At Last, “The 39 Steps”

28 05 2010

“What I like in The Thirty-Nine Steps are the swift transitions. The rapidity of those transitions heightens the excitement. It takes a lot of work to get that kind of effect, but it’s well worth the effort.” – Alfred Hitchcock

We’ve come to the end of my “39 Steps Fest,” and so, at last, to “The 39 Steps” itself – Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film adaptation of John Buchan’s spy novel, which is considered one of the greatest British movies ever made, and the crowning achievement of Hitchcock’s British period. The movie was very successful, and it certainly benefitted from the fact that the book itself was a big hit.

In the book “Hitchcock on Hitchcock,” which I wrote about here, Hitch mentions that he had read the novel when it was new, and that when he finally got the chance to film it, he realized that it would need a lot of work before it could be made into a movie. Hitchcock, with writers Charles Bennett and Ian Hay and the always reliable Alma Reville, streamlined the story considerably. In the process, Hitch added female roles and also made Richard Hannay more of an everyman than he was in the novel.

Hitchcock throws us straight into the action, as we open on the London Palladium, where, onstage, Mr. Memory performs, answering questions from the audience, punctuated by his catchphrase, “Am I right, sir?” Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat) asks a question that identifies him as Canadian; moments later, violence erupts, shots ring out, and Hannay escapes the hall, pushed up against Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim). They repair to his flat, and he learns that she is a spy, being pursued by two men. She gives him a few clues as to her mission – something about “The 39 Steps,” military secrets and a man with part of his finger missing – then goes off to get some rest, while Hannay sleeps on a couch, but in the middle of the night she staggers out of the bedroom, a knife in her back and a map of Scotland in her hand.

Just then the phone rings; the two men are still outside, watching the apartment from a phone booth, but if they’re there, then who just stabbed Annabella? That question is never answered, as Hannay flees the apartment and begins his long flight away from the authorities and, he hopes, toward the evidence that will eventually clear his name, as he becomes a suspect in Annabella’s murder.

By morning, Hannay hops a train, trying to lay low, but he has the misfortune of being in a compartment with two chatty salesmen who are discussing the news of the day, including the murder. Hitchcock revels in their discussion of the murder; one claims he’s not interested, but keeps asking for details anyway, while the other doesn’t even pretend not to care about it.

Hannay abandons the compartment when he sees that the police are on the train; he takes refuge with a young woman, who turns him over to the police. In one of the movie’s most exciting scenes, Hannay escapes the train by climbing behind a column on the Forth Bridge; apparently the police are not used to looking behind things.

Hitchcock preserves some of John Buchan’s colorful Scottish characters as Hannah is pursued by both the police and the two spies from outside his apartment; he is helped by a poor crofter’s wife and given shelter by a doting innkeeper and her oblivious husband. When Hannay gives the police the slip by ducking into a political rally, he is called upon to speak by a man whose barely audible introduction is met with cries of “Speak oot!” from the audience.

Pace is the key to “The 39 Steps.” Things move along so quickly it’s almost hard to keep the action straight. Hannay meets the woman from the train at the political rally, where one of the spies, acting as a police officer, takes both Hannay and the woman, Pamela, into custody, handcuffing them together. When the spies’ car runs into a herd of sheep, Hannay and Pamela escape, although she believes that he is a killer. He half drags her across the moors, and they spend the night at the inn, but then she manages to slip out of her handcuff and heads downstairs, where she hears the spies planning to go back to the Palladium in London. Hannay and Pamela go to the Palladium as well, where Hannay realizes that the secrets the spies have obtained are in the mind of Mr. Memory. When Hannay stands up and asks Mr. Memory, “What are the 39 Steps?” the performer begins to answer, explaining that they are a circle of spies, and is shot.

Besides the frenetic pace of much of the movie and the powerful sequences like the Forth Bridge escape and the political rally, “The 39 Steps” is Hitch’s tribute to the British music hall. The audience is rowdy – they’re amusing themselves almost as much as they’re enjoying the show – and we also get glimpses of other acts, including a three-man song and comedy act and a line of chorus girls who are seen dancing onstage while Mr. Memory lies dying.

Hitchcock especially enjoyed working with Madeleine Carroll, whose role as Pamela grew as filming went on. The director often said that he disliked working with actresses who were too concerned with being ladylike to be real people, and here, as Pamela is stripped of her iciness as she’s dragged along with Hannay, she comes to symbolized Hitchcock’s attitude toward actresses in general.

Although Hitch smoothed out the plot in making “The 39 Steps” into a movie, eliminating several large coincidences, some coincidences remain, such as Pamela’s presence at the political rally where Hannay wanders in. Hitchcock specifically mentions having to eliminate sequences from the novel in which Hannay disguises himself as a Scotsman because they would not believable (although Robert Donat doesn’t sound at all Canadian in the film). And in true MacGuffin fashion, we never learn much about the spy ring itself, only that it exists and that Mr. Memory was the key to their plans.

As I mentioned here, Hitchcock had wanted to make John Buchan’s second Hannay novel, “Greenmantle,” into a movie starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.

I was fortunate enough to watch the Criterion Collection disc of “The 39 Steps,” which had a really superb picture. The disc has extras including a half-hour documentary on Hitchcock’s British period produced by Janus Films.

Up next, Peter Lorre returns, along with John Gielgud and Robert Young, in “The Secret Agent,” based on a story by Someset Maugham.


Tweet to Win an Awesome 39 Steps Prize Package!

26 05 2010

We’re nearly at the end of my “39 Steps Fest,” so it’s time for the long-promised Twitter sweepstakes. The prize is an awesome package of goodies from “The 39 Steps,” including:

  • A DVD of the classic 1935 movie starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll!
  • A 39 Steps t-shirt!
  • A copy of the Playbill from “The 39 Steps,” signed by the crazy-talented cast!

All you have to do for a chance to win these prizes is follow me, arphilips, and 39stepsny, on Twitter. Then, just retweet this message when you see it:

RT TO WIN #The39Steps Prize Package @arphilips & @39stepsny. Details at

Just retweet when you see the message from now through Thursday, May 27 at 5pm East Coast time, and I’ll announce the winner on Friday, May 28.

Alfred Hitchcock vs. Dr. Fredric Wertham

24 05 2010

No, your eyes are not deceiving you! This is not a dream! Not a hoax! Not an imaginary story! Alfred Hitchcock really did square off against Dr. Fredric Wertham, scourge of the comic book biz, in one of the strangest mixed-up matchups ever!

I learned of this unlikely intersection of two of my greatest interests, comics and movies, when my daughter gave me the book “Hitchcock on Hitchcock” for my birthday (you can buy it here). It’s a collection of essays written by Hitchcock, as well as quite a few interviews with Hitchcock, ranging from 1927 to 1977.

Hitch covers a variety of topics all relating to film, from anecdotes to highly technical discussions of lighting. There’s a lengthy, very broad essay he wrote for the Encyclopedia Brittanica on “Film Production,” his impressions of Hollywood just after his arrival there in 1939, the function of music (don’t use it during dialogue!) and color (according to Hitch, until it’s possible to distort it to his ends, he prefers to keep it as far in the background as he can). He even repeats his old maxim “Actors are cattle” in a late interview, although he sort of explains that he means actors don’t have to worry about the story or technical problems the way a director does. There’s also a transcript of a story conference for the movie “Marnie” with Evan Hunter.

While Hitchcock’s insights are fascinating, there is a significant amount of repetition along the way, so ultimately “Hitchcock on Hitchcock” is probably best left to the die-hard fan.

So… in 1963, Dr. Fredric Wertham interviewed Hitchcock for Redbook Magazine. For those who are not among the comics cognoscenti, Wertham was a psychiatrist and crusading writer whose works, especially the book “Seduction of the Innocent,” helped pave the way for a witchhunt in the comic book industry in the 1950s (yes, there were other factors) that resulted in many companies shutting down and artists and writers being thrown out of work.

Wertham’s methodology is notoriously shoddy, however; while I’ve never read “Seduction,” as it’s long out of print, it’s known far and wide for its reliance on anecdotal information and a lack of citations. For example, Wertham concluded that so many juvenile delinquents admitted to reading comic books that there had to be a link between them, when in fact the 1950s were the peak for comics reading among children. At the time it would have been hard to find a child who did not read comics. He also asked gay men if they thought Batman and Robin were a couple, and used their answers as evidence that the Dynamic Duo were setting a bad example for impressionable youth.

(You can read more about Wertham’s impact on comics and the Senate hearings that followed in David Hadju’s terrific book “The 10-Cent Plague.”)

Wertham walks into the interview with Hitchcock ready to accuse the director of pandering to his audience with violence – yet Wertham gets off on a ridiculous note by opening his line of questioning with “I didn’t see ‘Psycho,’ I’m sorry to say, but many people have commented on the act of violence in that movie.” Amazingly, Hitchcock takes this in stride rather than pointing out that Wertham should ask him about things he has seen himself, rather than those he heard about second hand.

Hitchcock defers to Wertham throughout the interview, though, as least as far as allowing wrong-headed questions goes. Hitch does not let Wertham get away with much else, however. When Wertham suggests that the violence in “Psycho” is Hitch’s response to societal changes, Hitch insists that it is not; the violence has a purpose in the story and is kept to a minimum. Ironically, Hitch does say that he increased the sex content of the movie to accommodate audience expectations, but has no particular compunctions about that.

Hitchock is smart enough, and self-aware enough, to make points against Wertham, such as when he explains that even children understand the difference between stylized, fictional violence and the real thing – and that they are prepared to discern these differences when they are introduced to fairy tales. When Wertham insists that “You show killing, that means killing to any child,” Hitch counters by saying “Don’t forget little children themselves play at being dead.”

The conversation turns to the British love of crime; while Wertham tries to make the point that this interest in crime indicates a troubled community, Hitch disagrees, saying that Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, writer of “The Lodger,” was the antithesis of the horrific novels she wrote. (Wertham glibly sets himself up as a crime expert by when he says “It is true that if a crime is studied properly — which is rarely is…”)

Wertham also tries to insinuate that while fairy tales are “creations of art,” movies are not, but again, Hitchcock ignores the jab and makes his own counter argument. Toward the end of the interview, Wertham insists that “Americans, unlike the English, have made a cult of violence,” putting the blame for increased violence on films like “Psycho,” Hitchcock says that he’d read about a man on death row who claimed to have watched “Psycho” among other movies before he committed murder – but that no one has bothered asking about the other films he’d seen, or what else he had done before his crime.

Wertham closes the interview with another ridiculous argument when he talks about a four year old boy who loaded a rifle and killed a girl with it; he asks the rhetorical question, “How does a boy of four learn to load and handle a rifle?” Uh, from his father, maybe? Wertham’s point is so far out of context as to be fairly meaningless.

So, in the great Hitchcock Vs. Wertham debate of 1963, it looks like Hitchcock comes out ahead on reasoning, not to mention sense of humor, with Wertham costing himself several points for pomposity and specious reasoning.

The Art of “The 39 Steps” Part 3: The Storyboards

19 05 2010

Here’s our last look at artwork associated with “The 39 Steps,” as my “39 Steps Fest” enters its final week of excitement. Following my previous posts about the movie’s many posters and lobby cards, here are two storyboards drawn by Alfred Hitchcock in preparation for the movie, along with a lovely shot of Hitch himself…

Hitchcock at work on a storyboard for a later film.

Hitchcock’s storyboards were part of his meticulous planning for each of his movies. As he says in some of his essays in the book I’m currently reading, “Hitchcock on Hitchcock,” he felt very strongly about planning every possible step in his filmmaking process, including edits, montages, camera angles, costuming, sound, music and more. The fact that he was a talented artist – he drew the famous caricature that appeared on TV – allowed him to pioneer storyboarding for film, and those storyboards appeared in print as a way to build publicity for his pictures. There were times, in fact, when his publicity people would ask him to whip up a few drawings after the fact, just to enhance Hitch’s reputation as a filmmaker and build interest in his latest project.

Like this post? Leave me a comment, please!


Alfred Hitchcock Meets “The Man Who Knew Too Much”

16 05 2010

“Let’s say that the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.” – Alfred Hitchcock

After the very strange movie “Waltzes from Vienna,” Alfred Hitchcock returned in 1934 with “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” which started a run of his final seven British movie productions, nearly all of which are very well regarded. “The Man Who Knew Too Much” made an excellent start to this run; it is Hitch’s first real thriller in years, and the first with a story that’s as strong as Hitch’s filmmaking skills.

Starring Leslie Banks and Edna Best, and featuring Nova Pilbeam and Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role, “TMWKTM” opens in St. Moritz (one of Hitch’s favorite vacation spots), where the Lawrence family are on a sports holiday – Jill Lawrence is taking part in a shooting competition. Although she loses to a German shooter, Jill spends the evening dancing while her husband, Bob, and daughter, Betty, relax over dinner. But when Jill’s dance partner is shot, the Lawrences are introduced into a world of danger.

The dying man tells Jill to deliver a message to someone; she sends her husband to retrieve it. It’s a clue, written on a slip of paper, and it seems that enemy agents quickly find out that Bob and Jill have it. They kidnap Betty, threatening her parents that they will kill her if they tell anyone about the clue.

Back in England, the Lawrences are contacted by Scotland Yard, who say they know that this spy ring plans to assassinate a diplomat and plunge Europe into war. The Lawrences refuse to admit anything, and when they’re left alone, Bob and a family friend begin their own investigation. They find the place where Betty is being held – a strange sort of church, of which Peter Lorre is the minister. They capture Bob, but the friend escapes and gets word to Jill that the assassination will take place during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

Jill reaches the concert hall in time and spots the gunman, who happens to be her competitor from the start of the film; she screams, throwing off his aim, then puts the police on his trail as he flees the scene. The police surround the church, and a shootout begins. One by one Peter Lorre’s gang is picked off, until only the sharpshooter and Lorre are left. The shooter is sent to fetch Betty, but with her father’s help she escapes to the roof, although he is wounded by the gunman.

On the roof, the gunman tries to grab Betty, but from the street, Jill grabs a rifle and shoots her daughter’s attacker. The police pull Betty back inside, then find Lorre and shoot him dead.

It’s a riveting movie from start to finish, and despite the suspense, there is a lot of humor in it. Peter Lorre is particularly charming; he laughs at everything, leading to one chilling moment during the siege when he’s laughing, unaware that his comrade has been shot right next to him.

This was Peter Lorre’s first English language film; he had just fled Germany, and had to learn his part phonetically. Nonetheless, he is very charistmatic, and Hitch became very fond of him, so much so that they worked together again in “Secret Agent” in 1936. Hitch also enjoyed working with young Nova Pilbeam, who played Betty; Hitch said that she lacked the artifice of most British actresses, making her a natural and believable performer. She would star in Hitch’s “Young and Innocent” in 1937.

Aside from being a strong story, the film also has several well choreographed fight scenes, in particular the shootout at the end. Hitchcock builds up our empathy with the police (an unusual move for him); the moments when one officer is shot at the church door, and another when one is shot while getting ready for the siege are both shocking.

Up next, we’ll look at “The 39 Steps,” probably the best-loved movie from Hitchcock’s British years, and of course the one I’ve been circling around all through my ongoing “39 Steps Fest.” We’ll save comparisons between Hitch’s two versions of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” for later this year, when I get to the 1956 version.

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