Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The 39 Steps

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: films with numbers in the title / In category: 4 of 10 / Overall: 48 of 100

John Buchan’s 1915 novel ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ is a pacy and entertaining bit of escapism, the espionage plot of which struck a chord with pre-First World War readers (and was also, apparently, hugely popular among enlisted men during the actual conflict). It is also riddled with wild coincidences and implausible plot developments. For instance, fugitive Richard Hannay decides to go on the run to Scotland when he’s implicated in a murder for no other reason than Buchan was a Scotsman – was, in fact, the 1st Baron Tweedsmuir – and knew the locale. When Hannay blunders, entirely by chance, into the one house in all of Scotland occupied by a foreign agent, he identifies the man as his nemesis purely by deciding that there’s something a bit off about him. The denouement – in which the now exonerated Hannay, having thrown in his lot with British Intelligence, works out location of the thirty-nine steps of the title – is based on such obfuscatory gobbledegook that you’d need an entire branch of quantum physics to properly explain it. Sure, the book’s a fun (if dated) read, but its structure is so random and its narrative arc not so much join-the-dots as hide the dots and hope nobody notices that it’s enough to make a screenwriter throw everything out and just start over with the title.

Which brings us to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps’, the numerical titular replacement just one of several improvements on the source material. Made in 1935 (and striking the same pre-war chord with audiences that the book did), it was – astoundingly – Hitchock’s twentieth film as director (discounting 1922’s unfinished ‘Number 13’ and 1923’s ‘Always Tell Your Wife’, for which he was uncredited) and his second straight-up masterpiece following ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ made the previous year. That film was the first full exposition of Hitch’s talent for the thriller, full of nerve-wracking suspense and brilliantly orchestrated set-pieces (his lachrymose 1956 remake is a pale imitation). ‘The 39 Steps’, by extension, provides the first complete template for the innocent accused/man-on-the-run narrative that Hitch would return to again and again through the next four decades of his career. It’s often cited as the key work of his British film period and it’s easy to see why. Personally, I prefer ‘The Lady Vanishes’, but since that doesn’t have a number in the title it’ll have to wait until business is concluded on the Operation 101010 front.

Hitchcock kicks off ‘The 39 Steps’ with a murder in a music hall during an act by the rotund and not particularly charismatic Mr Memory, an individual with a prodigious talent for retaining all manner of facts and figures. Mr Memory is Hitchcock’s first deviation from Buchan’s story, and it’s an inspired touch; likewise, the climax brings us right back to the artifice of the stage show but this time the true importance of Mr Memory is revealed. None of this is in the book. Then there’s the matter of the doomed secret agent to whom Hannay gives temporary shelter: it’s a dude in Buchan’s opening chapter. Hitch has other ideas and prefigures the later sexual tension between Hannay (Robert Donat) and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) by re-imagining the spy as the exotic and obviously pseudonymed Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim). When she’s (MODERATE SPOILER) assassinated, she stumbles towards Hannay clutching a map of Scotland. The two heavies killing time outside Hannay’s apartment leave him in no doubt that he’s next in line. Giving them the slip, he hightails it to the highlands (by way of a bit of derring do on the Forth Railway Bridge; Hitchcock and trains, anyone?) and the plot shifts up a gear.

Buchan, at this point, has Hannay variously helped or hindered by a road worker, a radical politician, an inn-keeper, an archaeologist and a fisherman. While Hitch retains the politico and the publican, he jettisons the remainder of Buchan’s subsidiary character in favour of having Hannay spend the latter half of the film handcuffed to a haughtily gorgeous blonde. A round of applause, ladies and gentlemen, for Madeleine Carroll, the first of Hitchcock’s ice maiden blonde heroines: for every Grace Kelly or Tippi Hedren who came afterwards, Madeleine Carroll set the standard. (The same can be said for Robert Donat: the Cary Grant and James Stewart protagonists of Hitchcock’s later films all owe a debt to Donat’s gentleman adventurer.) Indeed, Hitch is so fixated on the chemistry – most notably in a censor-baiting (for 1935) scene in which Pamela removes her nylons while Hannay’s handcuffed hand can’t help but follow the admittedly elegant contours of her legs – he all but forgets that Hannay’s running for his life by this point.

But with Hitchcock – particularly in this kind of lightweight romantic thriller – it was always about the chase, never the catch; and what better reason for a chase than a MacGuffin? ‘The 39 Steps’ (the title means something utterly different to Buchan’s literal representation of it) has a humdinger of a MacGuffin. It’s something Mr Memory rattles off in the closing seconds and it’s all but meaningless. While you’re caught up in the hare’s-breadth, last-gasp rush of Hitchcock’s storytelling it seems to give the whole breathless affair a weight and a raison d’etre. Stop to think about it for a while and it doesn’t hold water (why risk Mr Memory blowing the gaff when you could just put the [MacGuffin] on a piece of microfilm the size of a baby’s little finger and have it out of the country in no time?). In the hands of an inferior filmmaker, the MacGuffin would stand out as a glaring flaw. Hitchcock’s genius wasn’t just that he could get away with it but that he made it intrinsically Hitchcockian.


Bryce Wilson said...

Excellent piece.

A film so great even Holden Caulfield couldn't help but hate it.

The missing joint is one of my favorite Hitchcock moments. It just has that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach of "Oooooooooohhhhhh sshhhiiiiittttt."

To me, that's the essence of Hitchcock. Not so much "scares" in the traditional sense. But that view from the top the rollercoaster as you realize things are about to go (or have gone) horribly wrong.

Neil Fulwood said...

Yeah, the truncated finger moment is one of cinema's great reveals. Like you say, Hitch had a particular genius for manoeuvring his protagonists into sticky situations and then revealing the extent of their peril with a true showman's flourish.