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Review: The 39 Steps (1935)

John Buchan wrote what is perhaps his most known novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, the first of the five espionage thrillers that feature a bumbling, relatable hero Richard Hannay, in bed with a stomach ulcer. The bodily pain that accompanied the writing, and henceforth dogged his entire life, was recompensed with the fulsome reception of the book, especially from those who were fighting in the trenches during WWI. A soldier wrote Buchan: “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”

Buchan’s classic has all the stock materials that make up for a potent morale-booster: an everyman stumbles into an international conspiracy, undergoes every conceivable hazard and hardship, grapples with his limited means and amidst troubled water, finally and narrowly salvaging his own country from the boiling soup. Published in 1919 and at a time when the nation is battening down hatches for the imminent war, the story’s narrative tone is implausibly jaunty and wry, the episodes that succeed each other until the climaxing upshot have the ingenious simplicity of a Middle Age frame story. The comedy is undercut by an increasing sense of insidious threat- the hero, fleeing from cottage to hamlet in the Scotland highland, takes note soberly the gradual disappearance of its pastoral idyll and homespun naivete.

Much of the allegorical seriousness of the original story was weeded out in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 adaptation (titled The “39” Steps to differentiate it from the original); in its stead are lighthearted comedy and facile thrills. For entertainment’s sake we pardon the arbitrary excision. In hindsight a too faithful translation of the tale may suffer triteness and tedium.

The renown of Hitchcock as an intelligent storyteller rests more on his visual sensibility than any manifest skill for deft plotting. Camera becomes a sharper tool than pen in Hitchcock’s direction; it has the advantage of obscuring a straight message, of imposing a dual perspective to a given situation. The 39 Steps is one of the early examples with which the director began to explore the protean possibilities of camera- it can be omniscient, deeply subjective, or baldly voyeuristic.

It is in The 39 Steps that Hitchcock came to associate the building of suspense with the swift pace that hastens it on. Scene overtakes scene in such quick succession that the camera leaps towards the second person when the first has yet finished talking. An emphatic embodiment of the “talky” aspect of the talkies, the device seems ill-fitting for Buchan’s book, whose episodic structure and measured progression make it a better material for silent film. This is not to say that Hitchcock’s talkies are invariably dictated by motions and burdened with salvos of gabbling exchanges. Like a good symphony, the thrills are offset by the quietude. In The 39 Steps the nearing of the dénouement is preceded by a tender interlude in which the handcuffed hero and heroine (Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll) are forced to spend a night in a poky inn. Carroll’s supposedly prudish character at some point strips off her stockings in vexation whilst Donat’s, showing not a sign of embarrassment, looks on.

The 39 Steps is now best remembered as a benchmark whose thematic ideas would develop into the recurring motifs of Hitchcock’s later films. As the director was approaching the apex of his career maturity, the uplifting witticism and heartwarming sentimentalism of this early film came to be laced with poison and spices. The film thus justly represents the nostalgic leave-taking of an innocent era, a moral message that lodges at the heart of Buchan’s original work. But such elegiac contemplation lasts but only a blink: in the book the hero, after successfully completing his counterespionage coupe, commences the solemn preparation for the unavoidable war. The film, on the other hand, ends in the same place of where it begins, in a crowded music hall, with Donat’s character wrests from the know-it-all Mr. Memory the truth of the 39 steps. Mr. Memory is shot as a consequence of the revelation, and the hero and heroine clasps hands as they take cognizance of the tragedy. In both of the original work and its adaptation, poignancy somehow dominates the mood.


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