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Blu-ray Review: The 39 Steps – The Criterion Collection

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Released in 1935, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps is one of the more popular films from his late-British period before leaving for Hollywood. The film stars Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll as fugitives on the run from a mysterious espionage ring.

The Movie

The 39 Steps is the story of Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) and his string of bad luck. After attending a theater event that ends in a brawl, he bumps into a mysterious lady on the run and agrees to take her back to his flat, where she recounts a tale of espionage involving something called The 39 Steps. Unfortunately, they were followed on their way to his place, and her murder that evening leaves Hannay as the primary suspect, and now on the run from everyone: the police who are looking for him, as well as her killers who think he now shares her secret information.

While on the run to Scotland to meet up with the mysterious woman’s contact, Hannay bumps into a lady named Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). She gives him up to the police, but is also taken in for questioning. In a turn of events, Hannay discovers the cops detaining them are part of the conspiracy, and drags Pamela with him on a rapid escape. Now both fugitives, Hannay must work to find out what are The 39 Steps and to do so before he is either captured or killed.

If the “innocent man wrongly accused, now on the run” theme is sounding familiar for a Hitchcock film, that isn’t a coincidence. The director borrowed several elements, both thematically and visually, from this film for his later masterpiece North By Northwest. And while this one may not have the polished edge and grand scale of the later work, it ably reigns in some of Hitchcock’s key interests and finds him at every point playing to his strengths and mastering his craft. The dialogue is ever focused, subtle, and never trades genres as casually as it does in some of his other British pictures; the askew camera angles are more intentional and revealing; the actor closeups often work as effective dialogue substitutes instead of just reactionary shots; and the characters, overall, have more than one-note motivations, with even some of the smaller roles becoming effectively brief character studies.

The 39 Steps occupies an odd place within Hitchcock’s more celebrated British-period films. Although an earlier effort than, say, The Lady Vanishes, it arguably offers a more balanced approach to the blend of comedy and mystery for which he would continue to show an affinity. The blend of elements that would later be developed further with North By Northwest are also on prominent display, making The 39 Steps feel, in many respects, like the first fully-realized Hitchcock film.

Donat and Carroll, however, are certainly the glue that holds the picture together. In lesser hands the roles could simply become slapstick at times, and one-dimensional at others. But each delivers both impassioned and intelligent performances, giving a more realistic edge (within the unrealistic bounds of the story, of course) to their relationship. It’s easy to see how they would both be viewed almost as templates for later Hitchcock leading men and women.

Video/Audio

It’s hard not to be a little disappointed with the video transfer here. It’s simply not as strong as some of the other black and white films from this period that Criterion have released on Blu-ray, and especially in comparison with The Lady Vanishes. Although some of the softness in the image is no doubt due to the original master, there’s also a much more subdued tonal range on display here. And while not a huge issue, there are some not infrequent instances of debris on the print, as well as image flicker. It’s obvious that this has been restored and stabilized over previous prints in circulation, but for whatever reason it does lack some of the crispness and depth of other recent releases.

The LPCM 1.0 audio track is certainly adequate during its mostly dialogue-driven scenes. Characters are balanced and clarity is good. Things aren’t quite as strong during some of the larger crowd sequences, such as the opening theater shots, as well as later during the Assembly Hall scenes. Music cues are also tinny in comparison. However, with the period of the picture and sonics of the time, it’s certainly not weak either, and obvious restoration and balance adjustments have been made.

Bonus Material

The commentary track for this release is provided by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane. While often illuminating, I have a hard time believing that Hitchcock himself obsessed over as much minutiae in the film as she dissects. Some interesting content, but also very over-analyzed at points. “Hitchcock: The Early Years” (HD, 24;07) is a brief documentary episode covering Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood period. “The Borders of the Possible” (HD, 23:59) is an audio essay by Hitchcock scholar Leonard leff, accompanied by stills and excerpts from the film.

“Cinema: Alfred Hitchcock” (HD, 40:14) is the first of two Hitchcock interview features, this one featuring unedited footage from a Granada television interview session with the director. Also included is an audio excerpt from the interview session Hitchcock engaged in with French director Francois Truffaut (22:15) primarily focused on The 39 Steps. In addition, a “Lux Radio Theater Presents The 39 Steps” (59:52) radio performance is included, featuring Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino in the lead roles. Finally, some production designs are included, as well as an illustrated booklet in the packaging featuring an essay by film critic David Cairns.

Conclusion

I keep coming back to the word “balanced” when thinking of The 39 Steps. There are other movies from this period in Hitchcock’s career that offer more suspense (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage), and even more comedy (The Lady Vanishes), but none of his other British-period films quite capture the deft balance of all the elements that would define Hitchcock’s later work quite as effectively as this one. The acting is natural and nuanced, the machine-gun delivery of dialogue that was the style in the 1930s is largely reigned in, and even the resolution of the mystery at the end wraps up more elegantly and in keeping with the rest of the film. The 39 Steps is both an accomplished early work and an important precursor to Hitchcock’s later successes.

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