“The 39 Steps” Live in Minneapolis

17 11 2010

A look at “The 39 Steps,” currently playing at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota

By Keating DuGarm, Hitchcock and Me’s Midwest Foreign Correspondent

As frequent readers of this blog know, “The 39 Steps” has been adapted by playwright Patrick Barlow to the stage, following the storyline of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film along with elements from the novel by John Buchan. The original novel and movie helped to establish the modern-day spy story.

As most of you remember, this story involves Richard Hannay, who gets blamed for a murder he did not commit and goes on the run from London to the Scottish Highlands trying to stop spies who are trying to smuggle a vital secret out of the country in the pre-war United Kingdom. This war is World War I in the novel and World War II in the movie and play.

The Guthrie Theater’s production of this play proves to be similar in the kinetic spirit that Adam talked about the New York version having last spring during his “39 Days of the 39 Steps.” You can view this short video and compare it to the ones Adam posted:

This play features more than 150 characters which are brought to life by a cast of four actors. All four are based in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Robert O. Berdahl plays Richard Hannay, the bored everyman who gets involved in secrets and spies. Berdahl graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. Sarah Agnew plays all three female characters who are also potential lovers for Hannay. The wig design (probably by the costume designer) for her worked most effectively.

Jim Lichtscheidl and Luverne Seifert play the clowns, which is what their characters are called in Patrick Barlow’s play. They portray the huge supporting case including incompetent detectives, slapstick vaudeville players, political speakers, odd innkeepers, women and men. This quick change process is explained by costume designer Amelia Cheever in this video:

All the actors are effective, but the switching from character to character of the clowns, sometimes within seconds using only hats, makes one appreciate the craft of these thespians.

The set and props get the audience involved from the get go. Sheep on wheels represent a flock of sheep, and life-size kilted cutouts operated by the actors comprise a huge Scottish political parade. Travel trunks become trains. As the characters crawl up and down on these trunks, they flap their hats and coats to indicate a strong wind. In this interview, which you can read here, set designer Richard Hoover discusses the production.

Hannay’s journey comprises a sequence of shadow puppets invented by Michael Sommers which includes references to “Psycho,” “North by Northwest,” and “Rear Window” as well as other non-Hitchcock classics like “King Kong. Naturally, this includes a cameo by Alfred Hitchcock in the form of a silhouette, a la “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Much of the dialogue is used exactly from the movie. Fast changes of costume and smart theatrical tricks are utilized to show character changes. The director makes this all work nicely.

“The 39 Steps” is directed by Joel Sass who usually works at the local Jungle Theater. At the Jungle Theater, he directed the suspenseful “Hitchcock Blonde” where he displayed a true feeling for Hitchcock-type suspense. In this production, Mr. Sass seems to enjoy taking down those same conventions. Joel talks about this production here:

This play has much in common with sketch comedy like Monty Python. As in any sketch comedy show, some bits work better than others depending on one’s sense of humor. I love sketch comedy and I enjoyed much of this. The Scottish innkeeper characters and the male “clowns” dressing up and speaking as women reminded me specifically of Monty Python. In fact, Eric Idle of Monty Python stated about the New York version of this play that: “Everyone should see this. It’s brilliant!”

Here is a rather well-done guide to the play, book and movie in all its incarnations.

Also, long-time readers will remember that Adam was featured on the stage for a post-play discussion after one of the New York City performances of “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” The Guthrie theater is doing that as well following the matinee performances on Saturday, November 20, Sunday November 28 and Saturday, December 4. There, audiences will have an opportunity to enjoy a post-play discussion with actors, artists, and theater staff.

This entertaining version of the play runs through December 19, 2010 and you can get more information here. All Hitchcock fans who find themselves anywhere near the Twin Cities before December 19 are advised to go!

Thanks to my pal and fellow Hitchcock fan Mike Callies, who works at the Guthrie, for attending a production of this show with me!


100 Moments with Alfred Hitchcock Part 1

28 09 2010

Recently, Roger Ebert posted his list of “100 Great Moments in the Movies” on his Chicago Sun-Times blog. After counting how many of those movies I’d seen (58!) I thought it would be fun to do something like it for our own Mr. Hitchcock. Since I’m only up to 1947 in his long career, I thought I’d split the list and post the first half now.

Here, then, are the first 50 of 100 Moments with Alfred Hitchcock, with annotations below:

  1. A cad is haunted by visions of a dead girl in “The Pleasure Garden.”
  2. A young woman’s silent scream opens Hitchcock’s first great movie, “The Lodger.”
  3. The Lodger (Ivor Novello) arrives at his new home, startling his landlady.
  4. An angry mob tries to kill the Lodger.
  5. Amateur boxer “One-Round” Jack Saunder is beaten by boxing champ Bob Corby in “The Ring”
  6. Ivor Novello rides down an escalator as he falls from grace in “Downhill”
  7. Farmer Sweetland makes a list of potential new brides in “The Farmer’s Wife.”
  8. A young divorcee gives herself up to the press after being humiliated in court at the end of “Easy Virtue.”
  9. A detective watches his quarry through the stem of a glass in “Champagne.”
  10. Hitchcock brings the Isle of Man to life in “The Manxman.”
  11. Hitchcock teases actress Anny Ondra in the sound test for “Blackmail.”
  12. A woman is forced to kill her attacker in “Blackmail.”
  13. The blackmailer is chased through the British Museum in “Blackmail.
  14. A back-alley speech about Ireland’s freedom is disrupted by gunfire in “Juno and The Paycock.”
  15. A cross-dressing killer leaps from the high-wire to his death in “Murder!”
  16. At an auction in “The Skin Game,” nouveau riche Edmund Gwenn outbids wealthy aristocrats.
  17. A young couple books passage home on a tramp steamer after an unsuccessful cruise, only to nearly die when the ship begins to sink in “Rich and Strange.”
  18. Hitchcock revisits his German expressionist roots with “Number 17.”
  19. Johann Strauss outshines his father when he conducts “The Blue Danube Waltz” in “Waltzes from Vienna.”
  20. Peter Lorre’s surprisingly charming terrorist in “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
  21. Richard Hannay tries to hide from the police by kissing an unwilling fellow traveller in “The 39 Steps.” Unwilling fellow traveller immediately gives him up to the authorities.
  22. “Am I right, sir?” With his dying breath, Mr. Memory reveals the secret of “The 39 Steps.”
  23. Peter Lorre shoves the wrong man — a suspected spy — off a cliff to his death in “Secret Agent.”
  24. A saboteur is killed by his former comrades in the explosive finale to “Sabotage.”
  25. The spectacular tracking shot that takes viewers from an overhead view of a hotel lobby across a crowded dance floor and into the eyes of a killer in “Young and Innocent.”
  26. The rush to secure rooms in a crowded hotel lobby at the start of “The Lady Vanishes.”
  27. The young lovers of “The Lady Vanishes” enter the Foreign Office to find old Mrs. Froy alive and well after all.
  28. Charles Laughton climbs a ship’s mast, then throws himself to his death to avoid capture in “Jamaica Inn.”
  29. Joan Fontaine opens “Rebecca” with the line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again…”
  30. Mrs. Danvers drives Joan Fontaine half crazy while describing her late mistress in “Rebecca.”
  31. Mrs. Danvers refuses to leave her late mistress’s room as Manderly burns to the ground in “Rebecca.”
  32. An American reporter in Holland chases an assassin through an umbrella toting crowd, then hops into a car and continues the chase into the windmill-dotted countryside.
  33. “Mr. And Mrs. Smith” grill each other over breakfast, leading to a break in their marriage.
  34. John Aysgarth charms — and is charmed by — Lina McLaidlaw at the start of “Suspicion.”
  35. Lina imagines Aysgarth killing his best friend in “Suspicion.”
  36. Aysgarth brings his ailing wife a frightening looking glass of milk in “Suspicion.”
  37. Barry Kane and Patricia Martin encounter a troupe of circus freaks in “Saboteur.”
  38. A fifth columnist plummets to his death from the Statue of Liberty in “Saboteur.”
  39. Mr. Newton and Herbert discuss the best way to kill one another over a family dinner in “Shadow of a Doubt.”
  40. Uncle Charlie, “the Merry Widow Murderer,” momentarily thinks he’s off the hook in “Shadow of a Doubt.” Bounding up the stairs to get ready for dinner, he turns to see his niece framed in a doorway, still certain that he is a killer.
  41. A young pilot realizes that his naivete may have helped the enemy in “Bon Voyage.”
  42. Although imprisoned, a French Resistance leader struggles to secure escape for his friends in “Aventure Malgache.”
  43. Walter Slezak is hauled into the “Lifeboat,” only to mutter “danke schein,” revealing to his fellow passengers that he’s German.
  44. Slezak’s character, now revealed to be the captain of the U-boat that sunk his fellow survivor’s ship, exhibits what seems to be super-human stamina, rowing his fellow survivors toward a German ship.
  45. As Gregory Peck kisses Ingrid Bergman for the first time in “Spellbound,” a series of doors open, symbolizing Bergman’s icy doctor’s sexual awakening.
  46. Gregory Peck breaks through to the traumatic childhood memory of accidentally killing his brother in a shocking, silent moment of “Spellbound.”
  47. Hitchcock outfoxes the censors by having Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant kiss briefly and repeatedly in “Notorious.”
  48. “Oh Dev, they’re poisoning me.” Devlin finds Alicia half-dead at the hands of her own husband in “Notorious.”
  49. Devlin leaves Alicia’s husband to his ruthless comrades at the end of “Notorious.
  50. Mrs. Paradine tells her lawyer, Gregory Peck, that she despises him even though he’s won her freedom in “The Paradine Case.”

Adam Philips Live on Stage at “The 39 Steps”

11 06 2010

This past Monday, June 7, I was the guest host for a talkback session following that evening’s performance of “The 39 Steps” at the New World Stages in New York – that’s right, it was me, live on stage in an Off-Broadway theater, talking about Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps” on stage, film and in book versions, and then chatting with the fantastic four actors who bring the show to life.

It was an amazing experience, and I was truly honored to be there. The show itself is terrific. It takes Hitchcock’s 1935 classic, grafts on the opening monologue from the book, and moves it along at a frenzied pace, making silly references to other Hitchcock movies along the way, including “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest” and “Strangers on a Train.” While the references are funny, they also point out that Hitchcock’s themes remained constant in so many of his pictures.

The cast was a lot of fun to talk to – they were candid, funny and charming, and it was a real pleasure sitting with them. As you listen to the chat, you’ll notice that one actor, John Behlmann, is REALLY loud – this man knows how to project, and as Richard Hannay, he’s onstage for the entire show, so that is certainly de riguer.

Left to right: Kate MacCluggage, Jamie Jackson, Cameron Folmar, John Behlmann and Adam Philips

So, here it is… you can download a mp3 or a zip file from the box on the right and put it on itunes and your ipod. You can also click on the box to play and skip the download. The sound quality is pretty good, although the audience is a little hard to hear. And if I sound a little flustered at the start, it’s because the stage manager’s introduction of me said a lot of what I was going to start with. Oh well!

Oh, and thanks to my daughter, Lucy, for taking pictures, and to my friend Paul Byrne for loaning me a really amazing recorder!

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.

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.

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