The 39 Steps is a heart-racing spy story by Alfred Hitchcock, following Richard Hannay (Oscar winner Robert Donat), who stumbles into a conspiracy that thrusts him into a hectic chase across the Scottish moors—a chase in which he is both the pursuer and the pursued—as well as into an expected romance with the cool Pamela (Madeline Carroll). Adapted from a novel by John Buchan, this classic wrong-man thriller from the Master of Suspense anticipates the director’s most famous works (especially North by Northwest), and remains one of his cleverest and most entertaining films.
The debate may rage as to which British movie is Alfred Hitchcock's best (my vote goes to 'The Lady Vanishes'), but there's no disputing the fact that 'The 39 Steps' ranks high on everyone's list of Hitch's finest early films. A veritable blueprint for many of the director's greatest American triumphs, this lean, taut, often breathless chase picture beguiles with its stylistic confidence and an intriguing, engrossing storyline that keeps us guessing almost until the final fadeout.
Hitchcock's British films are a fascinating tutorial in the evolution of the artist's technique, and in 'The 39 Steps' we see many core elements that would reappear countless times over the course of the director's career - the wrongly accused man on the run; a charming, ne'er-do-well hero; an icy blonde heroine who begins to thaw as tension heightens; critical sequences that transpire on a train; and, of course, the MacGuffin, that elusive, nameless, ceaselessly sought-after, and ultimately insignificant piece of information around which the plot revolves. Here, the MacGuffin is a high-level government secret, as well as the definition of the 39 Steps, and though we continually wonder how the title relates to the intricate storyline, that nagging question never gets in the way of the film's breakneck action.
A forerunner of sorts to the granddaddy of all Hitchcock chase films, 'North by Northwest,' 'The 39 Steps' doesn't cover the breadth of territory of Hitch's 1959 thriller, but it nonetheless traverses the British landscape from London to Scotland and back again as it chronicles the reluctant adventures of Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian transplant who wanders into a music hall one evening to see a novelty act and winds up the central figure in a deadly game of espionage and murder. Random shots set off a chain reaction of events resulting in the death of a female counterspy, with the innocent Hannay becoming the prime suspect. A nationwide manhunt ensues, and while Hannay attempts to evade capture, he strives to uncover a web of secrets that he hopes will clear his name and put England on the proper axis once again. A chance meeting with a lovely blonde (Madeleine Carroll) spices up his adventure, but doesn't distract Hannay from the serious business at hand.
In addition to the requisite suspense, 'The 39 Steps' also employs such Hitchcock staples as light comedy and sexual tension, both of which add layers to the story and humanize the characters. Style complements the on-screen action, as Hitchcock uses sound (or the lack thereof) in creative ways to punctuate various scenes. A charwoman's scream upon discovering a dead body is replaced with a train whistle in one of Hitch's most notable movie moments, while in another scene, the leads peer through a window and witness the silent conversation of their adversaries. While these are small creative touches, they were quite innovative in their day, lending an atmospheric edge to the proceedings that still resonates. Even at this early stage in his career, Hitchcock was testing the medium's waters and pushing its boundaries, and his efforts elevate his work to a rarefied level, especially among his fraternity of fellow British directors.
Casting is always crucial in Hitchcock films, and though the Master of Suspense didn't always get his first pick of stars, he scores big here by landing Robert Donat in the leading role of Hannay. Suave, debonair, yet masculine, with good looks and an easygoing charm, Donat is reminicent of Cary Grant, and embodies the hero well. A Best Actor Oscar winner for 'Goodbye, Mr. Chips' four years later (upsetting Clark Gable's Rhett Butler in 'Gone With the Wind'), Donat never achieved great renown in America, but he was a British icon, and his vigorous portrayal here helps fuel the film's engine. Carroll makes a fine foil, but her character is more sketchily drawn and only appears sporadically, yet she and Donat still create palpable chemistry that enhances this intoxicating brew.
'The 39 Steps' is quintessential Hitchcock, and though the director would later refine and improve many elements of the film, this highly entertaining, well-paced, and clever movie is the undisputed foundation upon which he would build an admirable and lasting body of work. As a Hitchcock primer, it's indispensable, and as a study in suspense and adventure, 'The 39 Steps' is undeniably classy and just plain good.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The 39 Steps' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in Criterion's inimitable casing. Tucked inside the front cover is a handsomely designed 20-page booklet that features a cast and crew listing, transfer notes, and a well-written and informative essay by Scottish writer and filmmaker David Cairns that includes background information on the movie's source material, as well as an examination of Hitchcock's style and how 'The 39 Steps' fits into the director's rich canon of work. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is uncompressed mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Criterion has done 'The 39 Steps' proud with a largely crisp and clean transfer, which was created from a 35mm fine-grain master positive. At times, the clarity and contrast are breathtaking, especially when one considers the advanced age of this vintage classic. Though grain is evident and sometimes a bit thick, it never overpowers the image, which sports a lovely film-like feel from start to finish. Contrast varies at times, with some scenes exhibiting a slightly washed out, over-exposed look, but such instances are sporadic and rarely off-putting. Most of the dirt and debris that surely littered the original print have been eradicated, but a few errant marks and vertical lines remain, though one must really focus intently on the picture to notice them.
Black levels are rich and inky, with no apparent crush even in nocturnal sequences, and the gray scale possesses lots of lively variance. (A long shot of Donat's silhouetted figure is especially striking.) Background elements shine through well, with fine details and fabric textures looking surprisingly vibrant, and close-ups are clear, too, though not as razor sharp as high-def aficionados might crave. Noise is absent, and no banding, pixelation, noise reduction, or edge enhancement could be detected.
For a 77-year-old film, 'The 39 Steps' looks like it's in great shape here, and this transfer is a big step up from previous standard-def editions of this favored Hitchcock title.
'The 39 Steps' is equipped with an uncompressed mono track that does its best to produce high quality sound from a rather primitive original recording. The results are a mixed bag, but that's to be expected from such an antique track. Pops and crackles have been meticulously eliminated, but some hiss remains, though it's only noticeable during quiet scenes. Still, there's a tinny, brittle quality that plagues much of the audio, which makes some of the music sound harsh and bits of dialogue difficult to comprehend.
The famous train whistle is appropriately shrill, and various effects are punchy, but there's no escaping the vintage nature of this track. One can only imagine the audio's decayed condition when Criterion technicians first examined it, and they've done yeomen's work repairing and refining the sound. It's far from perfect, but it's hard to imagine 'The 39 Steps' sounding any better than it does here.
Criterion once again provides a substantive package of supplements that will please fans of classics and Hitchcock alike.
More Hitchcock on Blu-ray is always a good thing, and the release at long last of 'The 39 Steps' adds one more of the director's early British classics to the high-def catalogue. An involving tale of mystery, murder, espionage, romance, and pursuit, 'The 39 Steps' may pale when compared to more modern and renowned Hitchcock films, but it's still a fascinating specimen with a high entertainment quotient. Criterion's Blu-ray package is once again superior, featuring beautifully restored video, solid audio (for a 77-year-old movie), and plenty of absorbing supplements. There are very few Hitchcock pictures I wouldn't recommend, but this one definitely stands as a shining testament to the director's burgeoning talent, and one of the building blocks that led to his coronation as the one and only Master of Suspense. Highly recommended.