My local cinema back in Leeds likes to do a “Classics” night at least once a month, with movies ranging from several decades back being shown. Older showings have brought films such as Casablanca, the great Ealing comedy Kind Hearts And Coronets as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (oddly enough, all three are some of my favourite films of all time). This week was a showing of another Hitchcock film, The 39 Steps. And since this year (2015) is the film’s 80th anniversary, I can safely say this is proper retro review.
The 39 Steps is directed by Alfred Hitchcock and stars Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, Madeleine Carroll as Pamela and Godfrey Tearle as Professor Jordan. The film revolves around Hannay, who after being told about a plot to steal intelligence secrets, is hounded by both the police and enemy spies across Britain, all the while trying to find out what or where the 39 Steps are.
Having read the book, I do have to say that Hitchcock has taken quite a few liberties with the story. While several scenes are recreated such as “The Milkman Escape” as well as the famous train escapes, Hitchcock makes a detour from the source material and creates his own spin on the classic “man-on-the-run” thriller (a thriller he would go on to direct another three times). Still, what we get is a very polished story, full of extravagant characters and chilling revelations, along with a very Christopher Nolan-esque ending.
Richard Donat (who plays the main character Richard Hannay) is considered to be one of the great romantic leading men of the 1930s, so the role he has here in The 39 Steps is one he could do in his sleep. He flits from scene to scene, kissing nearly every woman who appears within arms reach, all the while looking impeccably good for someone who is jumping out of trains at high speed and running through the boggy marshes of Scotland. His opposite is Madeleine Carroll as Pamela, one of Hitchcock’s first ice-cold blondes, a fiercely independent woman who will always speak her mind. It is rumoured Hitchcock would leave the two of them handcuffed together for hours at a time, pretending to have lost the key, just so the chemistry could grow between them. It seems to have worked, as the dialogue and looks the two leads throw each other is fun to listen to and watch.
Some of the shots that Hitchcock and cinematographer Bernard Knowles create are stunning and beautiful, leading many of them to become well known within the psyche of pop culture. The effective chiaroscuro lighting, mainly used in the noir genre is used to great effect throughout the film, making this one of the director’s best looking films. The sets and locations that the characters visit are also incredibly filmed, with landscape shots of the Scottish Highlands good enough to rival those created by Sam Mendes/Roger Deakins in the James Bond film Skyfall. Even if the sets are small, such as the small archway underneath a bridge our heroes hide behind, the cinematography, the lighting and the acting make such a small space look gorgeous and make it iconic.
A very odd omission from the film is the complete lack of a soundtrack. Apart from the opening credits and a few instances of diegetic music such as a band hall performance, I think I am right in saying that there was not one note from an instrument within the film. This somehow works in favour with the film, with scenes such as the reveal of the leader of the enemy spies. The complete lack of a musical sting to indicate him as the antagonist makes us as the audience uneasy. Music can tell us a lot about what is happening on screen and what will happen in the coming few scenes, but here it’s just us and the silence, making the film a lot more tense than it originally was meant to be.
There are a few things in the film that do look pretty silly when seen nowadays. Sped-up footage reminiscent of the Keystone Cops (the Silent Era version of the Police Academy film franchise), pretty shoddy back projection (even for someone as visionary as Hitchcock) and asynchronous sound design is positively laughable when looked at today. Luckily these moments are few and far between, meaning that they don’t distract from the story too much.
In summary, The 39 Steps is one of Hitchcock’s best films. With a stellar cast full of famous British actors, a pulse pounding plot and a witty script, it’s another great spy film from “The Master of Suspense”.
Score: 10/10 One of the greatest British films of the last century.