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The 39 Steps

September 11, 2010

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

Image result for the 39 steps

Synopsis: Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a dapper English gent, gets involved in an espionage plot when a woman he is trying to help is murdered.

Review: Even disregarding today’s supposed evolved standard of cinematic narrative sophistication, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps is a pretty ropy 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 hero Richard Hannay’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 effects, with his use of voiceover and the superimposition of the now-dead spy’s warning about “the 39 Steps”. Hitchcock’s better work going forward was to meld this virtuosity with a more concentric interrogation of its subject matter. (April 2008)

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