Saturday, 16 July 2011



* * * * * *

1935 - U.K (Gaumont British Picture Corporation)

DIRECTOR: Alfred Hitchcock
SCRIPT: John Buchan, Charles Bennett, Ian Hay
PHOTOGRAPHY: Bernard Knowles
MUSIC: Hubert Bath, Jack Beaver, Charles Williams

   There is no question about Alfred Hitchcock's cinematic legacy. And I'm not taking it just for the face value, I do recognise his genius myself. But the rule of 'credit where credit's due' is a double-edged weapon. And for that reason I am not keen on giving said credit where it has not been earned properly. The 39 Steps seems to me to be a perfect example. And even if I wasn't really sure what to expect, I can definitely assure you: whatever it was, I did not get it. Except for disappointment, that is.

I will of course do my best to be fair here, which may not mean much but for the sake of decency I will definitely try. But still, don't hold your breath. I think the kindest I can be here, is to say that I was underwhelmed. Even though I have already noticed that my cinema taste and that of the critics who created 1001 FILMS... are as parallel as old dragoon's legs, I was still holding on to the hope that there is at least SOME substance to their choice. How very silly of me.
At this time I would like to make a note that this whole book reminds me of the Constitution of the United Kingdom, where (since mid 17th century) things just get added and left as they were without any revision. And just as much as I refuse to practice my archery every Sunday I also disagree with the conviction that a 1930s Alfred Hitchcock movie is a masterpiece only because it's an 1930s Alfred Hitchcock movie.
I mean, yes, I do understand that it was his first film that brought him both critical acclaim and a commercial success. Yes, I do understand that it contains a lot of elements that consequently made Hitchcock into a cinema giant and a suspense overlord. But someone should have asked themselves a one, incredibly important question: what are the criteria for including films in that book? One option could be to list films that for whatever reason are ground-breaking or just important to the cinema as a medium. The other one would be to put together a collection of films that are likely to change someone's life (even if only for a day...). And since the title of the book refers to the films to see before you die, not films that changed or shaped the cinema, I vote for the latter. And if we stick to that approach then there's very little reason (if any) to watch The 39 Steps. First, it's not the best Hitchcock's film. Second, it's not the best spy/conspiracy thriller. Third, it has aged really badly and has no relevance today, whatsoever.

The story follows a typical (as for the genre, that is) random man entangled in a quite standard spy intrigue. We don't know much about him which on one hand probably helps to accentuate his 'randomness' but on the other, prevents the viewer from any personal attachment. Then there is also the problem with the pace. Since The 39 Steps is only 86 minutes long, there's no time for a foreplay of any sort. The dialogue lines are delivered quickly and the very unlikely bonding between Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) and Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) happens within five minutes without as much as raising a highbrow. It might have worked in the 1930s but today it just looks naive and, dare I say naff? Then there's the Hannay's long run. Now imagine, its 1935, right? The man is on the run travelling from London to Edinburgh. And on every step of his journey the police is right behind him. Like they're blooding twitting each other, or what. When he takes to the remote parts of Highlands, suddenly there's a police helicopter at hand. You know what? Tommy Lee Jones in the Fugitive wasn't half as well organised.
Yes, I understand, those were different times, films were more far-fetched in general and some could say that if I complain about all those things I could as well complain about the fact that The 39 Steps is shot in black and white. But then again, I'm not complaining about that film being old. I just feel badly short-changed upon the discovery that it is not significantly different from many other films of that era. And the inclusion into the exclusive club of the 1001 films most worthy seeing in a lifetime should oblige to more. Much more.

So what's good in it then? Well, it's enjoyable to start with. The acting of Donat and that of Madeleine Carroll portraying his defiant companion is also really good. There are some really great scenes showcasing in a very subtle way Hitchcock's fantastic sense of humour. The scene with the waiter in the restaurant car on the train is, it seems, lifted directly from a slapstick comedy but here played dead seriously, somehow in the corner of an eye, and placed in a middle of a frantic chase. And if we consider that scene to be a little wink, then another one, in which Hannay and Pamela handcuffed together are trying to navigate a fence, is an outright smirk. The conclusion is also plausible and not too obvious (at least for my undemanding brain), but the clue that leads to it, again, rather shoehorned in.

And that's how far I'm going to go about this film. I wouldn't go as bad as saying that I've wasted my time watching it, but I certainly wouldn't like to waste anyone else's by writing lengthy essay where there's absolutely no reason for one. There will be much better occasions, some of them from Hitchcock himself again, I'm sure.

Rent it from LoveFilm
Get it on AMAZON

Previously on 1001 FILMS TO SEE AND NOT DIE: 2001: A Space Odyssey - Stanley Kubrick, 1968
Next on the list: 3-Iron (Bin-jip) - Kim Ki-duk, 2004
and after: The 400 Blows - François Truffaut, 1959


  1. Won't bother then! Hoping for a seriously recommended film to watch next...must get you down to waste your time for our own sake!!!

  2. I seem to have far too many things to waste my time on already but I'll see what I can do for you :)