Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Honore Daumier

“If you shut up truth and bury it under ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.”- Émile Zola
Exited Honoré Victorin Daumier, 10 February 1879, in an impoverishment that many of his contemporaries, especially his foes, would have thought was his long overdue retribution- the painter was blind, heavily in debt, and later relegated to a pauper’s grave. His friends, upon visiting his resting place, would, I imagine, see it a chance to admonish their children: “Now that’s a lesson for you cheeky devils whose tongues rattle off things that should better stay unspoken.” But Daumier devoted his life in revealing those “unspoken things.” His lithography ink proved sharper than most writers’ pens. He vented his rage and stigmatised others’ infamy in his satirical and, oftentimes, side-splitting cartoons. The tone was relentlessly acerbic but only because Daumier was exposing truths that, in the time…

Review: Gaslight (1944)

Despite its varied forms or narratives, all Gothic fictions revolve on a fundamental contrast: that between the tenuous comfort of an isolated self and the dangerous fascination of an intrusive otherness. The Victorian is an age characterised by its obsession with the supernatural – poised on the verge of modernity, with scientific advancements like Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species inspired missions to unlock the myths of the natural world, people began to take notice of what lay outside their limited knowledge of things, of anything that is external to the closed domain of humanity. This curiosity for the unknown provoked an appraisal for the known – the immutable social system was revealed as hostile to the cultivation of individual minds, and time-honoured ethics such as that dictating a woman’s role in a traditional domesticity a menace to the preservation of personal integrity.
The negotiation between the old and the new, the internal and the external, is the dominant theme of V…

Review: A Taste of Honey (1961)

Life is a mixture of comedy and tragedy- tragicomic if both aspects are given equal measure of awareness; melodramatic when the two extremes are ratcheted up to a boiling point. For most people, it is only natural that they take the good with the bad. An ingrained fatalism dictates their attitudes towards the vagaries of human fate; therefore in joy they wait agonisingly for the day their good fortune is suddenly wrested from them, and in sadness for the glimpse of light that signals a gradual upturn of the dire condition. “Nothing lasts forever”- this well-worn adage becomes almost the guideline of their survival, and a perpetual reminder that life is ever mobile and unpredictable.

Every current of life, regardless of the varying destination it tends to, returns and oscillates invariably between two points: suffering and the struggle to survive. They are as much the fundamentals of human condition as the impetus for the cultivating of human resourcefulness: it is the battle of will be…