****/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras A
starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Manheim, Godfrey Tearle
adaptation by Charles Bennett, dialogue by Ian Hay, based on the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
directed by Alfred Hitchcock
by Walter Chaw Following the success of 1934's The Man Who Knew Too Much, Alfred Hitchcock and his once-inseparable screenwriter Charles Bennett took to adapting John Buchan's 1915 novel The Thirty-Nine Steps as a breathless, sometimes-madcap chase flick employing a MacGuffin of many possibilities. The picture opens at the vaudeville act of one Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson): ask him a question and he'll answer it--a human search engine and the centre of a film dealing with the very Hitchcockian theme of performance and how it keeps at bay, uneasily, the teeming chaos beneath the surface. In the middle of his act, a gunshot rings out and the audience, already unruly, crushes for the exits. Men first, old women--one in particular--trampled in the panic. Hitchcock's cosmology is aligned with Jonathan Edwards's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," suspended as it were above anarchy and animalism by the thinnest of agreements among men to engage in civilization. I don't think Hitchcock disdains order--I think he mistrusts it. It's the root of his Wrong Man issues, no less despairing in its fatalism than Edgar Allan Poe's expectation/fear of premature burial. The critic Howie Movshovitz gave perhaps the best, certainly the most succinct, summary of Hitchcock's world of Catholic transference and Original Sin: "Everyone's got it coming."
The victim of the universe this time around is debonair Canuck Hannay (Robert Donat), impressed mightily by the erudition of Mr. Memory and enlisted by the mysterious Ms. Smith (Lucie Mannheim) as her unwitting confederate in pursuit of the titular foreign spy ring. Or does "The 39 Steps" refer to the top-secret plans for a stealth plane? Or is it the number of notes in that tune Hannay keeps whistling to himself? It doesn't matter, of course, since what the film is actually about is how quickly and entirely sexual hunger can undo a person's life. Ms. Smith asks to go back to Hannay's place amidst the sudden chaos of primal eruption, and what's a red-blooded Canadian man to do but agree? It's no accident that the question posed immediately before all hell breaks loose is Mae West's age. No accident, either, the prominence of food and its preparation as literal substitution for biblical consumption: full fish from Hannay and from the farmer's wife a little later on to amplify the heresy, plus that sandwich sequence that remains Hitchcock's most playful and naughtiest visual from this period. Hannay's attraction to easy, anonymous sex finds him accused of Ms. Smith's assassination by foreign agents. His first ally in flight is a milkman (Frederick Piper) who rejects Hannay's cloak-and-dagger story, but reacts enthusiastically to his backup tale of infidelity and the need to flee a scorned spouse. "You'll do the same for me one day!" the Milkman shouts after him. It's a world of sexual betrayal.
This little trilogy of Gaumont-British pictures--The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and Sabotage--finds Hitchcock at his most experimental, as well as his most savage. He's still feeling his way, but with films 20-22 he hits something like a stride that doesn't appreciably slack until after Marnie, thirty movies and thirty years later. Though Hitchcock was the focus of early feminist film criticism, one uncovers a real progressiveness about his women in this period. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, there's a moment where the wife, played by Edna Best, takes a rifle from a man to pluck the baddie from his perch. (A gesture notably replicated some eighty years later in Mad Max: Fury Road.) In The 39 Steps, a farmer's wife (Peggy Ashcroft) longs for the city and earns the ire, and the backhand, of her puritanical husband (John Laurie). A theatre-owner's wife (Sylvia Sydney) becomes the bearer of righteous justice against her terrorist husband (Oskar Homolka) in Sabotage, not only wielding the knife that Mother would take up in Psycho, but also fulfilling June Tripp's aborted destiny in The Lodger--the woman as avenging angel and ersatz Philomel. When women are punished in Hitchcock, they're generally punished for agreeing to be domesticated. The final shot of The Lodger, only Hitchcock's third completed film, has June kissing the titular lodger (Ivor Novello) while, in the background, the flashing neon sign that opens the film, advertising "TO-NIGHT GOLDEN CURLS" (initially a sick reference to the kind of girl our mysterious Jack the Ripper figure "Avenger" favours), simultaneously suggests a vague pubic entendre and that the Lodger's exoneration may not be as clean as one might hope. It's a very Hitchcock joke.
Hannay makes it to Scotland by train, accompanied by a couple of lingerie designers who joke that they'd like to get their samples back, "filled." (Vertigo's Madge has a similar profession, drafting brassieres designed by the inventor of the cantilever bridge.) Hannay comes upon the aforementioned farmer and his wife, and in an elaborate and extended sequence meant to distract the wife from the front-page extra identifying him as a murderer, he offers to tell her about the latest big-city fashions, engaging in a dangerous flirtation with her. The farmer is aware that something's happening: his sexual jealousy leavens his later treachery--and when he hits his wife off-camera, there's something fatalistic about it. It's always the religious ones. Wearing the farmer's coat, Hannay is shot at the end of one of those nightmarish party sequences Hitchcock would roll out frequently. What saves his life is the hymnal stuck in the farmer's pocket; it's the only practical implementation of religion in Hitchcock's world. More on trial is the institution of marriage, shorthanded in The 39 Steps first as the Milkman's world of inevitable betrayal, then as Hannay's handcuffing himself to hapless bystander Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) to facilitate his escape from the bad guys masquerading as cops. Hitchcock's perception that marriage is the breaking of and imprisonment of women is a theme woven throughout his career. Pamela, introduced as outraged victim of Hannay's sexual abuse, ends the picture taking Hannay's shackled hand--making whole, voluntarily, what was imposed on her violently.
For the brief time they're handcuffed, Hannay and Pamela pretend to be newlyweds before a lovelorn old innkeeper (Hilda Trevelyan) who mistakes Hannay's strong-arming of Pamela as young lovers desperate for a moment together. Of course she prepares sandwiches for them. Pamela tries to eat hers while removing her wet stockings, handing her sandwich to Hannay, who, because their wrists are shackled, is helpless but to hold it essentially between Pamela's legs. It's an explicit image made somehow more complex by it indeed being food. The next scene sees the two lying in bed while Hannay makes a rhythmic "jacking" motion as he attempts to saw through the handcuffs. The way Hitchcock composes the shot, cropping their lower halves out of frame, it's more than mildly suggestive. The 39 Steps is mature, fully-formed adult entertainment that is, like all of Hitchcock's pre-Hollywood work, revelatory both for what it predicts about his American masterworks and for what it represented within the British film industry, heretofore an island industry of documentaries. His British films are effronteries to what England held to be the standard for their own fare. Hitchcock introduced fabulism and genre into the acceptable London mainstream, paving the way for The Archers' incredible 1940s run, beginning with 1943's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, through to Hammer's ascendance in the mid-1950s. If Hitchcock had stopped directing after Sabotage, he would still be remembered as possibly the most important British filmmaker of all time. The 39 Steps is eternally contemporary in its gender politics and excoriation of how society treats powerful women (and how men are inevitably the problem). The other part of the "MacGuffin" conversation is not what it isn't (the point), but what it is (masculinity): Men destroy everything through their desire. It's what they do. The 39 Steps is light, urbane, sexy as hell, and as so much of Hitchcock was so often, right about everything.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion brings The 39 Steps to Blu-ray in a 1.33:1, 1080p transfer sourced from a 35mm interpositive. Previously, I had only seen public-domain versions of the film in VHS/DVD omnibus collections, so the difference here, it goes without saying, is astonishing. But I get the sense that this 2012 release has already been antiquated by the strides made in film scanners and restorative tools since then. The image offers an attractive wash of grain and sharp detail along with it, not to mention a reliable depth of contrast. It also shows more wear-and-tear than is desirable, including a tiny bit of weave and bobble. The inherent softness of Bernard Knowles's cinematography looks purposeful, at least. As good as the video is, relatively speaking, the LPCM centre-channel mono audio arguably demonstrates the greater improvement. It's not perfect, of course, with notable, non-stop hiss and some tinniness, but with much of the dialogue having been incomprehensible before, the basic clarity of this track is not just welcome--it's nigh miraculous.
Former University of Colorado scholar Marian Keane offers a feature-length yakker ported over from Criterion's 1999 DVD of the film. Hers is a deeply feminist read I found to be somewhat problematic, if only because the more I learn about Hitchcock, the less easily, I think, he fits into any single ideology or approach. That being said, it's nice to be in the company of an intellectual who eschews too much scene-specific narration in favour of spotting gestures and themes. (Incidentally, in listening along, it occurred to me that I've maybe underestimated Strangers on a Train as a major milestone in Hitchcock's career.) Keane touches on lighting, framing, movement, and editing; I especially loved her observation that Mr. Memory's promising of his brain for future study has essentially marked him for death. I think her affinity for North by Northwest clouds her analysis a little in that it's not the Rosetta Stone for The 39 Steps--quite the opposite. There's a problem when you use the son to decipher the father, as it presumes the son as the fully-realized version of the father. She ignores the sex that inaugurates the action but does take note of phallic images and the sexual coercion that runs as subtext through the film. I'm stricken that Keane seems to find it all sort of romantic. It's...weird. I also feel she totally misreads the sandwich sequence. At the end of the day, though, I find myself engaged in a conversation with this yakker, which means I've learned something. Maybe a lot.
A short documentary from 2000, "Hitchcock: The Early Years" (24 mins.), uses clips and talking heads to go over his British output in a broad way with various platitudes. Not a bad primer, though a primer is all it is. "Cinema: Alfred Hitchcock" (40 mins.) is a compilation of footage from a 1966 piece that features the director in fine fettle extolling at length during an on-camera interview about audience rights, the screenwriting process, and so on. He cracks a wry smile at one point that made me realize how seldom I've seen him smiling. Worth it, really, for that. "The Borders of the Possible" (23 mins., HD) is a new visual essay by Leonard Leff that rehashes some audio from the Truffaut/Hitchcock interview as a launching point for a discussion of John Buchan's source novel and Hitch's adaptation of it. Leff goes deep into his preference for the adaptation, invoking the Hero's Journey, alas, amid other mendacities. It's not bad, it's just reductive. The comparisons to the source are useful, to be fair. A HiDef "Production Design" gallery interposes sketches of the sets with shots from the film, while "Hitchcock/Truffaut" excerpts the The 39 Steps-specific bits from that famous interview. The jewel of the supplements is the full Lux Radio Theatre production of the radio-play adaptation starring Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino in the main roles. It runs an hour, and though it deviates disastrously from Hitchcock's psychosexual neuroses, it does present a separate experience grounded in the work's thriller elements. It's worth it for Cecil B. DeMille's long introduction of Lupino alone. ("A girl I'm watching closely and suggest you do the same... [A]n excellent musician and painter; can speak the language of the deaf and dumb; whistles as well as a farm boy; likes to wear sneakers; and is a prize mimic.")
David Cairns supplies the booklet essay, spending some time setting the stage for Hitchcock's emergence in Britain while offering that this film is the one where the director "hits his stride." I would amend, pedantically, that you could say that about any number of his British movies (and I have, chaotically, as I try to get my bearings in this period of his career), although it's hard to argue the case too strenuously. Cairns's piece is breezy and accessible for the neophyte and the hobbyist. He notes key themes in the picture, relates The 39 Steps back to The Lodger and the Hero's Journey again, and leaves enough meat on the bone for future theorists and academics to unpack. A workmanlike effort that hints at more erudition waiting to be unearthed.