Friday, October 18, 2019
The 39 Steps (1935 film)
Based on the novel by John Buchan, The 39 Steps is the story of an ordinary man who accidentally discovers a secret spy organization trying to steal British military secrets as he goes on the run after being accused of killing another spy. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and screenplay by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, the film is a spy thriller that pay into a man who finds himself at the wrong place and at the wrong time as he tries to clear his name while dealing with other problems. Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, and Godfrey Tearle. The 39 Steps is a riveting and exhilarating film from Alfred Hitchcock.
After an assassination attempt goes awry during a stage performance, a man finds himself being a suspect of a murder related to the attempted assassination where he learns about a secret spy organization trying to obtain British military secrets as he goes on the run. The film is about a man who helps a woman who is revealed to be a counter-spy as she is trying discover secrets relating to British military information that a spy organization known as the 39 Steps is trying to obtain. Later that night, she has been stabbed in the back with the man being a suspect as he goes on the run to Scotland to a small town to find out is the 39 Steps and what do they want. The film’s screenplay by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay is simple in its structure and journey for its protagonist Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), who is a Canadian visitor, attending a show in London involving a man of superlative powers known as Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) where this assassination attempt happens and he meets this spy named Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim).
Smith was the target as she and Hannay would hide in a hotel as she would tell him crucial information before her murder as he would catch a ride to Scotland hoping to go to a small town that she mentioned. Hannay would try to avoid authorities as he becomes a suspect while he would meet a beautiful woman in Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) whom he would kiss as a way to hide as he wouldn’t see her until days later. Upon arriving in Scotland and hiding in a few places as well as meet a mysterious man in Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) who would create more trouble for Hannay until Pamela sees Hannay at a political rally where Pamela finds herself involved with Hannay’s troubles.
Alfred Hitchcock’s direction is engrossing for the way he explores a man at the wrong place and at the wrong time as he goes on the run. Shot on various locations in London as well as parts of Scotland and in studio backlots, the film definitely has Hitchcock creating visual traits and such that would later become part of his trademark in the years to come as it help play into the suspense and stakes of what Hannay endures. While Hitchcock would use wide shots to establish some of the locations, much of his direction is intimate in its approach to close-ups and medium shots whenever Hitchcock would have characters interact with one another. Notably as Hitchcock would play into a few things that add to the suspense such as Hannay hiding on the edge of a bridge or using a man’s bible as protection knowing he can’t trust anyone. Hitchcock would also create that sense of intrigue in the film’s second half when Hannay is on the run as he encounters men he knows are after him for their own reasons where he brings Pamela for the ride despite the fact that they don’t know each other.
The way Hitchcock develops their relationship doesn’t just add to the drama but also this growing trust between the two with Pamela being suspicious about Hannay’s claims yet she would realize that something is off about the men going after Hannay. The direction also has Hitchcock taking some bold steps into utilizing sex appeal which was daring for its time as it play into Hannay’s attraction towards Pamela later in the film as she would also struggle with her own feelings for him. The film’s climax doesn’t just mirror what happened in the beginning but it would play into everything that was supposed to happen in the beginning of the film as it all play into deceit, lies, and espionage as it would take an ordinary man to stop all of that from happening. Overall, Hitchcock crafts a gripping and intoxicating film about a man who finds himself involved in a conspiracy by a secret network of spies.
Cinematographer Bernard Knowles does excellent work with the film’s black-and-white photography as it add a lot of mood to the interior/exterior scenes at night as well as for some low-key lighting for scenes in the daytime. Editor Derek N. Twist does brilliant work with the editing as it help play into the suspense while letting shots linger to establish the conversations and the characters while knowing when not to cut. Art director Oscar Friedrich Werndoff does fantastic work with the look of the places that Hannay goes into including the music hall where the film’s opening scene happens as well as an inn where he and Pamela would hide out at.
The wardrobe by Marianne is terrific for the design of the suits that the men wear while Joe Strassner creates the dresses that Pamela and Annabella would wear. Sound recordist Peter Birch does superb work with the sound as it captures the atmosphere of the crowds for the film’s opening sequence and in other parts as well as the sounds of winds during some of the quieter moments in the film. The film’s music direction by Louis Levy, with uncredited work by Jack Beaver, is wonderful as it features an array of music pieces that include some orchestral material as well as the music of the times including theatre music that was being played in those times.
The film’s amazing cast feature some notable small roles from Peggy Simpson as maid for an inn, Frank Cellier as a local Scottish sheriff, Helen Haye as Professor Jordan’s wife, John Laurie as a crofter, Peggy Ashcroft as the crofter’s wife who helps Hannay with fleeing the authorities, Gus McNaughton and Jerry Verno as a couple of salesmen Hannay meets on a train, and Wylie Watson as a stage performer known as Mr. Memory. Lucie Mannheim is superb as the counterspy Annabella Smith as a target who is carrying crucial information that could impact Britain as she turns to Hannay for help. Godfrey Tearle is fantastic as Professor Jordan as a mysterious man Hannay meets in Scotland who might know something about the 39 Steps as he is also a man of immense ambiguity while carrying himself as a man of importance.
Madeleine Carroll is excellent as Pamela as a woman who is used as a prop of escape for Hannay only to see him at a political rally where she gets him captured only to get herself in trouble where she would eventually help out Hannay and uncover the truth. Finally, there’s Robert Donat in a brilliant performance as Richard Hannay as a Canadian traveler who finds himself the target of knowing more than he should’ve known as he goes on the run while trying to deal with the situation he’s in as it has elements of humor as well as some grounded realism into how he copes with what is happening to him.
The 39 Steps is a phenomenal film from Alfred Hitchcock. Featuring a great cast, a suspenseful story of espionage and intrigue, a wonderful music soundtrack, and gorgeous visuals. The film is definitely a thriller that knows how to set things up and let the audience peel things slowly while following a man on the run as he is accused of murder and deceit. In the end, The 39 Steps is a sensational film from Alfred Hitchcock.
Alfred Hitchcock Films: (Number 13) - (The Pleasure Garden) - (The Blackguard) - (The Mountain Eagle) - (The Lodger) - (A Story of the London Fog) - (The Ring) - (Downhill) - (The Farmer’s Wife) - (Easy Virtue) - (Champagne) - (The Manxman) - (Blackmail) - (Juno and the Paycock) - (Murder!) - (The Skin Game) - (Mary) - (Lord Camber’s Ladies) - (Rich and Strange) - (Number Seventeen) - (Waltzes from Vienna) - (The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 film)) - (Secret Agent) - (Sabotage) - (Young and Innocent) – The Lady Vanishes - (Jamaica Inn) – (Rebecca) – (Foreign Correspondent) – (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) – Suspicion - (Saboteur) – (Shadow of a Doubt) – Lifeboat - Bon Voyage - (Spellbound) – (Notorious) – (The Paradine Cage) – Rope - (Under Capricorn) – (Stage Fright) – Strangers on a Train - I Confess - Dial M for Murder - Rear Window - To Catch a Thief - (The Trouble with Harry) – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 film) – (The Wrong Man) – Vertigo - North by Northwest - Psycho - The Birds - Marnie - (Torn Curtain) – (Topaz) – (Frenzy) – (Family Plot)
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