I love how old this movie is – Canadians are measuring distance in miles, and are actually slicing bread. You know the saying “the best thing since sliced bread?” – well safe to say this movie came before it!
The 39 Steps is technically “early Hitchcock,” early in terms of success anyway, but is his 19th film or so. It was his follow-up to the 1934 quasi-successful (at the time) The Man Who Knew Too Much and used “imported” American actors who were supposed to help him break into that coveted American movie-going market.
Richard (Robert Donat) goes to the theatre to see “Mr. Memory” perform, and while there, meets a mysterious woman who claims to be in dire straights, evading secret agents. He agrees to hide her in his apartment, but in the night she is murdered. Richard takes off running, in part because he’s a suspect in her death, but also because now it falls to him to break up the elusive spy ring. He’s got few clues to work with, but “the 39 steps” is one of them, if only we knew what that meant. Along the way he becomes encumbered with an unwilling but fetching participant, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll).
Carroll’s Pamela is a quintessentially Hitchcockian female character, perhaps the template for those to come: she was blonde. She was icy and remote. She was mesmerizing. And she’s not the only familiar element you’ll find here. There’s the suspense. Hostility in every day objects (a ringing telephone did it for me). The dizzying plot twists. The innocent man on the run. The witty dialogue. The unrelenting pace. And of course, the infamous Hitchcock cameo. He pops up early on in the movie – can you spot him?
The 39 Steps successfully made Hitchcock an international name, solidifying his reputation as a master story-teller and a thrilling director. This is considered his first major oeuvre, and Hitchcock always counted it among his favourites. His stars proved worth the extra £20,000 he spent on their salaries. Donat’s suave, smiling, smoking son-of-a-bitch puts the swagger back into leading-man territory.
The 39 Steps is essential Alfred Hitchcock filmography and can be seen on the big screen this Saturday July 16 at TIFF.