Criterion // 1935 // 86 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // November 14th, 1999
An innocent man -- wrongly accused.
Hitchcock. The name spells disaster, doesn't it? The Birds. Psycho. Vertigo. Rear Window. North by Northwest. The 39 Steps? If you are not a huge Hitchcock fan, or a fan of classic cinema, chances are you may not be all that familiar with The 39 Steps. You should be.
The 39 Steps is an early Hitchcock work, prior to coming over to America, when he was still working in his native England. It represents one of the first, but certainly not the last, time he employs the wrong man plot point to such wonderful effect. Hitchcock reveled in this theme, and came back to it again and again throughout his career. Why? Well, mostly because it works. It gets a film out of the gate screaming suspense. It heightens your senses, because you realize that -- "hey, that could happen to me."
The film opens up with a stranger walking into a building with lights flashing. The lights let us know it is a "Music Hall." The show is a vaudevillian act starring Mr. Memory. During these initial minutes Mr. Memory takes questions from the audience and astounds with his correct responses. We learn that our hero, Mr. Hannay (Robert Donat), is from Canada as his question pertains to Canadian geography. Toward the end of the show, a melee breaks out and shots are fired, sending the crowd scattering. Outside the theater, a woman (Lucie Mannheim) approaches Hannay and asks to be taken home with him. Naturally, he obliges.
Once home, she confides in him that she is a spy trying to prevent a secret from escaping the country. She informs Hannay that she fired the shots in the theater because two men were trying to kill her, as they had realized she was on to them. Hannay does not believe her, but starts to warm to the notion when she points him to the window where he finds two thugs loitering outside his building. Later that evening Hannay is awakened as his guest stumbles into his bedroom with a knife sticking out her back. Hitch always loved knives.
Hannay, now firmly convinced of her story -- and a suspect in the girls' murder -- decides to take up her efforts. His only clue is a map of Scotland with a town circled and the fact that the bad guy is missing the top knuckle on a pinky finger (a product of his conversation the night before with the now dead counterspy).
The next morning he needs to evade the bad guys (why they didn't just kill him the night before I have no idea). He runs into a milkman and pleads for his jacket and cap. Hitchcock employs some humor in this scene in order for Hannay to escape the bad guys -- and to great effect. Hannay grabs a train headed for Scotland, but the good guys are after him for murder. He spots them and ducks into a room where a beautiful blond (Madeleine Carroll) sits quietly minding her own business. Hannay grabs her and kisses her passionately as the cops pass by the room looking for him. He apologizes profusely and tries to win her over with his story, but she immediately gives him up, which prompts another round of running for his life. The two hook up in a bit of a romantic twist later, and she eventually believes him but not without some follies along the way. I don't want to give away any more of the story, as you really must watch this one for yourself.
Hitchcock employs a number of signature moves here. The MacGuffin is present, in the form of the state secret, which is not revealed until the climax of the film. He also uses a lot of interesting angles in his shots, as well as first person perspective shots. Two important film fan shots to point out are the scream of the maid as she finds the dead girl blending into the train whistle, and the incredible shot pulling back apparently out of a moving car to watch the car as it drives off. Both were seamless and my jaw simply dropped at the occurrence of the second mention. I was left wondering how Hitchcock pulled that shot off in 1935. Imagine the long opening shot from Psycho in reverse coming out of a moving car! Holy cow!
The transfer here is really quite top notch. Filmed in the Academy Ratio, which approximates 1.33:1, the film is shown in full screen and is naturally in black and white. According to the six-page inserted into the Amaray Keep Case, this new digital transfer was created from a 35mm composite fine-grain master, which was in turn completely restored by hand removing over 21,000 instances of dirt, scratches, rips and debris utilizing the MTI Digital Restoration System. I was amazed at the look and feel of this 64-year-old transfer. At nearly twice the age of films like Psycho and To Kill A Mockingbird, it approximates their quality, which is a feat in itself. Blacks were stunningly black throughout. The contrast level was spot on much of the time. Shadow details were finely presented. The was an ever so slight sepia tone throughout the film, but that is to be expected considering the type of film stock available at the time the film was shot. All in all, this is a beautiful transfer from Criterion. One of their best considering what they had to begin the process with.
The audio is quite good as well. Obviously, not nearly as full range as newer soundtracks, the track is a bit thin in comparison. However, Criterion performed a full-blown remastering here as well and digitally removed much of the hiss, crackle and film pops that were present in the original track. The result is dialogue that is never a distraction, and that is fully involving. This is a mono track, as Dolby Digital and DTS encoders weren't around in 1935. It would be silly to remaster a film of this age as it would do little good anyway. The driving force here is not special effects or audio -- it's the story.
The disc contains some excellent extras as well. Alongside the terrific audio and video presentations are an essay by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane, a Janus Films documentary called "The Art of Film: Vintage Hitchcock," dealing with the director's early works. Excerpts from the original 1935 press book (with a great way to navigate it) and original production design drawings are also present. But maybe the coolest extra is the complete 1937 broadcast of the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film, performed by Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino. Very, very cool!
There really is little to recommend against this film, or this disc. If you are a fan of Hitchcock (a new fan maybe?) or of older films, you must own this disc. If you are not, then at least try to rent it once to give it a look see. Keep in mind the 1935 birth date and I think you'll be duly impressed.
The 39 Steps is one of Hitchcock's earliest blockbusters, and was the first film he was given nearly complete control of. It showcases many of the director's myriad tendencies and still manages to be entertaining and suspenseful. Think of it as a warm-up to North by Northwest, as many consider that film to be his American version of this movie -- the plot lines are that similar.
The film and disc are acquitted without fail. Criterion does another excellent job of giving the public EXACTLY what it wants. Quality restoration work, quality movies and quality extras. Who could possible complain about that. Now if they could get in the habit of delivering their discs when promised I would REALLY be impressed.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 1935
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio essay by Hitchcock Scholar Marian Keane
* The Complete 1937 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation
* The Art of Film: Vintage Hitchcock, a Janus Films Documentary
* Excerpts from the Original 1935 Press Book
* Original Production Design Drawings