For the next review for this month’s Genre Grandeur – British Thrillers, here’s a review from Anna of Film Grimoire of the British Thriller – The 39 Steps (1935)
Thanks again to Emma from Emmakwall.com for choosing this month’s genre
Next month’s Genre, chosen by Justine of Justine’s movie blog is Coming of Age movies. To participate, send me your review to firstname.lastname@example.org by 22nd Feb. Thanks to Justine for a great choice.
Let’s see what Anna thought of this movie…
Genre Grandeur – British Thrillers: The 39 Steps (1935)
Directed by the one and only Alfred Hitchcock and adapted from the book by John Buchan, The 39 Steps (1935) is a British thriller in every sense of the term. The 39 Steps follows one Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) and his adventures in mistaken identity. After a beautiful counter-espionage agent is killed in suspicious circumstances, Hannay takes it upon himself to prevent a spy ring from removing highly secretive information out of the country, at the same time as running from the police who believe him to be a murderer.
The 39 Steps takes its viewer on a British adventure from London through to Scotland and over the moors, with some gorgeous views of the countryside. The story is told through the plight of Richard Hannay as he attempts to escape both the police and the mysterious spy ring. Robert Donat is a very watchable misunderstood hero, with a witty performance that is not unlike many of Hitchcock’s leading men. Donat portrays Hannay as a man who maintains a sense of irony and humour throughout his circumstances, which makes for some nice comic relief during the more stressful moments of the film. Madeleine Carroll portrays Pamela, the first of Hitchcock’s ice-cold blonde leading ladies, a woman who unwittingly becomes caught up in Hannay’s exploits. The two have a lovely chemistry, particularly during the more humorous moments of the film.
I was very pleasantly surprised to find that this film is only 86 minutes long. Its shorter runtime ensures that there aren’t any laggy moments like those that exist in some of Hitchcock’s other, bigger films (there, I said it, some of them have the tendency to lag). Even though the plot has a number of holes in it, it’s almost forgivable as the story develops at a methodical pace. For example, if Hannay is Canadian, why does he have such a quintessentially British accent? The screenplay has some very memorable dialogue, with spicy jokes and saucy imagery that may have been quite provocative for the time, but nowadays seems quite tame.
For a film that was released in 1935, The 39 Steps feels like a fairly modern thriller, with twists and turns that predict a lot of Hitchcock’s later filmic preferences. As with many of Hitchcock’s earlier films, The 39 Steps spells out some elements of the genius that was to come in his directorial filmography – a case of mistaken identity, a man on the run, an icy blonde, and a story filled to the brim with espionage. More than his taste for espionage and certain types of women, however, is that The 39 Steps has the intrinsic feel of a Hitchcock film. It isn’t the type of thriller with big explosions and special effects, but it’s the type of thriller that gets under your skin. You’ll be hooked in from the very beginning until its typically satisfying Hitchcockian conclusion.
Furthermore, the direction and cinematography is typical of Hitchcock – that is, practically perfect in every way. This black and white film perfectly handles its lack of colour through stunning use of shadows, light, smoke, and fog. Visual and thematic matches are common but not enough to be on the nose; just enough that the transition between certain scenes progresses with a clever wink to the audience. The direction I loved the most was during one of the chase scenes across the Scottish moors; although some cuts looked sped up, the way the camera followed each character and the escalation of the scene’s intensity was truly thrilling. I would say that aside from his most iconic films, The 39 Steps contains some of my favourite direction by Hitchcock.
The 39 Steps is a story told with conviction, and is a genuinely exciting British thriller that will surprise its viewers. You may think that a thriller made in 1935 might be slightly out of touch for today’s cinema audience, but on the contrary, this kind of thriller is more relevant than ever. With a story that focuses on secrets and lies and espionage antics, with a story that tells you more about trust and betrayal than it does about big explosions and dumb monologues by tough guys, The 39 Steps is a truly British thriller that is well worth watching.
Thanks again to Anna for this great review