Saturday, October 2, 2010
The 39 Steps
Title: The 39 Steps
Studio: Gaumont-British Picture corporation Ltd
Screenplay: Charles Bennett and Ian Hay
Source Material: The novel by John Buchan
Running Time: 83 minutes
A black & white picture
Saturday 2nd October, 1:00pm
Today's schedule has gone to plan beautifully. I got up early, went grocery shopping, nipped into the city, came home, baked a cake and while it was in the oven (still in there actually - it's a rich fruit cake! I will detail that in my other blog...) sat down to watch The 39 Steps. It's one of the more familiar films of Hitchcock's British years prior to moving to the States and it is one I have watched many, many times. This is also the first film chronologically that I have actually read the source material. John Buchan was apparently more than happy with Hitchcock's adaptation and all the minor changes. One of my pet hates is those who peer down their noses with a look of distaste and arrogance as they sneer "It's not as good as the book!" Sure, there have been many occasions where films have not lived up to their source material, but there are also many examples which do and occasionally surpass the original. Film is simply a different medium to express a story and elements often need to be changed in order to tell an exciting and coherent story. Understandably, if one is very familiar with a book, one might be disappointed that the screenwriter and director have not recreated everything one has in one's imagination, but give these people some credit. Songs get covered and plays get multiple performances. Film is just another way of storytelling and it is not to be sniffed at.
Richard Hannay - Robert Donat
Pamela - Madeleine Carroll
Miss Smith - Lucie Mannheim
Professor Jordan - Godfrey Tearle
Crofter's Wife - Peggy Ashcroft
Crofter - John laurie
Mrs Jordan - Helen Haye
The Sheriff - Frank Cellier
Memory - Wylie Watson
Commercial Travellers - Gus MacNaughton & Jerry Verno
Maid - Peggy Simpson
Richard Hannay is a Canadian visiting London. One night, whilst visiting a music hall, he witnesses a wonderful act featuring 'Memory', a man who has thousands of facts stored in his mind.
During an unruly ruckus, shots are fired and the crowd panics. In the fleeing horde, Hannay bumps into a mysterious woman who invites herself back to Hannay's apartment.
Being a gentleman, he cannot refuse but warns her, ironically, "It's your funeral".
She says her name is 'Smith' and she tells him of a plot involving secret agents and some plans to steal vital military and state secrets. She explains that there are men outside who will stop at nothing to get their way.
In the night, Miss Smith is murdered and Hannay knows he has to finish what she started and visit a man she had mentioned in Scotland - he takes her map and notes and heads north.
Travelling on the Flying Scotsman, the police are on his trail now that they have assumed he is responsible for the mysterious woman's death. He tries to hide from police on board by kissing a beautiful woman but she gives him up to the police. He panics and leaps out of the train and clambers along the side causing the police to pull the emergency brake. In the commotion on the Forth Bridge, Hannay escapes and flees across the moors. Here he comes across a Crofter and his wife who are willing to put him up for the night. However, when the police come calling, the Crofter doesn't need much to persuade him to give Hannay up. luckily, his wife is more sympathetic and helps him to escape with her husband's dark coat as cover in the night.
Eventually, Hannay makes it to the location of Miss Smith's quarry, only to find he is actually the enemy, Professor Jordan.
Jordan shoots Hannay, but fortunately a small hymn book is in the pocket of the Crofter's coat and saves his life. Hannay returns to the police to tell his story and explain about Professor Jordan. The Police are unconvinced and, partially handcuffed, Hannay jumps out of the window and races into the streets - he hides out at a political rally and even gets mistaken for one of the main speakers. He is spotted by Pamela, the woman he met on the Flying Scotsman. She notifies the authorities nearby who take them both away - it is then discovered by Hannay that these men are not detectives but actually men who work for Professor Jordan. Pamela and Hannay are handcuffed together but at an opportune moment, they escape the car taking them back to the Professor and race into the foggy night.
They soon finds their way to an inn where the innkeepers suspect them to be a runaway couple, eloping. Still handcuffed, they try to get some rest. In the night, Pamela escapes her bonds and tries to leave, but as she does so, she overhears her pursuers discussing the matter and she realises that Hannay must be telling the truth about his predicament after all, so she decides to stay with him. In the morning, Hannay is furious she didn't wake him as they may have lost valuable time in stopping whatever it is they intend to do. Luckily, Pamela overheard enough of their conversation to know they were heading to the London Palladium.
Returning to London, they attend that night's performance and Hannay realises that it is one of the acts - 'Memory' - who is the key to it all. As Hannay is near arrest, he calls out "What are the 39 Steps?" and as 'Memory' explains about the group of secret agents, a shot rings out - Professor Jordan has struck his target. Thankfully, Jordan is caught by the police and Memory still has some life left in him as he tells of the formula he had kept in his head. As he passes away, Hannay and Pamela touch hands in commiseration, camaraderie and relief.
There are some classy lines throughout, but these are just a handful of my favourites.
On the train, two commercial travellers are discussing women's lingerie - one holds up a bra to the other who responds:
"Bring it back to when it's filled."
When Hannay is on the moors in Scotland and he is taken in by the Crofter, he meets a young woman at the door (played by Peggy Ashcroft) and makes a faux pas that doesn't go down well with his host:
Hannay: "Your daughter?"
Corfter: "My wife!"
And finally, the classic line from the film as Hannay struggles his way through a foggy landscape handcuffed to Pamela he loses his patience and says:
"There are twenty million women in this island and I've gotta be chained to you!"
Where do I begin? There are so many beautiful touches throughout this film. Firstly, it ought to be stated that the casting is superb. Robert Donat is charming, handsome and suave; Madeleine Carroll is fabulous as the reluctant companion in Hannay's adventure, going from aggressive and disbelieving to earnest and faithful toward the end; and the supporting cast are terrific too, from Peggy Ashcroft's performance as the abused wife of the Crofter to Lucie Mannheim as the fateful catalyst.
The character of Miss Smith is delightfully mysterious and her death is rather dramatic but also shocking as she tumbles forward to reveal the glistening dagger protruding from her back. When the maid finds her the following morning, Hitchcock cuts directly from her scream to the shrill whistle of the Flying Scotsman as it exits a tunnel.
Hitchcock has enjoyed playing with sound ever since talking pictures began. Here, the piercing tone of Hannay's telephone ring is creepily ominous as he refuses to answer it. Some of the camera movement surrounding the telephone foreshadows Hitch's playful direction in Dial M For Murder. Interestingly, Hitch also uses his knowledge and experience of silent film to communicate scenes without dialogue.
There's the muted scene which the crofter witnesses through his window as his wife discusses the truth with Hannay; the brief scene in the hotel bedroom as Hannay and Pamela fidget as their hostess sets the room up; and then there is the scene in which Pamela awakes and busies herself with an attempted escape and in the process discovers that her captor's gun is merely a pipe. Each scene is touching in its simplicty but tells quite a story about plot or relationships.
Returning briefly to Peggy Ashcroft as the wife of the bullying Crofter (John Laurie) I think she gives a perfectly measured performance in what is a relatively small role. The moment she helps Hannay escape in her husband's coat and she closes the door behind him, she shows with a simple movement in her head and face that she knows of the consequences she is in for and the ramifications thereof. An astutely nuanced portrayal of a woman trapped yet doing what she knows is right.
Another favourite moment is the end where the fatally wounded Memory lies dying in the wings of the stage, retelling the formula which he has memorised and retained so faithfully. As he fulfills his destiny and slowly dies in the arms of those around him, the chorus girls dance jauntily in the background, proving how in life busy lives continue whilst darker operations happen out of sight.
A hugely entertaining ride from start to finish with beautiful performances from everyone. 9/10