A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

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?

No comments: