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The 39 Steps

September 11, 2010

The 39 Steps (1935)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Actors: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Godfrey Tearle

Synopsis: A man (Robert Donat) gets involved in an espionage plot when a woman he is trying to help is murdered….

Review: Even disregarding today’s supposed cinematic standard of evolved narrative sophistication, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps is a pretty ropey ride, made passable only by its relaxed, easy-going charm, and the odd maestro touch from Hitchcock himself. The opening to the film (music hall and apartment murder) that sets up the plot’s dynamics is unquestionably hammy and dramatically clumsy, and throughout the picture there are gaping plot-holes that scorch even the most friendly and lenient of ‘suspension of disbelief’ auspices. A touch more stringency to the continuity, and a more palpable sense of danger to Robert Donat’s travails, would have lent the film a greater sense of dramatic integrity to compliment its more successful laconic charm. Indeed the story plays more like a proto-Bond movie than anything else: smooth male lead, great one-liners, iconic villains, spunky female support, and a murky espionage plot. It is in these lighter moments that the film really hits its stride, with the narrative moving on at such a brisk pace that some of the aforementioned plot holes are almost made inconsequential. It’s also interesting to note how Hitchcock created one or two eerie, almost ‘horror-movie’ effects, with his use of voiceover and the superimposition of the now-dead spy’s warning about the “39 Steps”. Hitchcock’s best work in the future was to meld this virtuosity with a more coherent approach to subject matter. (April 2008)

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