Given the opportunity to watch an older movie, say a black and white Hitchcock, the best way is via the Criterion Collection. Released today, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 The 39 Steps still bears a significant amount of suspense, intrigue, and mystery that should delight movie fans of all ages. And the added bonus is the significant number of additional features always provided by Criterion.
The internal pamphlet features an essay by David Cairns called “Thirty-Nine Steps To Happiness.” It’s Cairns’ words that provide a background for the use of Scotland, the purpose of the MacGuffin, and the development of the story from John Buchan’s novel to Hitchcock’s cinematic delivery. If you prefer the type of thing where someone, here the expert Marian Keane, talks to you throughout, then the optional audio commentary will do the trick.
Additional features on the Blu-ray disc include “Hitchcock The Early Years” (Steps is only a dozen years into his career), as well as various takes on the man himself and his methods. I’d never really watched a Hitchcock movie from that perspective before, and it proves to be quite “alarming.” As in when a woman’s scream turns into a train whistle. Or when a spy uses gunfire to create a distraction and an unsuspecting man takes her home, learns her mission, and takes it on for himself when she’s murdered…
I mean, that’s ridiculous, isn’t it? But Hitchcock drew us in with his opening segue into the theater and he keeps us step-by-step with his hero, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), as he proceeds to go riding the train and dodging the police, and romping about the Scottish crags. We don’t actually know what Hannay’s lady spy was up to but we know that Hannay is being pursued and feels emphatically certain that he must flee.
It seems that is often the Hitchcock way: we know what he deemed necessary for us to know enough to care and become involved, but never enough to solve what is actually going on ahead of time. It is quite a bit like another British mystery spinner, Agatha Christie. But Hitchcock doesn’t pedal on the thoughts or emotions we have wrapped around standing characters; he builds a new story each time and wraps us in quickly.
In Hannay’s case, we find ourselves asking, “how far would we go to prove our innocence?” Would the truth really set us free in this situation? How could we prove our innocence or the situation that we find ourselves in? Hannay’s validation finally comes, but it takes a long time to get to those “thirty-nine steps.” Somehow, Hitchcock makes the time fly by as if we were hardly ever there.