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39 Steps Review

Old 11-06-99, 12:00 PM
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Reviewed by Bob Banka

November 6, 1999


Full-Frame 1.33:1, Standard
Dolby Digital Mono
86 minutes
Not Rated, 1935

”I am out to give the public good, healthy, mental shake-ups. Civilization has become so screening and sheltering that we cannot experience sufficient thrills first hand. Therefore, to prevent our becoming sluggish and jellified, we have to experience them artificially.”

-- Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS was perhaps the first film by the master of suspense to include all those elements now recognize as ‘Hitchcockian.’ Though the director had helmed more than a dozen features prior to THE 39 STEPS, never before did he have so much control over a production. The success of his previous feature, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH had earned him still more respect from the studio, along with an increased degree of freedom.

THE 39 STEPS is built upon the ‘wrong man’ premise -- one that Hitchcock used several times in his features -- including THE MAN WHO NEW TOO MUCH, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and NORTH BY NORTHWEST. The set up is simple -- an everyday man, in the wrong place at the wrong time, gets tangled in a far reaching conspiracy or devilish plot. He may be accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and must prove his innocence while on the run from police and special agents. This theme, though far more original back in the thirties, is very common in thrillers today -- consider THE FUGITIVE and ENEMY OF THE STATE. The theme worked well for Hitchcock in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and he returned to it for his next film, THE 39 STEPS.

THE 39 STEPS also contains the ‘MacGuffin’ element seen so often in the director’s films. As Hitchcock put it, ”A MacGuffin is something that the characters worry about but that the audience does not.” For example, the microfilms being smuggled out of the country in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. In the case of THE 39 STEPS, it’s a scientific formula that’ll allow for the production of a near silent- running engine that’s being smuggled out of England. The MacGuffin itself is of no interest to us, it’s how the characters react to situations precipitated by it that make the film interesting. This plot device is used often in films today, a recent example would be the computer disc in ENEMY OF THE STATE. As an audience, we’re too caught up in the cat and mouse sequences to think about the disc and the repercussions it would have should it be made public. Even after the disc is destroyed, the action and suspense continues.

Other Hitchcockian elements can be seen in THE 39 STEPS. The director’s high angle shots are here -- for example, to give Hannay’s point of view as he looks down from the Forth Bridge, or the elevated shot of the maid when she discovers the dead Miss Annabella in Hannay’s apartment. There’s some interesting camera movement as well -- for example, the shot of Hannay and Pamela in the back seat of the spies’ car during which the camera seems to move through the side of the automobile and then watch as it drives away. There are also a number of point of view shots in THE 39 STEPS -- for example, when Hannay’s on the train to Scotland, and again when he’s giving an improvised speech to a group of assembled voters.

Hitchcock and writer Charles Bennet saw potential in John Buchman’s novel, ‘The 39 Steps,’ but Bennet felt the story lacked humor, character and the ability to involve an audience. They decided to strengthen the story in two ways -- by preying on the fears circulating in parts of Europe at the time due to the rise of Hitler in Germany, and to include a bit of romantic comedy. Using military secrets smuggled out of England as the MacGuffin added the first ingredient, and having the film’s leads, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll handcuffed together for a night in a hotel, took care of the other.

Donat and Carroll hadn’t met before arriving on the set for their first day of filming. They were to shoot a scene handcuffed together as they escaped from a pair of spies on the Scottish moors. Though it was likely that being cuffed together would make the near strangers a bit uncomfortable, Hitchcock slapped the handcuffs on them and disappeared for hours, claiming he had misplaced the key. The actors were angered by the prank, but the director delighted in it. Hitchcock said “What interests me is the drama of being handcuffed. There’s a special terror, a sort of ‘thing’ about being tied up, haven’t you noticed?” Hitchcock was well known for his rather twisted sense of humor.

The handsome Robert Donat and the beautiful Madeleine Carroll are terrific in THE 39 STEPS. Donat is a dashing romantic lead, and plays the part of the calm-under-fire fellow that’s seen so often in Hitchcock’s films. Cary Grant would play similar roles in the director’s later works. Carroll was the first of Hitchcock’s prototypical blonde beauties. Her character begins by hating Donat, but after a night cuffed to him and some time on the run, she falls for him. The two work well together, and they handle the humorous material well. One scene, which has Carroll removing her wet stockings while Donat is cuffed to her, was a bit risqué for 1935, but perhaps his holding a sandwich throughout the shot lightened things up enough to make it more palatable for the sensors. The entire scene in the hotel room is humorous and very charming.

THE 39 STEPS is a grand old suspense flic which presents an everyday man struggling to prove his innocence before the law and trench-coated spies can catch up with him. This flic further established Hitchcock as a master of the genre. It’s a showcase of those elements now typical fare in thrillers and suspense films. THE 39 STEPS is a true classic.

Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian rancher on holiday in London, gets caught up in a riot while attending a vaudeville theater. After being pushed into the street by the mob, he’s approached by a young woman, Miss ‘Smith’ (Lucie Mannheim), who asks to go home with him. Hannay obliges.

At Hannay’s apartment, Miss Smith confesses she’s a spy engaged to prevent the smuggling of military secrets out of the country. Two men in the theater were trying to kill her, so she fired a pistol to start the riot. Hannay finds this all too incredible, but that night he wakes to find the woman staggering into his room with a knife buried in her back. He pries a map of Scotland from her dead hand and resolves to head for a small town she had circled.

While at a train stop, Hannay learns he’s the suspect for the murder of the woman and that police are hunting him down. Soon, his train is crawling with officers. At one point, he hides in a compartment with a beautiful blonde, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who’ll have nothing to do with him. She tips off the police and Hannay must jump the train -- now stopped on the Forth Bridge in Scotland. After walking the moors for the entire day, he’s put up by a couple of farmers, but early the next morning he’s on the run again.

Eventually Hannay makes it to the estate of Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) -- the man Miss Smith was going to visit for help. However, it turns out he’s actually the secrets smuggler. Jordan pulls a pistol on Hannay and shoots him. Saved by a bible in his breast pocket which intercepts the bullet, Hannay is off and running, but this time to the police whom he hopes to convince of his innocence. Foiled again -- Scotland Yard is called in to take him into custody. Hannay dives through a window and out into the street.

After being nabbed by two spies masquerading as police, Hannay finds himself cuffed to the beautiful Pamela. They couple slips away onto the moors, and scurries to a small hotel where they spend the night cuffed together. Pamela manages to slip out of her ‘wristlet’ during the night. As she slinks from the room, she overhears the two spies in the lobby speaking on the phone. She learns they’re headed for London to pick up the military secrets and leave the country. To say more would be unfair.

“The 39 Steps is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33 : 1. This new digital transfer was created from a 35mm composite fine-grain master. The transfer was then completely restored by hand-removing over 21,000 instances of dirt, scratches, rips, and debris utilizing the MTI Digital Restoration System. The sound was also extensively restored using digital tools to remove such audio imperfections as film pops, crackle, and hiss.”

Telecline Colorist - Vince Narduzzo / Telecline, London DVD Mastering - Complete Post, Inc., L.A.

Criterion has done a stupendous job restoring this classic, sixty-five year old film. The only prints I’d ever seen of THE 39 STEPS were very poor looking copies on VHS tape. Compared to those, this print is a revelation. Though it’s not in the same league as a few high quality transfers we’ve seen of some classic B&Ws of the forties and fifties, it’s not far off the mark.

Blacks are nearly always deep and true, and whites are clean. We were very impressed with the consistent contrast and brightness levels which hold steady as the film moves from interior to exterior, and from daylight to night. The tiny bits of ‘grain’ we caught glimpses of were most likely film grain and not an artifact of Criterion’s digital transfer.

We noted no ‘shimmer’ or ‘ringing’ from digital over- enhancement -- just sharp clean edges. Some long shots and extreme long shots out on the moors are softer in appearance. Interiors are, without exception, sharp and detailed and demonstrate good shadow delineation.

Ever since viewing Criterion’s work on one of their first DVDs, AMARCORD, we’ve been incredibly impressed by what they can accomplish with the MTI Digital Restoration System. When I consider the horrible condition of prints I saw on VHS of THE 39 STEPS and compare them with this amazingly clean digital transfer, I’m awestruck. What the folks at Criterion Collection are doing to restore films deserves an award. We’re being presented ‘prints’ of classic film after classic film which look far better than they’ve ever looked since their initial theatrical releases. High marks and much gratitude for this transfer of Hitchcock’s terrific thriller.

Audio Restoration - Ken Hansen

Very impressive work here. This is a Dolby Digital, mono track that’s been produced from sixty-five year old audio elements, and yet the sound is surprisingly clean. Of course, dialogue sounds thinner and more hollow than what we’re accustomed to hearing from more recent films, but this has to be expected. The same can be said for louder sound effects -- of trains, automobiles, gunshots, and stirred up crowds. On occasion, during more robust passages of the film's score, some distortion occurs.

The surprise here is how very little background ‘hiss’ is present on the track. One can hear trace amounts if the center channel speaker is approached closely, but that’s all. We noted no annoying ‘pops’ or audio ‘drop outs’ during the presentation. If you’ve ever listened to the tracks mated to the available VHS copies of the film, you’ll note the differences here as soon as the opening credits begin. Mr. Hansen has done a terrific job of cleaning up the sound for Criterion’s DVD.

Scene access menu with links to 12 chapters in the film
Running commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane
The complete 1937 broadcast of the Lux Radio Theater adaptation, performed by Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino
The Art Of Film: Vintage Hitchcock, a Janus Films documentary detailing the director’s British period
Excerpts from the original 1935 press book
Original production design drawings
English closed captions

Source: thebigpicturedvd.com
Old 11-06-99, 03:40 PM
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>Scene access menu with links to 12 chapters in the film

As usual the Criterion folks have designed beautiful (if understated) graphics for the menu system. The chapter stop index is text based but I was impressed by the choice of stops. They really put some thought into how to break the film up.

>Running commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane

Absolutly fantastic commentary. This is a prime example of 'film school on a disc.' Ms. Keane takes us on a shot by shot exploration of Hitchcock's technique and artistic lexicon. She gives great insight on how this film prefigures other classics including Vertigo, Psycho and North by Northwest. My only complaint is that she sounds overly dry at times, clearly reading from a script. Also, she has a bothersome habit of telling us 'this is funny.' No big deal though, still one of the best commentary tracks you'll find.

>The complete 1937 broadcast of the Lux Radio Theater adaptation, performed by Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino

A very nice addition. Short enough to be listened to in one sitting. The Criterion folks have provided us with a number of stills that cycle through as the radio drama plays out. Interesting stuff.

>The Art Of Film: Vintage Hitchcock, a Janus Films documentary detailing the director’s British period

This is part 7 of the excellent Janus Art of Film series. The print is very battered and the sound is full of pop and hiss but it's a wonderful film that supliments the commentary track and provides copious clips from Hitchcock't british period. I remember seeing this series on PBS late night years ago. I sure wish one could get the entire thing on DVD as a stand alone collection.

>Excerpts from the original 1935 press book

Text based content taken from the press book that went to distributors detailing how they should hype the film. Interesting mainly for its dated and over the top feel.

>Original production design drawings

A small collection of drawings that show how the sets and locations came together. As always Hitchcock had the entire film worked out in his mind before a single frame of film rolled through the camera. These drawings show how exacting his technique was even at that 'early' stage.

All in all this is another winner from Criterion. A must have for any Hitchcock fan.

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