The time has come for me to branch out into addressing the film industry and it is this film that has done it. I’m sure we all know the old chestnut about how a classic has been vetted, how the industry, critics and popular opinion have sifted out the dross and left only the gems to be rediscovered by fresh generations of readers, listeners and viewers. This turns out to be far from the truth where cinema is concerned. For a book to survive it has to repay the amount of time it takes to read a work anywhere from 100-1,000 pages of text and if it doesn’t reward the effort that book will die out no matter what.
On the other hand, film is a dangerously easy to absorb medium. An epic film is four hours and those are rarities. In the golden age of Hollywood they were non-existent. Two hours or less! Even films that are less than great are treated as masterpieces when they require so little effort to see. A few cases in point: The African Queen, a completely inept film that nevertheless charts on Greatest Film lists with appalling frequency; that asinine classic The Adventures of Robin Hood; and of course old Citizen Kane itself, whose reputation is more damaging to its fine points than helpful. And now, having seen Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, I tell you I’ve had enough. It’s time to call a spade a spade, people.
The emphasis in my film reviews shall be on iconoclasm, not handing down perceived wisdom. I mean no disrespect to old films, nor do I claim to be some kind of film expert. All I am saying is that where overblown reputations are concerned, enough is enough. Making this decision is likely to be unpopular, I know, but being unable to find a single naysayer review of this particular film, I am forced to take up the task myself.
The 39 Steps was made in 1935, the intent being to create a low-budget spy thriller, a quick entertainment vehicle (boy, does it look it). Hitchcock, at the time a minor director nobody paid much attention to, was hired to film it and in so doing, he made his name. The film took off on both sides of the Atlantic and in hindsight was revealed to establish many classic Hitchcock tropes – the MacGuffin, the wrongly accused man, the blonde, the suspenseful pacing, etc. Spy films ripped it off for decades. So much for its historical importance. How about its actual merits?
Based on John Buchan’s 1915 thriller of the same name (which in all honesty I have not yet read), the film follows the travails of Richard Hannay as he attempts to save England from an espionage ring, clear his name of a murder charge and stay alive and ahead of both police and enemy agents. So far, so good. Hannay is meant as an Everyman figure, not an extraordinary or hard to relate to man. What do we know about him from the film? He’s Canadian, blasé and can whistle. Oh yes, and he’s also a cad. One of the most interesting things about Robert Donat’s acting in this film (he’s quite good, by the way, particularly at evoking comedic casualness) is his ability to subliminally hint at his character’s caddishness when nothing in his script or actions indicate him to be anything but a stalwart gentleman. No, rather it’s in his body language, in the casualness with which he handles women – all women, and there are a fair few in this film.
Critics claim The 39 Steps to already showcase Hitchcock’s superior artistry. I have a less gifted eye – to me it appears ham-fisted. Telegraphing is one of this film’s most aggravating faults. Look to the scene wherein Hannay has his interview with the film’s villain and both are eyeing each other and the exits. What is the camera saying? “The eyes…look at the eyes…notice them…I’m only gonna say this once. The EYES, GODDAMNIT! You’re not paying attention!” That’s how much subtlety this scene is conveying. Similarly, the intro at the Music Hall has the unwashed masses shouting out often simultaneous questions to Mr. Memory. Hitchcock zooms in his camera on so many of the audience members that rather than the spontaneous feel he was probably going for, the whole things feels staged and awkward (as do many individual scenes, a strange thing considering its excellent pacing). I might also mention the burning candle transition shot, a cliché old as the hills, but perhaps he invented it? He did invent the scream-metamorphosis transition shot, later overused, but he gets credit for inventiveness there.
The film’s budget is as low as any B-flick and it often fails to rise above the usual failures of the genre: there’s both a distractingly fake waterfall and an insectoid helicopter that appears to have wandered in out of some other film which, since it added nothing to the plot, should never have escaped from the cutting room. Hitchcock did make fine use of the moody Scottish scenery, however, especially during Hannay’s stay with a local couple, where he meets the lovely and brave Peggy Ashcroft, who is one of the film’s highlights: a vibrant and good-hearted woman married to a harsh religious zealot, a man who will nevertheless seize at money no matter who offers it. Ashcroft should have been the film’s heroine, but instead the last we hear of her is a scream offstage as her husband lays into her for aiding in Hannay’s escape and the heroine turns out to be Hitch’s favorite: the blonde.
Madeleine Carroll portrays the frosty, snappish blonde in question, a thoroughly unappealing character (though nice to look at) to whom Hannay gets manacled, thus having to drag this walking liability all over the countryside. On failing to convince her of his innocence he gives up and starts playing the menacing stranger to keep control of her in a set of scenes both hilarious and subtly disturbing (after all, she doesn’t know the truth…). The sympathy this wins her in swiftly undermined by her petulant screwball comedy remark “you bully!” Someone slap her, please. Even after her change of heart, she still does little to aid Hannay in his quest, though at this late point in the movie he does call her on it. And these two are supposed to end up together?
The other actors are all bit-parts. Godfrey Tearle plays the genial villain, Helen Haye his model-of-propriety wife, Wylie Watson is the pompous performing artist Mr. Memory, John Laurie poor Peggy Ashcroft’s sinister spouse and special note should be made of Frank Cellier in his tiny role as a Scottish sheriff very adept at both sides of the good cop-bad cop routine.
I have to mention Lucie Mannheim’s character separately. In the book, the spy Hannay first meets is a man, a far more realistic and plausible choice. A glamorous woman, dressed to the nines, is not a spy. Spies do not want attention, they want to blend in. Is anyone really surprised she was unable to shake off the goons tailing her when exiting a music hall packed with drab working-class people (mostly men, at that)? I am not an adaptation purist, but this choice on Hitchcock’s part wasn’t just inaccurate, it was cheap; a bad decision to help sex up the film.
And this leads to another problem, that of “groundbreaking.” Film critics equate this as “great.” Check the dictionary and you’ll find that these two words are not synonymous. The 39 Steps codified all the needed tropes of the spy genre…but is this a good thing? This is the film that turned espionage into a veritable fantasyland – good guys and bad guys, the dashing hero (cool under pressure and good with the ladies), the MacGuffin, the female foreign agent, the dastardly plot (that’s almost incidental to the hide-and-seek game which provides the film’s real meat) and of course that same sure-to-be-foiled-at-the-last-possible-second plot. All the things that made the spy story fit for children were started by Hitchcock, so the film historians say. I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t impress me.
There is one more scene I’d like to give a shout out to, which is Hannay’s being mistaken for a political speaker. He makes the best of it and even savours the momentary shelter of being out in front of a crowd. Humourously, he proceeds to tell only the truth, bumbling along and eventually getting the audience on his side via some impassioned liberal speechifying straight out of a Frank Capra film, which, thanks to its outlandish surroundings, is five times as entertaining as one of his sermons. Good job, Hitch.
However, this does not take away from my basic point. Movie guides’ routinely give it five stars; it makes greatest films of “all time” lists without breaking a sweat; critics declare it shows the sure touch of a master. As I said, I’m no critic. I can say I loved it when I first saw it. I still have the note I wrote at 12 giving it five stars. Rewatching now, I can’t give it more than two. Hitchcock was an amateur at this time. Just compare it to The Lady Vanishes (in terms of craft) and you’ll see great improvement in only a few years.
Lest you think I’m just a Hitchcock basher, know that I’m a great admirer of Dial M for Murder. This particular film is not a good showcase of his talent. It IS however, a good showcase of his “brand” of film, which is why if you ask anyone “why is this film a classic?” they will immediately state its director. This film is light entertainment and highly important for film historians; it is not art. Frankly, it belongs in one of those 50 Spy Movie-Packs, not The Criterion Collection. Buy it, show it to your kids, get them thinking early that black and white films don’t have to be dull, but don’t call this one of the “greatest films of all time.” It doesn’t have the chops for it. And, lest you think I’m being unfairly harsh on a 30s movie, think on this: in 1931, Dracula and Frankenstein, two films in an equally schlocky genre and taking as many liberties with their source material, were released. In 1932, The Mummy. These are all films that display far more sureness of touch and artistic awareness than 1935’s 39 Steps. Those three are masterpieces despite their enormous age. What is this?