Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The 39 Steps

With the holiday fun out of the way, I can now get back to only reviewing one movie at a time, instead of the ridiculous three you got to enjoy yesterday. Anyway, this was another fairly important early effort for Hitch, and while it doesn’t hold up as well as The man Who Knew Too Much did, it’s arguably more relevant to Hitchcock’s career as a whole.
It’s basically the first real incarnation of both of Hitch’s regular tropes of The Wrong Man (where the main character goes on the run after being falsely accused of a crime) and the Macguffin (an essentially meaningless thing that serves no purpose except to propel the plot forward). Robert Donat stars as a Canadian tourist who winds up meeting a female spy after a night at the theatre, who basically forces her way into his room, tells him about a secret spy ring known as the 39 Steps, and winds up getting a knife to the back while they both sleep. Armed with only the knowledge of a potential source of info in Scotland, he now finds himself having to uncover the plot while avoiding the police, who are blaming him for the girl’s murder.

With some variations, this is the basic blueprint for at least half a dozen of Hitch’s later films, from Saboteur to North By Northwest. With that in mind, what’s really important is seeing how it’s utilized in this instance, and there are a few issues I have. First we have to deal with the Macguffin, which feels like Hitch plain forgot about it for most of the film, returning to it at the very end in just about the laziest way imaginable. I won’t ruin it, but when you see the film you’ll completely understand. Then there’s the Wrong Man motif, which in this case is pretty much dealt with by him encountering someone, thinking he’s safe with them, and then discovering he needs to run once more when they either turn out to be one of the villains or they are ratting him out to the police. While this does almost provide the film with an Argento-ish dream logic where the entire world is literally out to get Donat, it doesn’t quite manage to get over the top enough to be really exciting, and instead only winds up getting a bit repetitive.

Despite this, The 39 Steps is still a fairly good thriller, and in one notable improvement over the previous year’s The Man Who Knew Too Much the Scotland scenes were actually shot on location rather than in a studio. It’s got some clever dialogue, as Hitchcock’s film tend to have (my favorite was when he survived a gunshot thanks to a Bible in his vest pocket, to which one character quips “Well I’m not surprised, some of those hymns are terribly hard to get through”), and there’s a couple nice chase scenes, such as an escape from a train. Overall, though, this is definitely a pretty raw, amateurish effort from Hitchcock, and more one for hardcore fans than for casual ones.

Rating: ** ½

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