Criterion Sunday 56: The 39 Steps (1935)

It may not be the equal of some of director Alfred Hitchcock’s later works, but this early espionage thriller has plenty to recommend it in terms of propulsively silly plot dynamics, as Robert Donat’s fairly ordinary (albeit refined and elegant) bloke Richard is drawn into shenanigans at a music hall by bumping into a glamorous spy, who is soon murdered, but not before revealing a plot that he can help in exposing. This leads him into what is essentially an extended chase scene that takes up the rest of the movie as he heads north to Scotland, along the way encountering the even more elegant (and blonde, of course) Pamela, played by Madeleine Carroll, who believes him about as much as everyone else he meets — which is to say not at all. Then again, he does have a tendency to be a bit controlling, forcing himself on more than one woman, before scolding her when he’s been rebuffed — the classic Hitchcock hero, in other words. Aside from that, it’s all good fun, with plenty of hints towards comedy and some surprise plot twists. Good for a rainy afternoon, I suspect, and it may well be more unaffectedly enjoyable than much of Hitchcock’s more revered later output.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Among the extras is a 24-minute documentary Hitchcock: The Early Years (1999) made for British TV. As you might expect from the title, it covers Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood films which he made in the UK. At this length, it’s all fairly clipped, moving from his early years in the silent film system through to his more fully-realised 1930s work and is a solid introduction to some of his themes and traits, starting to develop even this early in his career.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock; Writers Charles Bennett and Ian Hay (based on the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan); Cinematographer Bernard Knowles; Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 10 December 2015 (and later on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 24 April 2020).