By Scott A. Cupp
This is the 185th in my series of Forgotten, Obscure or Neglected Films
This week, I’m sticking to the early stages of cinema with a film that I saw some 40 + years ago: Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.
About a month ago, Sandi and I went to the Theater of the Big Bend for a performance. The theater department at Sul Ross State University is well known and for good reason. They produce an abundance of plays each year. I believe it was five or six this year. We saw Cabaret in April and it was fabulous. In June, they did The 39 Steps with a cast of four people, and it too was great! (We saw The Fantasticks last weekend. And, once again, we were thrilled to superb performances!)
Since I enjoyed the play of The 39 Steps, I decided to watch the Hitchcock film again. Of course, since I moved a year ago, things are still in chaos. I have looked several times for my Hitchcock collection that includes this film and it has not yet reared its head. But, thanks to Turner Classic Movies and their Hitchcock celebration this month, I was able to DVR the film and watch it again.
The 39 Steps is based loosely on a classic mystery novel of the same name by John Buchan. It follows the fantastic adventures of Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian visiting in London. As the film opens, Hannay is taking in a vaudeville show. He watches a song and dance team who lead into the wonders of Mister Memory (Wylie Watson). Mister Memory commits 50 new facts to his fabulous mind every single day and can call them up to order. During the performance a pistol is fired and Hannay, with the rest of the audience, rushes to leave the show. In the rush, a young woman (Lucie Mannheim) attaches herself to him and asks to come to his home. The woman acts oddly, avoiding windows and shadows. She identifies herself as Annabella Smith and says she is an “agent” (read “spy”) but gives no affiliation. But she does reveal she’s tracking some stolen military air secrets and something called The 39 Steps. She is going to Scotland to meet someone. She also mentions her nemesis, a man of many names who cannot hide the fact that he is missing the upper joint on one of his pinky fingers.
Hannay allows her to use his bed while he sleeps on the sofa. His guest wakes him up with a knife in her back and promptly dies with a map of Scotland in her hand. Not sure what to do, Hannay looks outside and sees men who are obviously waiting for him. He escapes with the map via a funny ruse with the milkman and takes the train. Soon the maid discovers the body and the hunt is on. The newspapers are soon running stories about the murder and a police hunt. At one point, Hannay crashes into a room occupied by a young woman. He kisses her to escape the police, but she will have none of it. She outs him and he has to leap from the train.
Soon he is wandering Scotland and escaping police, spies, and the cold. He meets the woman from the train again and finds himself handcuffed to her. Pretending the pipe in his pocket is a gun, he persuades Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) to assist him and to help foil the spies.
The 39 Steps is a rare blend of comedy and suspense thriller. There are visual jokes, double entendre and more. The scene of the pair sleeping in a hotel bed while handcuffed, wet and hungry is a classic. One scene I loved was a throwaway: as the police and a detective follow Hannay through the train, they all tumble through a doorway like people falling out of the stateroom in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera.
This is the film that helped usher in an amazingly productive period of Hitchcock films and brought him into prominence. Everybody always mentions Psycho and Vertigo when talking about the great director. I would gladly throw this film into that mix as well. It is absurd at times and relies heavily on coincidence and the stupidity of some characters, but I still like a railroad ride into a Cornell Woolrich novel. I’m glad I got to revisit The 39 Steps and I hope you do also.
Series organizer Todd Mason host Tuesday Forgotten Film reviews at his own blog and posts a complete list of participating blogs.