A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)

The 39 Steps, Alfred Hitchcock's first great film, contains an object lesson in how to end a movie, a topic I raised in passing when I blogged about Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies (2016) a week or so ago. Rather than tie everything up in a neat package with a flowery bow as Spielberg tries to do in his film, Hitchcock simply ends after the confession and death of Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) -- shot with beautiful irony against a background of high-kicking chorus girls -- in a closeup of Hannay (Robert Donat) and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) holding hands, the handcuffs still dangling from Hannay's wrist. Nothing more needs to be said or shown, although a scene was apparently shot in which it's made more explicit that Hannay and Pamela are now a couple. Who needs it? The 39 Steps established Hitchcock as the master of the romantic thriller. There are those who regret that he never moved very far out of that genre, and who wish that he could have devoted himself to more highly serious material than John Buchan, who wrote the novel on which the film is based -- Dostoevsky, perhaps. But that's the kind of aesthetic puritanism that leads directors astray into high-minded dullness. We should be grateful that Hitchcock never succumbed to it, and that he continued to devote himself to an almost unique economy of narrative and to developing his skill at creating ways to distract the viewer from noticing a story's holes. How, exactly, does Hannay get from the Forth Bridge to the Scottish Highlands? By the same sleight-of-hand that gets Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) from New York to Chicago to Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959), of course. And again, who cares? It's also the first of his films to rely on star power, the charisma and charm of the young Donat and the first of the director's "icy blonds," Carroll, who was never more appealing than in this film. At the same time, he also acknowledges the necessity of supporting players who can give the film texture and depth. I'm speaking here particularly of such narrative filigree as the crofter (John Laurie) and his wife (Peggy Ashcroft), the milkman (Frederick Piper) who lends Hannay his white coat and cap, the traveling salesmen (Gus McNaughton and Jerry Verno) on the train, and the professor's wife (Helen Haye) who is so unperturbed at seeing her husband (Godfrey Tearle) pointing a gun at Hannay. These are mostly the creations of Hitchcock and his screenwriter, Charles Bennett, and not John Buchan. Who reads Buchan anymore? Who doesn't want to watch Hitchcock's film again?

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