamed for the murder, or maybe he's concerned about himself, so he trades clothes with the milkman and sneaks out of his apartment.
Now, he's on the run.
He hops on a train, like Thornhill from "North by Northwest" and decides to figure out the mystery of the 39 steps himself.
Billed as a comedy and repeated as a beloved stage play, there is nothing incredibly funny about "The 39 Steps". It's important to note that the circumstances are given their proper respect and in this way, it's a little more lighthearted than the typical crime movie. But then again, everything was a little cheerier in the mid 30s.
I can see how this would be a good play for the stage, yet even while watching the movie I was wincing at the imagined over-exaggerated acting that stage actors and directors have a propensity to do just to weasel a laugh from the audience. So in that respect, I don't think I want to see the stage play.
The woman of the film is unusual because she's not fooled by fast words and fancy language. In fact, it takes a lot for her not to despise Harray...ah, romance.
Yes, it begins the stereotypes and yes, it is a big disaster waiting to happen. But with all that in mind, "The 39 Steps" is remarkably entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable.
Score: 3 out of 4 stars
Posted by Micah Jones