Friday, August 13, 2010

Hitchcock's Birthday Bash: Guest Blogger Jean Howard on "The 39 Steps"

This guest post comes from Jean Howard at Discovering Ida. IT'S AMAZING. It immediately made me want to run and watch The 39 Steps...and now I'm completely going to watch it tonight (for the zillionth time). This is how to write a great review (haha, something my blog sadly lacks in knowledge of ;-D). Thank you so much Jean!

Over a span of four days, the smart and unflappable protagonist, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is involved in a circular journey to prove his innocence and expose the hive of intrigue. He is involved in chases and romantic interludes that take him from London to the Scottish Highlands and back again and he assumes numerous identities on the way - a milkman, an auto mechanic, a honeymooner, a political speaker among others. The reason for this journey begins when a mysterious woman comes to him for help, claiming that she is being hunted by spies. Hannay helps her, but when she is murdered in his home it looks like he is to blame, and he has to go on the run from the police (who obviously want him for the "crime") and the spies (who want him to find out how much he actually knows). En route, he has many adventures as he flees across the South Scotland landscapes, including being handcuffed to a woman (Madeline Carroll) who happens to think he is guilty of the murder.

Trust and betrayal have been a recurrent theme in several of Alfred Hitchcock's works. The 39 Steps, made in 1935, has all the classic elements of the master filmmaker that set the standard for later Hitchcock films. The 39 Steps has the classic Hitchcockian theme of an average, innocent man caught up in extraordinary events which are quite beyond his control. The sexually frustrating institution of marriage is another major motif present in the film. The strained and loveless relationship between the crofter and his wife, the placid relationship of the innkeeper and his wife, the (physical) bond between Hannay and Pamela can be examined in terms of degrees of trust between the couples. In fact, the short 'acquaintance' between Hannay and Smith and Hannay and the crofter's wife are also built completely upon trust. It is these couples, and the chemistry between them (or the lack thereof) that drive the entire film.

The opening of the film, the first three shots do not show him above his neck. With his back to the camera, he is followed down the aisle to his seat. He is then assumed to be lost in the crowd. This gives the audience the feeling that he could be anybody. Later when he takes in the identities of a milkman, a mechanic, a politician one realizes that he is Hitchcock's archetypal 'everyman' who unwittingly finds himself in incredible dilemmas.

In one of the brilliantly managed sequences on the train, Richard Hannay throws himself at a lone girl and forces a kiss just as a detective and two policemen pass by their compartment. It reveals his desperation to remain free until he can prove his innocence. In the scene after Annabella staggers into his room with a kitchen knife in her back, Hannay sees her ghostly image (which is superimposed) talking to him, `What you are laughing at right now is true. These men will stop at nothing.' The double exposure achieves a result which is a tad chilling and sad. The hallmark of Hitchcock's style is his ability to completely shock his audience by deliberately playing against how they would be thinking. In such episodes as the murder of the woman in Hannay's apartment or when the vicious professor with the missing finger casually shoots Hannay, the action progresses almost nonchalantly leaving the viewers stunned.

A great story, interesting and likeable characters, slyly incongruous wit, classic Hitchcockian motifs and a great MacGuffin are just a few things that make the The 39 Steps one of the essential Hitchcock films.

This movie has been a classic thriller since it was first released, and like other hit movies of the period, Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps was adapted for radio in 1937.

In this version, Ida Lupino portrayed the character of Pamela in the radio play of The 39 Steps on the Lux Radio Theater. I think she made the role her own very nicely and I can easily picture her in the film version. It would have been interesting to see her in that movie, especially after hearing her performance in this broadcast. Also from listening to the radio play, I once again get the impression that you just can't help but like Robert Montgomery. I think he and Ida worked very well together.

And now that I've talked about it so much, here it is for all of you to enjoy, too: The Lux Radio Theater production with Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery.

The 39 Steps

- Jean

Thanks again Jean! I LOVE THIS!


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