Friday, April 23, 2010

The 39 Steps (1935)

UK, 86 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay
Photography: Bernard Knowles
Cast: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, Helen Haye, Frank Cellier, Wylie Watson

Positively straining at the limitations imposed by the stodgy '30s talkie technology, it's probably fair enough to characterize this as a cracking good yarn. Marked by paranoia, murder, intrigue, the usual gang of Hitchcock's mysterious spies, and a setting that sprawls across the UK, from London to Scotland and back again, there's not much you could do to improve the bold strokes of this script—unlikely coincidences, outlandish resolution, and all. It gets off to a brisk start as a strange London music hall performance is interrupted by gunshots. Leaving the venue, Richard Hannay, played by Robert Donat, appears to find himself getting picked up by a Garbo-like woman. played by Lucie Mannheim, who asks if she can go home with him. There she drops hints of an incredible spy plot in which, she says, she has now involved him. He politely feeds and listens to her. It's all quite chaste—we know from earlier Hitchcock fare such as Blackmail that he wasn't afraid to veer toward the sordid if it suited his purpose—and Hannay never believes a word. Later that night she reappears with a knife in her back, clutching a map, and collapses across him (as a gentleman, of course, he had put her up in his bed while he took the living room couch). This would seem to bolster her story, and in any case he's now likely to be accused of the murder, so he does what any sensible character in a Hitchcock film would do: flees, and tries to makes sense of the cryptic clues that she left behind. Along the way he finds any number of close shaves along with true love, neither of which comes without their various difficulties. Will he evade the police? Will he ever get to the bottom of this mystery? What do you think?

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