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Homage to Hitchcock - The 39 Steps (1935)

Updated: Jun 4, 2018

The British Film Institute voted The 39 Steps the fourth greatest English movie of the 20th Century. Given that the century ended with such bloated garbage as ‘The Titanic’ (how appropriate) and ‘The English Patient’ (still awaiting the ending), perhaps Hitch shouldn’t get this much acclaim. Let’s accept it for Sir Alfred, however, since between 1935 and 1995, the UK managed to crank out a decent movie or three, and allow The 39 Steps to keep its place in the pantheon of British cinema.


The 39 Steps has a simple plot, or so it would seem. Someone is smuggling military secrets out of England, presumably to give to the Germans. How though, remains the question. 


Every one should WATCH this film, dated though it is, and as such the plot will not be a significant part of this article. Won't be covering this aspect of The 39 Steps.


Hitchcock’s continued development as a creative force will be examined.


He employed yet another ice-cold blonde, Madeleine Carroll, who gets a juicy kiss planted on her by Robert Donat, during one of the protagonist's many narrow escapes from the police. Mr. Donat, who battled a crippling case of asthma his entire career, is brilliant as one of the first of the Hitchcockian Wrong Men. He’s onto something regarding the exporting of secrets, but of course, the excellent English police force think he’s the guilty party.


A chase ensues across both English and Scottish countrysides, which includes many more narrow escapes, and culminates in a performance at The London Palladium, where a Mr. Memory, the cypher for the espionage of the purloined secrets prepares to deliver another crucial military advantage to the Bad Guys, whoever they are. This might be Hitch's first use of The MacGuffin, a ruse to move the plot ahead without all the icky details of what is moving the plot ahead.


And to find out how Mr. Memory is going to transfer the information from the stage will require you to WATCH the movie. Please don’t Google the plot synopsis. The final couple of scenes are exceptionally well done, even though they’re 80 plus years old. Don’t cheat yourself.


And the Palladium is yet another Hitchcock foray into iconic scenes. See Albert Hall in my article on The Man Who Knew Too Much, coming in a couple months, for another tense tableau in a performing arts venue.


It’s all so darn, ahem, well-staged, and Madeleine Carroll is excellent as the precursor to Grace, Ingrid, Kim, and Tippi. 


Next Up?


The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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© 2018 by George W Young