The 39 Steps (1935)

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Film review of the classic 1930’s thriller by Alfred Hitchcock starring Robert Donat as a man on the run from a false charge of murder and Madeleine Carroll as the women who might help him.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock. 86 mins. Gaumont. (U).

Thriller/Suspense/Film Noir

 

Synopsis

A man who has just returned to London (Robert Donat) helps a mysterious woman (Lucie Mannheim) who is being harrassed by two men. She tells him she is a spy and the men want to kill her, but he naturally thinks she’s joking. When he finds her murdered the next morning, he is wrongly suspected of the crime and goes on the run, chased by the men who think the spy revealed her secrets to him, and the police who want to arrest him.

Review, by Jason DayThe 39 Steps poster

Alfred Hitchcock had been bimbling about in various genres of cinema (romance, straight drama, even a musical) during the 20’s and early 30’s, but it was his suspense films that marked him out as a director to watch.

This gem, an adaptation of John Buchan’s classic spy thiller, was an early indication of how very good his films could be when the ingredients (cast, script, production overseen with his own directorial style, preocupations and flourishes) all came together.

There is a creaky, almost prehistoric feel to the film that can provoke laughter (the crackly quality of the sound; Mannheim speaks to Donat from beyond the grave and takes an eternity to turn to camera) but Hitchcock’s visual flair is evident in a number of key scenes to stave off the whiff of antiquity, such as Mr Memory, Donat and Carroll running across the Scottish glens, Donat’s impeccable, ‘winging it’ political speach.

He increases the sexual element of the story by handcuffing Donat to the reluctant, eponymously cool blonde, Carroll. Hitch never had a tougher, mouthier girl for his erstwhile man in trouble to spar with. It helps that Carroll is given more than her fair share of witty, glib lines in the sparkling script. This performance led to a brief but wildly successful career in Hollywood where for a while she was one of the world’s highest paid film stars.

Housewives’ crumpet Donat, even if his accent makes him sound as stiff as his upper lip, is a charming wise-cracking hero. He behaves as if he doesn’t believe the escalation of events going on around him, lending him more of an innocent air, but his light, naive touch is the perfect counterpoint to the reserved and uptight Carroll.

Impressing in an early role is a young Ashcroft as suspicious crofter Laurie’s wife who is besotted with Donat when he stays with them whilst being on the run in Scotland.

Cast & credits

Producer: Michael Balcon.
Writers: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay.
Camera: Bernard Knowles.
Music: Hubert Bath, Jack Beaver, Charles Williams.
Sets: Oscar Friedrich Werndorff.

Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, Helen Haye, Frank Cellier, Wylie Watson.

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