Monday, June 3, 2019

2019 Blind Spot Series: The 39 Steps


Hey, everyone. It's Blind Spot time. If you're unfamiliar, The Blind Spot Challenge is hosted by Sofia at Returning Videotapes and is a challenge to us bloggers to watch one "significant" film per month that you haven't seen before. This one certainly fits the criteria.


Why did I pick it? Hitchcock. I've said this is previous posts, but Hitchcock is arguably the most iconic director of all-time. For people like me, that means I've got to watch a bunch of his work, particularly those deemed classics. This movie certainly fits the bill. It shows up on many 'greatest movies' lists, including one put out in 1999 by the British Film Institute. They ranked it as the fourth best British film of the twentieth century. Now that we're all intrigued, let's get to it.

Our hero Richard (Robert Donat) is at a show by the amazing "Mr. Memory" (Wylie Watson), a guy with instant and perfect recall of all manner of facts and figures. During this, shots ring out, and pandemonium ensues. Richard finds himself consoling Annabella (Lucie Mannheim) who then asks him to take her back to his apartment. That seems exceptionally forward of a woman in the 1930s, but unsurprisingly, Richard obliges. Once there, Annabella informs Richard that she fired the shots herself to cause a distraction because she is a spy and recognized assassins that were there to kill her. It seems they caught wind of her figuring out their plot to steal vital military information. She seems to think the perpetrators are a shadowy organization known only as The 39 Steps. Later that night, someone does indeed make their way into Richard's apartment and stabs Annabella to death. Before taking her last breath, however, she gives Richard the old flee warning. He takes off, but shortly discovers that he is the target of a nationwide manhunt as Annabella's murderer. Richard trying to clear his name while on the run ensues.

Hitchcock movies tend to live or die by how well they establish tone. I suppose that's true of most movies, but his seem especially susceptible to this. When he nails it, as in Vertigo and Psycho, the results are phenomenal. When he doesn't, as in The Lady Vanishes, we get a movie that has good elements but doesn't quite work. I The Lady Vanishes, the issue is the film constantly switches between silly comedy dead-serious mystery without the two styles ever meshing. The 39 Steps also incorporates humor and suspense, but balances the two far better. The jokes, often delivered with a wink and a nod, is excellently integrated into the unfolding drama of our hero desperately trying to stay alive. They serve as nice breaks in the tension as well as tiny bits of character development.


Strangely, considering the director, there are more problems with the suspense side of things. The tension is not always tense enough. We recognize the danger that our hero is in, but we never quite get the tingle in our spine given to us by other Hitchcock films. A huge chunk of the problem is that those scenes where our hero is meant to narrowly escape death don't feel, well, death-defying. Some of this can be attributed to the era in which this movie was made versus the era in which I'm watching it. The idea of what constitutes a harrowing cinematic chase has changed dramatically over the years. It even changed from one part of Hitch's career to another. On the other hand, the attitude of the main character during these moments is too flippant and nothing happens to jolt him out of it. The genius of Hitchcock is that the movie overcomes this to keep us intrigued. He expertly strings us along despite our misgivings. He develops in us a need to see how this plays out.

My having seen much later Hitchcock works against my perception of the film. Because of those experiences I was immediately struck by how many elements were recycled for North by Northwest. Both are chase movies involving a wrongly accused man and a nefarious organization. There are two major differences between this movie and that. In the later movie, the budget is clearly and significantly bigger. The director's vision is also bigger. Combining the two allows for more elaborate action sequences. The story here is more than solid. Having better action scenes, however, would enhance it. The other difference is the machismo of its leading man. In North by Northwest, Cary Grant represents the manly man American audiences have always valued. Of course, The 39 Steps is a British film from the 1930s. Fittingly, and maybe I'm stereotyping, Robert Donat is much more genteel. The combination of these disparities makes this a much less muscular movie. However, this came first, so it's probably unfair to judge it solely in comparison to film from two decades later with no real connection to it other than having the same director. On its own, The 39 Steps is a movie that takes a little time to grab you, but once it does it doesn't let go.



16 comments:

  1. Great review! I haven't seen this one, but like you I'm trying to watch more Hitchcock in general. I'm not sure if I'll rush to see this one though.

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    1. I wouldn't say rush, but I did enjoy it.

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  2. I think this is one of several films of Hitchcock that I haven't seen as I hope to do them in October as I want to get through his entire Hollywood period and then everything else before this film and so on. The man is a genius.

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    1. He was certainly a genius. I think you'll like this one.

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  3. I've never heard of The 39 Steps but I'm making a conscious effort to watch more of Hitchcock's work so this one is going to have to go on my list.

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    1. Cool. I did enjoy it, just not one of my faves.

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  4. The new Wiggles album Party Time will be out on the 21st ๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽˆ๐ŸŽ

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  5. I like this movie well enough. It's the sort of film that, as you say, pales in comparison with a lot of Hitchcock's later work, but it's informative for where his career went. I think there are a lot of bones of his later work here--he's starting to learn to craft this kind of story, and he'd get a lot better at it over time.

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    1. That's exactly what I was trying to say. Great comment!

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  6. A decent film but not top-notch Hitch in my book. It wouldn't make my top 20 of his films but it was a watershed movie for him, becoming an enormous success on its release it was the first one to make his name known outside the UK.

    That's an interesting point about the difference between Cary Grant and Robert Donat. Both England born but Donat was British to his backbone while Grant retained a degree of his foreignness but morphed into a more universal type and in many ways seemed American. Then too Donat's health was always fragile-he suffered from acute often debilitating asthma his entire short life-so his actions were never vigorous whereas Cary Grant, the picture of health and an acrobat in his younger days was always very physical in his work.

    I do have a particular personal fondness for the movie because of Madeleine Carroll. When my father was wounded in WWII and on a hospital train in England Madeleine, who had abandoned her career to work in the war effort full time, was one of those who cared for him. He always spoke extremely well of her and woe to anyone who said a negative word against her! I've watched as many of her films as I can find because of that, a lovely genteel lady.

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    1. Before watching this movie, I had never heard of Donat, but the picture you paint of him fits the performance I saw.

      Great story about Madeleine Carroll. Seems like they had each other's backs, in different ways of course, but still.

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  7. I actually really love The 39 Steps especially the lead, poor Robert Donat who suffered from severe asthma which resulted in his early death. I thought he had great chemistry with Madeline Carroll and I love those 2 men who were also in The Lady Vanishes. Those 2 were quite bold for film mak8ng and somehow got past the censors. It isn’t as good as his films from the 50’s and some of the 40’s but it holds its own.

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    1. Yes, I forgot to mention those two. That was quite bold for the time. Thanks for bringing it up!

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  8. Always interesting to get your take on things. I liked this more than you, one of my favourite Hitchcock films. I also like The Manchurian Candidate (original) soon after too.

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  9. I enjoyed the many twists and turns and I agree Hitchcock pushes the need to see how the story plays out. The political speech was the stand-out scene for me. I'd rank The 39 Steps slightly below Hitchcock’s masterpieces. Still really good though, and worth seeing.

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