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With: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, Helen Haye, Frank Cellier, Wylie Watson, Gus McNaughton, Jerry Verno, Peggy Simpson
Written by: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, based on the novel by John Buchan
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 86
Date: 01/06/1935

The 39 Steps (1935)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Stepping Up

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The 39 Steps was Alfred Hitchcock's first major movie. Sure, he'd made over a dozen movies before, and had entered the suspense genre as early as Blackmail six years earlier, but The 39 Steps was the first time everything just came together: the master's favorite themes, his sense of humor, his timing and rhythm, and his personal touch. With this movie, he emerged, fully formed.

Robert Donat stars as Mr. Hannay, a Canadian on an extended business trip in London. He goes to a variety show and sees "Mr. Memory" (Wylie Watson), a man who can recite any fact. Soon, there's a commotion, and he ends up escaping the theater with a mysterious woman (Lucie Mannheim). She tells him that she's a spy and that the bad guys are close to catching her. She gives him a few bits of information and then is stabbed in the back. Unfortunately, now Hannay has become part of the plot, and worse, accused of her murder.

He follows the clues to Scotland, but secret agent bad guys are hot on his trail. He tries to get a blonde (Madeleine Carroll) on a train to help, but she tries to turn him in. Later, she turns up again, handcuffed to the hero (a favorite motif of Hitchcock's). In another amazing scene, Hannay finds refuge in a religious farmer's cottage. Hannay quickly picks up on the fact that the farmer's pretty young wife (a young Peggy Ashcroft) is miserable under the farmer's strict rule. He charms her into helping him, which leads to one of the movie's best jokes (involving a hymn book). And yet, these two minor characters are left with a moment of sinister threat.

The movie also employs one of Hitchcock's clearest uses of the so-called "McGuffin." Hannay is always trying to figure out what the "39 steps" of the title actually are, and the answer doesn't really matter; only the mystery does.

Perhaps the most miraculous thing about watching this movie 77 years later is just how effortless Hitchcock managed to combine all his particular concerns. He employs his favorite themes (such as the handcuffed lovers, or the falsely-accused man), humor, suspense, and wraps it all up in his particular look and style, and it's seamless. Not a thing feels forced or false. Hitchcock was one of the few filmmakers in history who could make the films that pleased him, but also knew how to play an audience without compromising his own vision.

As with all his best films, The 39 Steps makes it look easy.

The Criterion Collection originally released this movie on DVD back in 1999, and now they have added a remastered DVD and an extraordinary new Blu-ray edition (with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack). The disc includes the old commentary track, recorded by Marian Keane, but includes a new liner notes essay, by David Cairns. The disc also includes the Lux radio broadcast and production design drawings from, both on the old DVD. New extras include "Hitchcock: The Early Years," a documentary about Hitchcock's pre-war years, footage from a 1966 TV interview with Hitchcock, a visual essay by scholar Leonard Leff, and audio excerpts from Francois Truffaut's interviews.
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