Hitchcock is Smokin

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1st2thebar's review of The 39 Steps (1935)

★★★★★

“Hitchcock is Smokin”

Written on: 20/02/2018 by 1st2thebar (2 reviews written)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock (1899 - 1980)
A Gaumont-British Picture Corp
Year of production: 1935


Reading John Buchan's 'The Thirty Nine Steps' - (1915), I found myself pondering: 'circumstances' and the concept of 'what ifs?' Probably a logical response to recent atrocities which intrudes on our lives and media networks. Escapism via watching the 1935 Hitchcock film version of the same name caused a soothing distraction. I smiled at the archaic smoky focus, disjointed edits and chance meetings - the suchlike didn't discommode me. Sometimes the only thing to do is partake in some silver screen therapy after having to pay observation service on a traumatic event or experience a timely irritation. Film script and visualization in the pre-world-war era seemed simpler; perhaps a smidgen innocent - yes, an ideal comfort far less fattening than scoffing the contents of a cylindrical tube of 'Pringles.'

Not a bad time to coin Arthur Schopenhauer's renown phrase: "The more I love mankind, the less I love men." Indeed you're systematically looking through a prism deciphering the colours of characters, and when you tilt your head you find you adore women more, almost as much as freedom itself. John Buchan slid in this shadow by activating the goodness of chance, as Alfred Hitchcock did while film-making wise he coloured in the black, grey and white landscape, and gave the Buchan narrative visual expression. Orderly, timely... smoke and mirrors is prevalent in all Hitchcock thrillers. Film noir, the step by step saviour. The blanket of darkness of four seconds depicts time lapses; This always reminds me of theatre, the curtain falling, informing the voyeur a chapter has passed and another will commence - commendable lucidity.

Those in tune and accutely aware of what's memory and what's general knowledge from the off may find the introductory of 'The Thirty Nine Steps' distinctly invalid. Memory Man played by Wylie Watson, was on stage answering questions from the intellectually backward audience... what with the spirited hoarsed vocal asking, who was the last British heavyweight champion of the world?" Meh, my old woman - cue mysogny jibe of a lost generation.Other idiotic questions were identifying horse racing winners and announcing destination to destination mileages. Not exactly memory orientated nor hardly gets the pulse racing on the entertainment stakes. To lighten the mood a mass brawl was the main event... it pulled out a fullstop to end proceedings at the 'Musichall', till next time. One result, the Canadian Mr. Hannay 'our hero' found himself escorting a damsel in distress back to his dust sheet abode, and there in a flash he is embroidered in a web of reconnaissance.

A conjecture of symbolism and flimsy visual effects streams from the vault of Hitchcock, if you think you've seen the emblematic images before it's because you have, most notably a mold for 'North by Northwest' in (1959) and 'Psycho' in (1960). Varied symbols and filmology have been replicated throughout Hitchcock's film direction. There's a collaboration with gossip and trains during the film noir epoch, this time round a haughty gent brewed a head of steam and gushed... "a thirty-five year old woman found dead; Hannay gone missing..." Why not aged thirty nine? To boost the meaning of what the title conveys - I mention this because John Buchan was thirty-nine when he penned this guilty pleasure in Broadstairs, as see title. Available for Hitchcock to redefine his own creative fingerprint to the classic in filmology. Produced and directed with an eloquent and distinguished gent in pursuit and being pursued in mind - even under immense stress, Richard Hannay played by Donat possessed a gentlemanly surety in kinship with James Bond; inadvertently, no mistakening where Ian Fleming got his espionage influences from. Donat's was adored by the silver screen even though his mannerisms and vocal tone remained the same... insouciant. Wooden acting, what's wrong with wooden acting? A definition of Spy from the vocabulary of Stephen Fry - Buchan and Fry are of a certain ilk, apart from the obvious, Buchan was Scottish; although time in Oxford somehow muted his Scottish cadence - a skill Buchan adopted to enable a fortuitous life.

'The Thirty Nine Steps,' was originally dedicated to Buchan's comradeship with Thomas Arthur Nelson, they met while studying at Oxford - Nelson was Oxford University sportsman (Rugby player) and thereafter a notable publicist. In a letter to Nelson, Buchan explained his deep affection for the American 'dime novel;' you quickly grasp that the narrative was never destined to be durable; thus, eighty three minutes of film doesn't equate fully to Buchan's brevity stroke 'dime novel' ethos. In a way you can pick up why a mid thirty year old Alfred Hitchcock may have missed a few tricks; such as including a rugby styled scramble rather than a pointless brawl at a musichall. And why not have the famous peaceful spires of Oxford image projected on the back of Richard Hannay's eye lids while getting rest whilst handcuffed to Pamela played by Madeleine Carroll. Admittedly, the scenes are a risque sexual-metaphor for pre-War audiences, whereby their parenthood came from the Victorian value era; still, it didn't matter... for Hitchcock was particulary partial to blondes especially those of the ilk of Carroll. The removal of wet stockings while handcuffed to Hannay who at the time was munching on a sandwich in a hotel room; drew sharp intakes of breath from audiences afar - it seemed Hitchcock purposefully wanted to hone in on sexual intrigue and suspense and forge an early idiosyncratic signature; herewith, prevalent throughout his métier.


You cannot fault Hitcock's theme and image focus, they're timeless and germane... why observing 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' numerously isn't as banal as you originally may believe; thanks to the epic scores by Beaver & Levy - magnitude music producers even in the 1930s. Something to look for is the orchestrated version of an innocent Jessie Matthew's song: 'May I Have The Next Romance With You' - undoubtedly, present subconsiously; ye-s, this is Hitchcock's influence not John Buchan's; you'll denote a human aspect; the dying art of whistling. Indeed, without knowing you're a whistling a catch-y few cords... plays below the conscious radar like an uninvited guest... Hannay naturally mentions it: 'the tune has been in my head for days', for a voyeur you get the impression the comment is unscripted; employs a less wooden style of acting; alas, activates extra mystery. Indirectly the musichall ambiance gifts us all an archaic peep-hole into... time, place and popular culture - which was synominous with preWar autonomy. Hitchcock is really stating: not sure why such tunes are mellifluous, perhaps it's proof personal nostalgia likes to play along. Again, many film scholars systematically overlook the factor of film placement and pin-point merely scenario. This is fine with modern day flicks but when it's a Hitchcock production, highlighting the art of placement, image and scores are paramount.


I'll even stick my neck out and categorically claim by definition, there's no other director who can graciously exploit warp camera angles of running feet, an elongated shadow, twitching hand, plus an exagerated facial expression like the great man. Of course, they're all affiliated with espionage, and over a period... paranoia grows; only an 'probationary' creationist can perfect this. However, there was still a sense that 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' was far fetched so much so that the surveillance services didn't twitch; unlike George Orwell who had been kept on the MI5 list for twenty-one years (until his death in 1950) - within those twenty-one years, 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' was produced. Actually, the coincidental meetings aided the film's fictitous thread - yet, I can announce the author John Buchan believed in chance meetings. I'd love to be a fly on the wall when Buchan was collaborating with Hitchcock; especially during the film's narrative and non-theatric chance meetings - y'see, Buchan's serendipitous life wasn't a Hollywood blockbuster waiting to hit the silver screen et al; blatantly a severe lack of drama; hence, a challenge for Hitchcock which he enthusiastically revelled in. My pedantic observations takes me back when a gent got out a bra, while on the train in candid spirits - allegedly a new improved bra, manufactured to suit a male's perspective. a sexist but comedic concept from the comedy of manners vault. A five minute introduction for Madeleine Carroll.

You got to praise the timing and immense knowledge Hitchcock had on his performers, Carroll made her name seven years prior to 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' in 'The School for Scandal' play - where scandal was driven by gossip, especially when the art of shenanigans caused a plethora of titilations. The plea to the husband that a fleeting dalliance was merely a fashion statement - p'raps this is what Hitchcock was thinking when he handcuffed Carroll to Donat. I, again found myself pondering: 'circumstances' and the concept of 'what ifs' - this is typical of me after watching a Hitchcock epic. Frame by frame analysis didn't help, for the picture quality is substandard; albeit, by accident the darkness adds to the suspense... the plumes of dirty cigarette smoke and steam is in contrast to Scotland's scenic topography. Altogether satisfyingly optimistic; how refreshing.

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