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February 24, 2010

The 39 Steps

by Franz Patrick


39 Steps, The (1935)
★★★ / ★★★★

Loosely based on the novel by John Buchan and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps” was about a man named Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) on the run to prove his innocence after a woman (Lucie Mannheim) who was staying with him told him bits of information about the 39 Steps and was then killed. I’ve read that this was Hitchcock’s first international success in the film industry and I believed it showed. Even though it wasn’t as strong as some of my personal favorites from Hitchcock (“North by Northwest,” “Dial M for Murder,” “Notorious”), this was where he introduced some of the elements that he used in his later films to produce such powerful force of human drama and adrenaline-fueled (yet astute) action sequences. In this picture, I loved how the story would evolve in a matter of minutes or by saying key lines or two. I also admired how the director chose to end a scene, despite it lasting only thirty seconds or so, right when he finished getting his point across. With thrillers (and movies in general) today, many scenes are dragged on which contributes to running times of two hours or more. In “The 39 Steps,” although the movie was under an hour and thirty minutes, it was efficient with its time so it was able to accomplish so much. It actually treats its audiences like intelligence people instead of simplifying everything; the depths and implications in the story allowed us to identify with the characters as we questioned ourselves what would we have done when placed in the same situations. Yet at the same time, this film achieved most thrillers could not: it was comedic. Don’t get me wrong, the comedy did not get in the way of its tone. It’s just that funny things happen when people panic and placed in very desperate situations. Such amusing scenes happened whenever Richard and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) were on screen because they had such chemistry but they did not like each other from the moment they met on the train. It goes without saying that I’m giving “The 39 Steps” a solid recommendation because the way it explored its themes and characters was beyond its time. Another reason was it was downright entertaining. Don’t let the black and white fool you because it was actually able to use shadows to its advantage–like the best noir films in the 1940s and the 1950s.

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