Released in 1935 The 39 Steps is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s pre Hollywood films and dripping with clichés. A mysterious woman who claims to be a spy befriends our charming Carry Grant style hero before being promptly murdered in our bachelor’s flat. Here a sense of patriotic duty conspires with boys own adventure that sees him fleeing from both the law and ruthless international spies in an attempt to save mother England. He finds himself meeting mysterious strangers on the Scottish moors, chained to a pretty blond who detests him and attempting to unravel an international conspiracy.
Yes it’s clichéd, but these clichés had to start somewhere. And regardless it’s an enjoyable romp. Hitchcock cares little for the national identity of the spies, or even the secret that people are willing to kill to protect. These are merely examples of his infamous Macguffin’s. Instead many of his usual themes appear, the dashing everyman hero, an innocent man wrongly accused attempting to clear his name, and of course a romance that takes time to develop. Hitchcock’s 18th film is a clever suspense laden spy drama which demonstrates enough of the auteur’s trademark style and wit to not only be enjoyable some 76 years on, but also makes it clear why Hollywood would soon come calling.
An audio commentary from academic Wendy Haslem, who digs through the film, discussing sound, editing techniques, the role of women and dysfunctional families. There’s also a retrospective episode of On location that traces where The 39 steps was filmed and the stories behind it, as well as a radio play of the film.
Bob Baker Fish