Wednesday 16 June 2010

The 39 Steps (1935)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Alfred Hitchcock's name appeared on no less than nine films in this Top 250, as I grabbed it in 2004, making him the most represented director of all, and three more have popped in and out since. When I started this project I'd seen only two of those nine films, Rear Window and Psycho, but two years later this one completed the set. I've also managed to improve my background in Hitch generally from a pitiful total of four films to a far more acceptable forty one, including all the acknowledged classics, a whole bunch more that easily deserve to be regarded in the same breath and some that are merely, well, pretty darn good. I'm happy to report that there really aren't many below that standard and that working through the career of the master of suspense is an education that every avid film fan should really consider taking on. Don't just stop with the big ones from the fifties and sixties, because you'll miss out on things like this.

In fact, while his best films may be the ones caught up in his stunning decade of work that ran from Strangers on a Train in 1951 to Psycho in 1960, my personal favourites tend to appear somewhat earlier in his filmography, namely his later English films such as Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes and this film, perhaps his first true classic. It was based on The Thirty-Nine Steps, a 1915 novel by John Buchan, which introduced the character of Richard Hannay, something of a gentleman cliffhanger, a sort of secret agent of the English school who helped set the stage for a new generation of spies and action thriller heroes. He starred in five novels and appeared in a couple more and has been represented on screen by actors of the calibre of Kenneth More, Robert Powell and, in this film, Robert Donat, an actor so highly regarded that he was able to remain in England throughout his career and let Hollywood come to him when it wanted him.

Here Hannay is Canadian, just one indicator that this isn't a particularly close adaptation of the source novel, but given that the author apparently enjoyed it very much we shouldn't be too upset at that. We meet our hero in a London music hall where he does a pretty good impression of an English gentleman after a couple of gunshots interrupt the performance of Mr Memory, a man with an eidetic memory whose act is to answer trivia questions the audience throw at him. Hannay keeps his calm while all around are losing theirs, but he continues to keep it throughout the evening, which becomes more and more admirable. He rescues a young lady, even though she doesn't particularly seem to need rescuing and even though she claims to be called Smith but patently isn't, given the notable European accent. She's cute but she's sinister, not least because she knows his name and that the phone ringing in his furnished apartment is for her.

He plays along like a gentleman, as she admits both to being a spy without a country, in the game for the money, and to firing those shots herself to create a diversion. There's a secret vital to England's air defence and it's about to be spilled, but the bad guys are on her trail and she's in serious danger, something that now inherently extends to him, her unwitting accomplice in escape. She drops hints at things but doesn't fully explain. She warns him about a man with the tip of his little finger missing. She mentions that her next step is to travel to Scotland to talk to someone. She even asks him if he's heard of the 39 steps but she won't explain why. 'Is that a pub?' he asks. She might tell him tomorrow but she doesn't get the chance because tomorrow never comes for her. She stumbles into his room during the night with a knife in her back, to live long enough only to hand him a map of Scotland with the town of Alt-na-Shellach circled.
And so the race is on, with Hannay something of a precursor to Roger Thornhill in Hitchcock's even more lauded North By Northwest, both men regular joes caught up in a wild ride into spy country. Fortunately my biggest problem with North By Northwest fails to appear here, Robert Donat being far more believable than Cary Grant because Richard Hannay is far more believable than Roger Thornhill. Thornhill was an everyday advertising executive who gets caught up in events way beyond his control and suddenly morphs into James Bond or something close to it. Maybe that's empowering to the viewers as a fantasy, but it hardly makes for a realistic story. We don't really know what Hannay is but he's obviously a nice guy who gets caught up in events way beyond his control but he makes it through without ever turning into James Bond. He falls prey to massively dangerous errors and wins out through a combination of luck and judgement.

There are points where he feels confident and points where he doesn't, but he never has an air of invulnerability floating around him. Initially he's calm and collected, as conspiracy nuts were presumably thin on the ground in 1935, but when Smith is murdered it ceases to be a game and he runs, albeit north to Scotland because, with a dead body in his apartment, he feels that the only way to really clear his name is to uncover the truth. What we see is a bright man out of his depth, who flounders around trying to stay ahead of both the good guys and the bad guys, while trying to work out what he's got himself into. He can certainly think on his feet, but then he has to because he doesn't know who else is involved and so he often cleverly escapes one situation only to blunder right into another one. Much of how he succeeds or fails also rests on the actions of other people who, acting on their own best intentions, unknowingly frustrate everyone's plans.

All this makes the action engrossing, believable and grounded, far more so than in Hitch's later 'technicolor bauble'. I loved the social comment in Hannay's first escape that we believe what we want to believe. He tries but fails to persuade the milkman that the men outside are murderers and he's in mortal danger, only succeeding in eliciting his help by lying about playing around with a married woman. What's really clever is that Hannay is also believing what he wants to believe, assuming he's a target even though he's probably not really in danger from the killers, who only let him live to take the rap for Smith's murder and so he heads north to Scotland to begin his adventure. In a magnificent piece of editing, a charwoman finds the body as the Flying Scotsman sets off but because the news travels faster than the train, he soon finds he has to get more and more imaginative with his escapes to keep that one step ahead of his pursuers.

There are so many pointers here to future Hitchcock films. With the police searching the train he finds himself in the hands of a beautiful young lady travelling alone. In North By Northwest, that turned out to be a glamorous spy played by Eva Marie Saint, prompting Hollywood romance and intrigue. In The 39 Steps, it's merely a passenger played by Madeleine Carroll who promptly turns him in. This forces him to stop the train and jump, only to find himself on the Forth Railway Bridge, perhaps the first of many landmarks that Hitch would find a suspenseful place for in his films. Sometimes I wonder if a landmark is truly a landmark if it wasn't in a Hitchcock movie. He was always ahead of the technological curve too, so when Hannay is chased across the moors of Scotland, one of his pursuers is an early form of the helicopter called an autogyro, previously only seen in two other movies, It Happened One Night and W C Fields's International House.
The film is less than an hour and a half long, and Donat as Hannay is the focal point throughout, the rest of the characters appearing and disappearing as the story requires. Yet there doesn't seem to be a wasted shot, except perhaps the odd last long lingering glimpse at some of the set locations, and every character is admirably fleshed out, even if they don't have a lot of screen time. The two commercial travellers who sit opposite Hannay on the train are there only to aid with the suspense, but great writing means that we learn exactly who they are in a few short scenes of limericks, ladies' underwear and risqué dialogue. We learn all about who an innkeeper and his wife are, entirely through how they choose to treat the pair of newlyweds who arrive late one night. We even learn plenty about Smith, through a combination of what she tells Hannay and what she doesn't. You aren't paranoid if they're really all out to get you.

Best of all are a crofter and his wife, who Hannay stays a night with outside Ard-na-Shelloch, in scenes that take up mere minutes but which in other hands could have been the entire movie. John is a strict religious man, though as tight and traiterous as any stereotypical Scot in the wild eyed form of John Laurie, later to find fame as Private Frazer on Dad's Army. His wife Margaret is well out of her depth, even though she's played by one of England's foremost stage actresses, the future Dame Peggy Ashcroft in only her second film. John is utterly in charge and so Margaret is doomed to an austere existence far from Sauchiehall St and the lights of the big city that she misses so much. Hannay immediately becomes threat to one and lifeline to the other, realising he can trust her but not him, but with Margaret's actions to help her guest only deepening her husband's fears that she's being seduced. John gets to be traitor and saviour all at once.

There's so much depth in these mere few minutes that it's amazing to realise how short they really are. It's masterful cinema, stripped down to its bare essentials by the director, writer and the actors involved. The breadth of the emotions that Peggy Ashcroft embues into the last shot of her character amply demonstrates why she must have been so great on the stage. I didn't recognise her at all here, though that's hardly surprising as this is almost fifty years before she would win an Oscar for A Passage to India and she was never known as a screen actress. I didn't recognise John Laurie either because Dad's Army was over three decades away and I came to his film roles later. I didn't even recognise Robert Donat, though he was so magnificent only four years later to win his own Oscar for Goodbye, Mr Chips. Perhaps that's because he was hardly prolific himself and he spent much of that film in progressively serious aging make up.

Leading lady Madeleine Carroll ought to be the most recognisable member of the cast as she retired from acting early in her career after a burst of prolificity, averaging two films a year over two decades. After her sister was killed in a Nazi bombing raid in London she devoted the rest of the war to working in field hospitals for the Red Cross, which earned her the Legion d'Honneur for valour, and after the war she only made three further films. Yet I didn't recognise her either as I believe I've only seen a couple of her other movies, 1937's The Prisoner of Zenda and Hitchcock's next film, Secret Agent, both of which were dominated by male characters played by amazing sets of actors. She's understated here too but makes herself more obvious through only having to share the screen with one actor, who is more than happy to give her an opportunity to shine. And they really share the screen, as they're handcuffed together for much of the time.

She's Pamela, the young lady Hannay stole a kiss from on the Flying Scotsman in an attempt to avoid capture, but she disappears from the film for a while, just an inconsequential character at that point. When she returns to the story, she turns him in yet again, after he escapes from the police and stumbles into a political meeting, only to fall foul of a case of mistaken identity and be promptly hustled up on stage as a speaker. He impresses the audience with an astoundingly generic speech that says everything and nothing all at once, but he's far too obvious to get away and so gets driven off in handcuffs by the villains of the piece who are posing as policemen. They take Pamela too, ostensibly so she can identify Hannay but really just to keep her quiet, and as suspicion quickly rises about who they are and where they're taking them, she ends up cuffed to him when they're held up on the road by a flock of sheep and flight becomes possible.
This is all more social and personal comment from Charles Bennett, who adapted Buchan's novel for the screen. His association with Hitch dated back to Blackmail in 1929, a film adaptation of Bennett's play, and from there he wrote many of Hitchcock's English films, as well as his second American picture, Foreign Correspondent. It's impossible not to see both humour and comment in Hannay's political speech, but there's another level. Hitchcock had a phobia about policemen, apparently triggered as a child when his father sent him to the local station with a letter. After reading it, the desk sergeant locked up the young Alfred for ten minutes before setting him free with the explanation that, 'This is what happens to people who do bad things.' With typical black humour, he extended his wrong man paranoia to his cast, cuffing Donat and Carroll together on the set one day and pretending for a few hours to have lost the key.

It's these scenes with the leading characters on the run together, literally inseparable because of the handcuffs, that turn out to be the funniest, as Hannay attempts once more to convince her of the reality of the situation and when he fails yet again, turns the tables on her and plays up his imaginary life of crime. 'All right,' he says. 'Then, I'm just a plain common murderer who stabbed an innocent, defenseless woman in the back not four days ago. How do you come out over that? I don't know how innocent you may be, but you're a woman and you're defenseless, and you're alone on a desolate moor in the dark manacled to a murderer who would stop at nothing to get you off his hands. And if that's the situation you prefer, have it, my lovely, and welcome.' Of course, after finding a pub for the night, he proves such an amateur that he tries and fails to saw off the cuffs while she just waits for him to fall asleep and slips her tiny hand out herself.

There are so many reasons why this film works, but this is the most palpable. Richard Hannay is a great wish fulfilment hero, one who we can truly watch and believably picture ourselves in his place. He's daring, imaginative and intelligent, as I'm sure we all would like to believe we are, but he's far from a superhero. He's quintessentially human so makes mistakes, bad choices and decisions and he's rarely in control of any situation for long. In short he's refreshingly grounded. Another reason is that the film never lets up, as wild a ride in black and white as North By Northwest ever was in colour, and it's tighter and more focused. Perhaps the biggest reason though is that all human life is here. Yes, it's a Hitchcock suspense picture, but more than any of his later work it's full of so much else. It's not a romance or a comedy but it's full of both of those things. It's an adventure, a cliffhanger, a set of thrills, but always deliciously old school.

Above all it's a real statement on human nature, from the insights I've already mentioned to the finalé which speaks to routines, behaviour patterns and the fundamental relief that accompanies getting something off our chest. Perhaps my favourite moment in the film is an easily overlooked one. Eventually Pamela learns the truth about Hannay as she tries to escape from him, sneaking out of their room at the inn while he sleeps, only to discover the reality of their situation from other mouths. Forced to quickly reevaluate all his actions and all her own, she sneaks back into the room, tucks him in and turns in herself on the couch at the foot of the bed, then realises that she's cold so promptly steals back the blanket. Like the scenes at the crofter's there's so much depth here in such a short timeframe that it's wondrous to behold and it's this sort of mastery that may may lead to this fighting off The Lady Vanishes to become my favourite Hitchcock.

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