The 39 Steps ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Last year, I picked up a 2-disc Hitchcock DVD set at Target for $2.00. The 39 Steps was one of the ten selections. I meant to watch it last year for the Criterion Challenge but for whatever reason, I didn't. I actually started after midnight with another of the set's features, Secret Agent, but I kept getting interrupted and distracted and gave up on it. Just as I was about to restart it from the beginning, I learned that it followed The 39 Steps in the middle of what some consider Hitchcock's "Spy Trilogy" (the third film is Sabotage). I decided to go to this film instead, and then come back to Secret Agent in its entirety later.

It's easy to see how this story helped establish the paradigm for the spy genre, particularly the sub-genre of ordinary people caught up in the extraordinary machinations and intrigue orchestrated by insidious characters lurking in the shadows...and standing in plain sight before the world as pillars of their communities.

Richard Hannay is the kind of character that nearly any of us can easily recognize as ourselves. He hasn't any special skill set, no training, no gadgets or even any real resources to speak of. He's driven not even out of curiosity, but rather out of desperation. Richard is the victim of Occam's razor; it's far easier for other characters to believe the superficial story (that he murdered the woman he knows as Annabella Smith) than it is for them to believe the truth (that he's caught up in a matter of life-and-death, national security plot). We've all had our day wrecked by someone else's shenanigans at times, and we've all had trouble convincing someone that the way things seem is not how they really are. Richard is one of us.

Hitchcock himself said of the film that what he liked best "are the swift transitions" (quoted by Michael Wilmington in his 1985 essay), and I have to agree. More than once, I found that just as I was getting comfortable and thought I could take for granted where the film was headed, something abrupt would occur and instead of getting ahead of the film, I was now trying to catch up to what had just taken place. Perhaps the most jarring transition is when Richard is in the office of the Scottish sheriff, who professes to believe his story. It all seemed too easy, but by then I'd stopped trying to get ahead of the story. It's breathing, though, allowing me to begin wondering, "Where do we go from here, if Richard is finally square with the law?" And then, just as I've made the mistake of dabbling in speculation, bam! The sheriff brings in Professor Jordan's henchmen, masquerading as police, and I feel as jerked around as does Richard.

It's this kind of constant needling and juxtaposition that gives The 39 Steps not only its structure, but its appeal. Hitchcock knew that the audience ought to be just ahead of the story, and the protagonist just a bit behind. With this one, though, he kept me off-balance enough that I was able to get lost in the yarn myself. It's inadvisable for storytellers to try to create that effect, because it almost certainly guarantees that the story either become too cute or impenetrable; here, though, the master deftly navigates between just enough and too much.

One last note: the finale, in which Mister Memory is revealed to be the carrier of the secret information, triggered thoughts of The Lady Vanishes, where the secret is conveyed by melody. The Lady Vanishes novel was published a year after The 39 Steps film opened, so perhaps there was some measure of influence? I'm too tired to Google it to know for sure, but it seems plausible enough.

How It Entered My Flickchart
The 39 Steps > Henry Poole Is Here
The 39 Steps > Stargate
The 39 Steps < Red
The 39 Steps > Waiting...
The 39 Steps < Mission: Impossible
The 39 Steps < The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
The 39 Steps > The Dukes of Hazzard
The 39 Steps < Back to the Future, Part II
The 39 Steps > Dead Calm
The 39 Steps > Dracula
The 39 Steps < Back to the Future, Part II

The 39 Steps entered my Flickchart at #249/1409