Wednesday, December 31, 2008
The 39 Steps
The 39 Steps is a fascinating early film from Alfred Hitchcock, made five years before he left Britain to begin making films in America. It's a loose, free-spirited thriller, ragged around the edges, sloppily plotted, and often unevenly paced, but the director turns it into a near-masterpiece almost in spite of itself. Its subject is pure Hitchcock, an early stab at the kind of "wrong man" thrillers that would soon become his most characteristic works. Ordinary businessman Richard Hannay (a suavely charming Robert Donat) stumbles into an international espionage plot when he brings home a mysterious foreign woman (Lucie Mannheim) after a vaudeville-style show. She's wearing a black lace veil and speaks with a sinister accent, so of course she turns out to be a mercenary spy, working for the British government to prevent some military secrets from leaving the country in the hands of an enemy spy (Godfrey Tearle). The only thing she manages to tell Hannay before she's abruptly murdered in the middle of the night is that the spy ring's leader is missing the tip of his pinky finger, and that she had planned to meet a man in a certain town in Scotland next. Hannay, quite naturally suspected of his guest's murder, flees towards Scotland with both the police and the spies on his tail.
This is essentially the blueprint for the typical Hitchcock plot, with details, incidents, and set pieces that would form the foundation for many of his later films: the man on the run for his life, the girl he meets who suspects him at first but comes to believe in him, the passionate kiss to throw pursuers off the trail, the showdown in a public place. The film begins and ends with scenes at vaudeville performances, where Hitch takes advantage of the crowds to enhance the suspense and mystery, particularly during the opening sequence where a gun fired from an anonymous figure in the crowd triggers a riot as everyone flees the building. There's a lot at stake here, and Hitch treats the dramatic moments and suspense showcases with suitable seriousness, but in many other ways he maintains a light touch. The plotting is often haphazard, as is the geography, and Hannay's journeys from one place to another are elided with simple and sometimes jarring cuts. His truncated stay in a country farmhouse is enhanced by the way that Hitchcock creates some makeshift drama surrounding the suspicious, curmudgeonly old farmer and his much younger, obviously dissatisfied bride. It's Hitchcock's eye for detail — his willingness to slow the pulse of the plot down long enough to linger on little bits of business like this — that enriches his storytelling. He seems to recognize that his plot, however exciting and suspenseful the situation might be, is rather basic; the appeal of the film lies not in the story but how it's told.
To that end, the film is often also funny, mingling generous doses of humor with the suspense. This is especially true once Hannay gets entangled with Pamela (Madeleine Carroll, who has the wry smile and wide eyes of a great screwball heroine), the girl who he first meets when he comes up with the ingenious idea to kiss her on the train, in the hopes that the police will overlook him. Pamela seemingly hasn't seen enough spy thrillers, because she defies genre expectations by not believing this stranger's overblown spy story and immediately giving him up to the cops instead. When he runs into her again later, Hannay is forced to deliver a stirring political speech after ducking into a random building during a chase; the people inside mistake him for a politician they'd been waiting for. Of course, Pamela herself soon arrives with the real politician in tow, and in the confusion that results, the duo winds up handcuffed together, pursued by a pair of spies posing as police. The whole thing is disarmingly preposterous, especially when they check into a motel together, posing as eloping newlyweds so in love that they can't stop holding hands. There's a fantastic scene where Hitchcock, already a dirty old man before his time, gets some chaste sexual humor out of Pamela taking off her stockings while handcuffed to Hannay; he keeps the camera at knee level, following the arc of her hands as she strips off the leggings, dragging Hannay's hand along her leg in the process.
The film's tonal shifts from spy thriller to low-key comedy are handled with characteristic smoothness by Hitchcock, always a consummate pro at juggling diverse moods and styles. He keeps everything crisp and breezy enough that one hardly notices just how slight and silly the whole affair is, right down to the question of the murdered woman that started it all: the film never answers who killed her anyway, or why whoever did it didn't just kill Hannay, who was sleeping in the next room, at the same time. One might as well ask about Hannay's miraculous escape after being shot at close range, an event so improbable that Hitchcock can hardly even bring himself to show it: he simply cuts from the seeming murder to a scene of Hannay explaining why he wasn't killed. It hardly matters. Indeed, the flippant way that Hitch shrugs off nonsense like this only makes the film more enjoyable. All of Hitchcock's films have ultimately inconsequential MacGuffins that drive the plot and necessitate the suspense sequences, and in this case the ostensible MacGuffin is the government secret being smuggled out of the country. But really the whole plot itself is one big MacGuffin, a highly artificial way of throwing an ordinary guy into a dangerous situation and setting him loose. Hitchcock is having fun with this, not worrying about tight plotting or plausibility. He's more interested in the action set pieces or the easygoing humor of his reluctantly united couple — or for that matter the technical jolt he gets out of blending a woman's scream into the shriek of a train whistle. It's a fun, lively thriller, an early indication of the great director's genius at work.