Tuesday, April 3, 2012

39 Steps (1935)


For years the British filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock had been establishing an impressive résumé of directing credits, slowly becoming one of the best known film artists in all of England. His most recent work, The Man That Knew Too Much, was a marvelous success in Britain, and now it was felt that Hitchcock should be used to bring international success for England’s motion picture industry. With a larger budget and wider appeal, Hitchcock’s latest and finest film was 39 Steps, a loose adaptation of a novel that Hitchcock makes very much his own, producing many of the qualities that came to be known in his particular kind of filmmaking. This suspenseful thriller would be hailed as one of the finest pictures ever produced in England at the time and for many decades to come.

39 Steps is a thriller of a man who mistakenly gets caught up in a wrongful accusation in murder and an adventure of international espionage, chased for wrongful allegations of murder by police officials while being pursued by international spies that got into the situation, our hero tries to solve the case and clear his name without coming into either sides hands. After the death of a spy in his flat, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is accused for murder sending him running from both the authorities as well as spies that killed the woman, Annabelle (Lucie Mannheim) that lies dead in his home. As he runs from the police Hannay wishes to discover the mystery of the “39 Steps” and the man with the little finger missing that Annabelle had warned him about before her murder. In his long pursuit Hannay gets handcuffed to a beautiful blond named Pamela (Madelenie Carroll) who was able to point him out in a crowd. Now he must run with her literally attached to him in order to not be captured by mysterious spies. In time Pamela turns from a skeptic to a believer of Hannay, aiding him to clues that lead him to innocence and the discovery of what the secret society of spies known as the 39 Steps.

A brilliant suspenseful film, 39 Steps is a perfect example of “Hitchcockian” filmmaking. It contains many of the aspects that would one day be synonymous to a Hitchcock picture. It has the story of the wrong man on the run for accusations, a beautiful blond, some titillating sexual matters, built up suspense, and marvelous cases through a wide number of locals. Here Hitch is still developing his unique facets to his movies, making his pictures all his own. The story was originally taken from a book of the same name, but he reworks characters and plot points to make them more appealing to watch in an entertaining motion picture. He had with him his own style that makes him and his movies so very engaging. Still on the rise, Hitchcock was reaching new heights in his filmmaking creativity.

To help make this production more alluring to the international audience, especially in American, a larger budget was made that brought in stars from England that had made names for themselves in Hollywood.  The leads, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, both had a number of Hollywood pictures to their credit. Donat, who holds wonderfully the attention of the audience as a man on the run with times of creative and entertaining elements to get his way through scenarios, including an intriguing scene where he must act as a politician at a rally in order to not be immediately caught, which stirs “followers” into a great commotion. Donat’s credits had included such features as The Private Life of Henry VIII and recently The Conte of Monte Carlo (1934). His stock would get better in time. Carroll had not quite as much internationally recognizable credits to her name, but with great coaching from Hitchcock she would coax out a magnificent performance as the sexy blond, a feature seen many time in the future of Hitchcock pictures. The demand for Carroll would greatly rise from her performance. Both Donat and Carroll would be re-teamed in another Hitchcock film, Secret Agent, the following year.

Reception for the film, 39 Steps, would be very positive both then and in time. A successful push for international acclaim by a British studio would pay handsomely for studio, director, and stars. Hitchcock would continue to make more films in England through the decade before he would finally be persuaded to make features in Hollywood and sets roots in the motion picture capitol. Both leads landed bigger roles in the coming future. The film would be hailed as one the country’s best productions of all time, still landing on many list as one of the best British films  decades later, including the British Film Institution’s (BFI) top 100 list in 1999 as #4. It would be a monument to the filmmaker’s art years before hitting his stride.

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