Beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story.
That’s exactly what it is.
The 39 Steps is considered by many to be the masterpiece of Hitch’s British career. Personally, I think The Lady Vanishes beats it clear to Winnipeg and back, but it’s not as though The 39 Steps is anything less than brilliant. Robert Donat plays Hitchcock’s usual protagonist, an average guy sucked into an extreme circumstance when a mysterious female appears and then drops dead in his apartment, only a cryptic clue whispered with her last breath as his chance to get his normal life back. Donat isn’t as good as Michael Redgrave was in The Lady Vanishes, but he’s serviceable, mainly because the script is so smart, so witty and doesn’t pause long enough for us to consider him for more than a few seconds of stillness at a time.
And, as so often happens, he’s off! Blasting across the country, pursued by the police for a crime he didn’t commit, trying to uncover the truth about the men out to kill him, faced with duplicitous individuals at every turn and, of course, thrown together with an infuriating female that, against all odds, he falls in love with. This is something like the most basic template for the thriller and rarely has such a basic plot been executed so well. As is often the case, the 39 Steps themselves aren’t important except as the motivating force for the villains to chase the hero and the hero to run like a hare from the villains. This, like Hitch’s later North by Northwest, is a chase movie from word go; it might actually be better than North by Northwest, though that’s dicey, of course.
The 39 Steps is still fresh anyway, just as fresh as North by Northwest. It’s more fun, perhaps, and maybe even more suspenseful. One thing that’s simply undeniable is the fact that this is a great film to watch to see Hitch’s signature blending of humor and suspense. During a scene in which Robert Donat is mistaken for a visiting politician, the laughs fly thick and fast, building to a hilarious pitch that most comedies don’t reach. But the scene never loses sight of its tension and the arc of the scene is a desperate one. Likewise, a bizarre climax in a music hall is just counterintuitive enough to be hilarious, an entire ring of spies brought down because Mr. Memory, a novelty performer, isn’t willing to say that he doesn’t know what the 39 Steps are, is willing to die before he’ll lose his reputation, which is as sharp a commentary on the world of art as anything in 1935 was.
Talking about a movie like The 39 Steps just wastes everyone’s time, however. There’s no reason for me to go on and on about Godfrey Tearle’s great performance as another favorite Hitchcock archetype, the supposedly benevolent father figure that turns out to be a duplicitous manipulator. I could talk about the low-tech, long form chase across the Scottish countryside, a brilliantly, poetically paced chase sequence that proves that a chase doesn’t have to be fast to be suspenseful. But, like I say, I’m wasting everyone’s time. If you want to know why The 39 Steps is a masterpiece, step one is to watch it yourself.
5 out of 5 stars.