Monday, April 27, 2015

Criterion Thoughts—The 39 Steps (1935) ***½

UR, 85 min.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, John Buchan (novel)
Starring: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, Helen Haye, Frank Cellier, Wylie Watson

Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” plays as a movie trying to break out of the constraints of its times. It is an example of how Hitchcock needed the power and scope of Hollywood to jump the cinematic art forward in just the way he did after his marriage with Tinsletown. It is a movie that bursts at its cinematic seams for greater production value and a leap forward in storytelling for the format.

As is often the case with Hitch, he unsettles his audience with his opening images. A man buys a ticket at a box office and the next few shots are those of feet. Even the purchase of the ticket fails to show us a face or even a torso of the man we are following into a theater. Without seeing any faces and with a sequence of feet walking this way and that, we are immediately placed into the mindset of a sort of chase going on. And yet, we have no notion of who is being chased, or why, or who is doing the chasing. The inside of the theater is a scene of a degree of chaos.

The camera finally gives us the face of a man we can only assume is our hero. Of course, we first see him from the back, giving us some doubt as to his trustworthiness. This is Jack. It is assumed this scene will be about him, but it is not. He watches a man who claims to know any piece of information. After a series of difficult questions the man answers with little hesitation, someone holds a gun up in the crowd and fires it into the air. The result is what we were always told would happen if you yelled, “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

Jack is thrust into one of Hitch’s favorite plots, the man wrongfully associated with some sort of criminal activity. He helps a woman escape the riotous theater and takes her to his apartment. She behaves as a paranoid, but like they say, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you. She asks Jack if he’s heard of the 39 Steps, lays a line on him about being chased because she knows important secrets pertaining to national security, and reveals it was she who fired the shot. Now, like any good gent in a film from the early 20th Century, he takes all this in with surprising calm. Not impressed a bit until she wakes him up in the middle of the night with a knife in her back.

This development gives us another of Hitch’s favorite motifs, the misdirection of roles. As the audience we assume from what we already know about thrillers that these two people will share an adventure together, but then without warning he eliminates one of the people we thought would be a lead in the story. He pulls the rug out from under us using our own expectations, much as he did later in his career with his masterpiece “Psycho”.

Hitch also uses an extreme amount of depth of field in his camera for the time. His shot compositions involve people holding conversations with one person standing very close to the camera and others much farther away. This creates a broken focus putting the audience into the head of the closest character. Later this type of shot would be improved by using a split focus so both characters could be in focus in the same shot, but Hitch’s version achieves much of the same effect even with the closest character being out of focus.

Hitch perpetuates his atmosphere of paranoia during a train sequence in which Jack observes two other passengers reading newspapers that identify him as the prime suspect in the woman’s murder. With the newspapers covering the bottom half of his screen, we witness a series of shots of just the three characters’ eyes observing each other over the tops of their newspapers. Jack tries to read their eyes and can’t tell if they’ve recognized him or not when it seems they are actually oblivious of his connection to the story.

Jack then enters into a sequence of rendezvous’ with women he enlists for help. The first is the Hitchcock blonde. Played by Madeleine Carroll, she will eventually become the woman who reluctantly but ultimately helps him out of his predicament. However, in their first encounter she betrays his presence to the authorities. I’m particularly fond of this train sequence of the film because it reminds me of a modern train thriller I’m sure was influenced by this classic, “The Silver Streak”. A little later, Jack escapes the police by joining in a parade, ala “The Fugitive”.

He also employs the help of a farm wife as he escapes the authorities through the Scottish moors. She is possibly caught up in the escape from her everyday life that this man of intrigue brings into her home. She risks reprimand from her husband, suspicious of this stranger on sight, to help him. This eventually leads to yet another thriller cliché that hadn’t been so at that time, the bullet being stopped by a book left in a pocket of his jacket.

Hitch also imbues much of his story with good amount of humor. So many thrillers at that time were dirges of fear and paranoia without any release. Hitch understands the effects of humor in much the same way William Shakespeare did, who often utilized a clown character in even his darkest of tragedies. Not only does the humor help to sell the hero as someone the audience can trust, but it also serves as an emotional break when tension is running high. This use of all of the audiences’ emotions connects them more deeply with the story at hand making for more memorable moments and a more invested viewer.

Most notable about Hitch’s work in even his older films are his technical innovations. Late in the film there is an astonishing shot that goes from an interior of a car to an exterior shot of that same car driving away on a country road. The camera follows the action from the front seat to the back seat and out the back of the car to watch it drive away in one apparently seamless shot. Hitch cleverly hides a swipe edit as the back window frame of the car passes in front of the camera to turn an interior into and exterior without appearing to break the shot. Even by today’s standards, it’s a remarkable example of editing and framing.

Now, I’m willing to admit it. There is something lacking in the production values of older movies. Certainly, this film—even with all of Hitch’s filmmaking and storytelling innovations—dates to the time period in which it was made. It would’ve been interesting to see him remake it in the way he did his own “The Man Who Knew Too Much”. Still, “The 39 Steps” is a remarkable early work from one of the all-time masters of the cinematic form. 

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