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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: The 39 Steps

THE 39 STEPS (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
U.K.: Alfred Hitchcock, 1935 (Criterion Collection)
 Back in 1985, I wrote these liner notes for one of the earliest Criterion Collection releases: a videotape, in a silver-colored box, of Alfred Hitchcock’s love-on-the-run spy-story masterpiece, The 39 Steps. (The original is still on their website.) I’ve altered it slightly — in the first sentence, “half a century” has become “more then three quarters of a century.” It’s reprinted here on the occasion of Criterion’s new high-definition digital restoration of The 39 Steps.  And thanks to this splendid company,  for giving us so much cinematic joy — and for all of Hitch’s 39 Steps, then and now.


       Movie thrillers may come and go, but after more than three quarters of  a century, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps still reigns supreme. And not only for the sheer, breathless excitement of the story; the seamless construction; the chilling, beautifully realized atmosphere; and the constant, startling stream of plot twists. Nor for its historical importance, though almost every chase and spy thriller since 1935 copies it slavishly. Nor for its actors—despite a truly excellent ensemble: Madeleine Carroll as Pamela, the cool Hitchcockian blond; Lucie Mannheim as a seductive lady of mystery; Godfrey Tearle as an urbane master criminal; Peggy Ashcroft and John Laurie as a moody farming couple on the barren Scottish moors; Wylie Watson as that Proustian prodigy, Mr. Memory—and, at the center of the action, Robert Donat as the endlessly suave and resilient Richard Hannay, a fugitive who keeps his quiet wit and brilliant resources, no matter what dangerous curve Fate (and Hitchcock) manage to throw him.

     More than anything else, the film keeps its preeminent place because this is the movie in which Hitchcock became “Hitchcock”—and for which he earned the reputation he never relinquished as “The Master of Suspense.” Hitchcock had major successes before, but The 39 Steps was the first with major international impact. No previous Hitchcock so gripped, amused or thrilled audiences from Europe to America, Australia to Asia. More than any of his previous 19 British films, or the five which followed, it is the movie that was responsible for his emigration to America as a first-rank filmmaker. In fact, for many years, most critics insisted that Hitchcock had never equaled or surpassed The 39 Steps. Well into the 1960s, it was still commonly called his best movie. André Bazin: “It remains indubitably his masterpiece and a model for detective comedies.” And Pauline Kael: “This suave, amusing spy melodrama is . . . charged with wit; it’s one of the three or four best things Hitchcock ever did.”

The Hitchcock of 1935 was mo neophyte. He was a director of a decade’s experience, the master of his craft, adapting a novel by one of his favorite authors, John Buchan. And Hitchcock was telling a story of strong personal appeal—so strong that he used bits and pieces of it throughout his career.  In Young and Innocent (1937), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Saboteur (1942),  To Catch a Thief (1955), North by Northwest (1959),  Torn Curtain (1966) and Frenzy (1972), we get part, or most, of the basic situation here: the “wrong man,” wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit, fleeing through dangerous or colorful locales—sometimes engaged in erotic sparring with a woman both desirous and fearful, trying desperately to find the evil doppelganger who has committed the sins that cling to him.

In discussing the film with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock said: “What I like best about The 39 Steps are the swift transitions.” And it’s that swift, unremitting pace, those lightning transitions, that keep the film fresh, bewitching. The editing is so ingenious that some examples have become textbook legends: the landlady’s scream, on discovering a corpse in Hannay’s apartment, which, before we hear it, becomes the shriek of the train whistle as Hannay escapes. We race at breakneck speed, from the seedy London streets and the Palladium Music Hall, through the forbidding Scottish moors under eternal, glowering skies, and back to London, where another Palladium performance squares the circle.

But the swift transitions are more than geographic or physical. Hitchcock, as he would many times again, offers a dizzying set of moral alterations: a world where love and death, fear and desire are in constant, nerve-wracking, and sometimes acidly humorous juxtaposition. Hannay begins his perilous odyssey with what seems an innocuous peccadillo: meeting and taking home a woman who calls herself “Mrs. Smith.”  “Romance” leads to danger. The woman is not a pickup; she is a hunted spy, fearful for her life. The next morning, after a sexless night, when she is murdered by the spies on her trail,  Hannay escapes from his London flat by pretending to a milkman that he is a philanderer ducking a vengeful husband—something he very nearly becomes still later, on the moors, when the dour Scots farmer mistakes Hannay’s desperation to dodge the police as  lust for the farmer’s wife. Earlier, fleeing London (and the murder of which he is falsely accused) by train,  he tries to elude the police by passionately embracing a total stranger (to her fury); while still later, he winds up manacled to that same stranger, Pamela, taking refuge at an inn where the beaming landlady, impressed at their constant togetherness, exclaims: “They’re so terribly in love with each other!” Love and death, sex and slaughter—these are the poles of the universe so playfully presented here: supplanting each other, reversing and replacing each other, becoming a shadowy, deeply disturbing double mirror.

      The 39 Steps is that rarity: a bona fide cinematic masterpiece that the public clasps to its bosom, a great work which is also a great crowd-pleaser: amusing and scary, engaging and engrossing, full of dazzling light and eerie shadow. Hitchcock liked to remark, with what may have been a sly touch of self-deprecation: “Most films are slices of life. Mine are slices of cake.” This particular cake is one of his most luscious: dark, savory, a richly compulsive treat.

Extras (an excellent bunch): Audio excerpts from Francois Truffaut’s 1962 interview with Hitchcock;  Documentary Hitchcock: The Early Years (2000); Commentary by Marian Keane; TV interview with Hitchcock by Mike Scott (1966); Broadcast tape of the 1937 Lux Radio Theater adaptation, starring Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino;    Visual essay by Leonard Leff; Original production design drawings; Booklet with essay by David Cairns.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon