****/**** 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."