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The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)



THE WHERE:
At home with Krystle and Jason as part of weekly movie watching (Jason's last one with us before heading back to Australia for school).

THE WHY:
Recently bought a three-disc set of Alfred Hitchcock's early films and hadn't yet touched it. We were having trouble deciding films so we did the logical thing: RPS! It was a showdown between The 39 Steps, Peeping Tom, and Springtime in a Small Town. You can guess which film won.

THE UGLY:
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps starts off with a bang, both figuratively and literally. From the opening scene's mysterious gunshot we are quickly plunged into a classic thriller world: the introduction of the quasi-femme fatale shortly followed by the innocent (but more importantly, handsome and charming) accused leading man. There is more than a touch of classic Hitchcock here: the lady's scream which cuts to the train whistle as she discovers the dead body, the linking of sex and violence most notably in the brassiere talk on the train, and most noticeably, the MacGuffin, which Hitchcock hilariously - in retrospect - manages to squeeze not only into the film, but into the very title of the film itself!

I was immediately impressed with how compelling and expeditious (a good thing for a thriller!) the majority of the early scenes feel thanks in large part to the dynamism they're infused with via the inclusion of additional elements independent of the primary action: In the scene where Annabella (Lucie Mannheim) attempts to explain her situation to Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), rather than simply shooting a simple shot-reverse shot dialogue scene Hitchcock adds a sprightly element to it all by having Annabella deliver her monologue while Hannay runs back and forth from the fridge. Hannay's otherwise simply suspenseful eluding of his pursuers gets an added comedic kick from the pro-infidelity banter that goes on between him and the milkman - which comes back much later with the innkeeper's wife. Similarly, while on the train, his suspenseful reading of the paper is intercut with the aforementioned brassiere talk (not to mention a brilliant Hitchcock-ian POV shot of one of the caboose mates staring at Hanny over his paper). The list goes on and on: At the cottage, the suspense of hiding is mixed with his and the country man's wife's hiding of their attraction to each other and Hannay's later attempt to get her to come with him. His city hall speech is also a major highlight as a lighter sort of mistaken identity requires him to improvise a speech he doesn't know the subject to all while the authorities close in on him. And lastly, the comparatively and decidedly more auteur-ish Hitchcock scene where the man with the missing finger delivers a very calm and deliberate death sentence for Hannay juxtaposed with his increasingly frantic glances at the door. And like the old joker he is, Hitchcock subverts these expectations by having Hannay shot before he even makes what should have been a much-anticipated run-for-it.

If it seems that I'm simply mentioning every single scene chronologically, it's because I am. All of these early scenes are expertly crafted, entertainingly written and as suspenseful as many other of Hitchcock's more well-known scenes. All the pieces appear to be in place for the makings of a classic. How ironically appropriate that the film's downfall proves to coincide with the appearance of a woman.

At approximately, OK, exactly at the point where Hannay and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) become chained together in the car and as a result are given the chance to speak to each other, the film loses all sense of urgency. It is precisely at this point where the focus becomes less on escaping, on the tension, suspense and impending doom than with Hannay's desire to tell Pamela "I told you so". At this point, the film takes a dramatic - or comedic to be exact - paradigm shift from thriller to screwball comedy. The characters shed all apprehension of being caught and their primary objective shifts from escaping their pursuers to simply trading witty barbs.

The entire (very) extended sequence lacks any sort of urgency that all the preceding scenes have conditioned us to come to expect. Everything comes grinding to a halt and even Pamela's half-hearted threats to reveal Hannay's true identity are never taken seriously by him, much less the audience. They add nothing to the rest of the film. No information is revealed and when one considers it, the film could have easily cut this entire sequence right up until Pamela's eavesdropping without losing a thing, plot-wise. And because nothing ever comes of Hannay's and Pam's relationship - as the film shortly ends after they come to an understanding anyways - even the establishment of their relationship is ultimately meaningless.

The comedy of these scenes is entertaining enough on their own but appear to exist outside of the 45 minutes that preceded them. This complete turnabout is interesting in retrospect looking at Hitchcock's pictures because it wouldn't be the one and only time he would attempt such a shift.

In Psycho, he pulled off perhaps the most famous of these stunts by shockingly killing off Janet Leigh right near the beginning of the film. In Vertigo , what starts off as a suspenseful detective story mystery takes just as sudden and jarring a dramatic and psychological turn to seriousness. Explaining why these latter shifts (which come from two of his most famous and acclaimed films) succeeded where 39 Steps fails has to do with our natural expectations of a story arc. In order to maintain interest, a story must not only be non-stagnant, but continue to supplement itself with evermore dramatic or compelling elements.

Even the best of films which don't follow traditional story arcs follow this universal structure. No great suspense film in history - that I can think of - was ever made where the tension is continually lessened as the movie progresses and yet this is precisely what occurs in The 39 Steps. It would - from a cognitive standpoint at least - have made more sense for the elements to have been switched around but instead Hitchcock throws in the screwball comedy bit last, and for an unbearably long period despite the film's short running time. Even classic screwball comedies like It Happened One Night, Bringing up Baby, and His Girl Friday only up the ante as the plots chug along. Meanwhile The 39 Steps comes brilliantly sprinting out of the gates: a femme fatale, a murder, a wrongly accused man on the trail of an international conspiracy etc. before hitting the proverbial wall and dragging its feet for the remainder of the film.

The 39 Steps is more than historically fascinating Hitchcock. It can easily stand on its own without any condescending support from retrospective auteur-focused critics. The string of early sequences are as good as any he ever directed. It is only the screwball comedy scenes, which in themselves may be entertaining, but when contrasted with the first half are so comparatively mediocre that they tarnish the overall brilliance of the film, so much so that by the time the mystery is solved, it has lost most if not all of its suspense-induced joy, along with a fantastic shot at being a true classic.

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