Hitchcock's stairway to immortality: 'The 39 Steps'

His 1935 classic balances thrills, wit and sex

May 28, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" is as enjoyable today as it was 75 years ago — maybe even more so. Hitchcock's suspense timing hasn't lost its punch. His observations of a London music hall and the Scottish moors bristle with personality and atmosphere. In many ways, it's the perfect film to inspire a Hitchcock homage on stage. It's funny and exciting even when it strains plausibility.

Best of all for the homage-makers, it's immediately recognizable as a "Hitchcock movie." It began the Hitchcock tradition of using devices called "MacGuffins" — objects of mystery that drive the plot without forcing us to think about them.

Hitchcock proved that with the help of a good MacGuffin (or two) he could string together unforgettable assortments of savory and unsavory characters, including, here, the amazing performer Mr. Memory and the enigmatic spymaster who is missing a joint from one of his little fingers. Best of all, "The 39 Steps" established the director's penchant for placing an innocent man in the middle of a booby-trapped plot and then turning it into a madcap odyssey. (Think "North by Northwest.") In this case, the reluctant hero is Richard Hannay ( Robert Donat), a Canadian visiting London when agents of an espionage organization kill a glamorous spy (Lucie Mannheim) in his bachelor flat.

With this film, the director put the whole world on notice that he was ready to manipulate sights and sounds like a master gamer, from the moment he cut from Hannay's landlady howling as she discovers the corpse to the Flying Scotsman whistling shrilly as it hurtles out of a tunnel. (This film became his first transatlantic hit.) The train is taking Hannay on the lam to Scotland, where he will try to search for the spy network's chief while eluding police who suspect him of the murder.

Every sequence has an ironic twist. Hannay initially shares a compartment with a minister and two traveling salesmen, one of whom sells lingerie and shows off a brassiere. Hannay may be traveling, but all he's selling is the truth, and in a way he's impossibly romantic.

When he startles a bespectacled blonde ( Madeleine Carroll) in another compartment, he expects her to believe in his innocence, though he has forced a kiss on her to fool the cops in the train's corridor. Carroll, by the way, is the first of Hitchcock's great cool beauties; when she drops her spectacles the effect is as electric as Dorothy Malone taking off her glasses in "The Big Sleep."

In "The 39 Steps," Hitchcock is in full command of tempo, contracting action in one transition while stretching it out in another. What makes "The 39 Steps" such a great chase movie are the irregular stops Hannay makes along the way, which overflow with humor and emotion. The scene of him staying with a loutish crofter (John Laurie) and his sensitive wife ( Peggy Ashcroft) has a tough-minded poignancy rare in Hitchcock's work — it reminds me of Sam Peckinpah at his peak, just as the scene of Hannay losing himself in a Salvation Army parade boasts a Peckinpah-like effrontery.

The master stroke, though, is that Hannay ends up handcuffed to Carroll's icy blonde and dependent on her for his freedom. Their oddest of odd-couple courtships is like an erotic version of tough love — the cuffs force them to get to know each other and test their mettle. "The 39 Steps" takes place over four days, but it's so brisk, funny and sexy that afterward you feel as if it happened one night.

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