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February 11, 2007
The so called 'long tail' which has recently been discussed has of course been around for quite some time in one form or another and Carlton brand has always manged to maintain a good level of stock-market value through its large back catalogue of films. Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 version of the John Buchan spy thriller The 39 Steps is part of its 'long tail'. Having picked it up in the HMV sale recently for £3-00 a couple of weeks ago instead of the 'Normally' £15-99 I got around to watching it last night as there was certainly no opposition from the TV Channels on a Saturday evening. It was exactly one of those films which have been overpriced for a long time. Now DVDs have been around a long time finally Hitchock films are beginning to be sold at something like a fair price for a film which was clearly of its time, being of historical interest but clearly a minor one in Hitchcock's oeuvre.
Plot Spoiler Warning
The commentary below will reveal the outcomes of the plot and readers are advised to view the film prior to reading on if this is important to them.
One must never expect anything like the book in an adaptation and this version of The 39 Steps was no exception. I confess as a teenager I enjoyed the books of John Buchan, Huntingtower, Greenmantle and of course The 39 Steps being obvious examples. This version of The 39 Steps is removed in time from the original book which was set during the lead up to the First World War. The key secret around which the plot is based was very different as well and the settings and denoument were entirely different. The sentiment of the original book was strongly adhered to. It is a tale of bumbling amateurs saving a core British secret because the authorities are too complacent, with Germany being the enemy in the background. In Hitchcock's version we never get to find out what relevance The 39 Steps have. The 'icy' blonde leading woman is never contextualised. The audience never know how she fits into the overall scheme of things. She was not only a stranger on a train -dare I say - but she is only ever contingent to the plot whilst in the book her recognition of Hannay's honesty, was a core element in getting the authorities alerted to the problem. She could only do this because of her class connections which are severed in this film. Hannay incidently was a South African mining engineer appearing in more than one of Buchan's books not a Canadian lieutenant as portrayed by Hitchcock.
The Context of the Film
What surprised me was how politically savvy this film was at the time. Released in 1936 (the Carlton date whilst the BFI site says 1935) and presumably being planned and shot possibly in the previous year this was primarily a thinly veiled attack on the rise of Nazi Germany and a clear warning to the state and the nation through popular cinema of the extreme danger which was growing. It is also worth remembering that in June 1935 the Anglo-German Naval Agreement had been signed which many considered was a sign of appeasement towards Hitler.
Hitchcock's early film career had started with Ufa the largest film company in the World outside the USA which was based in Weimar and then Nazi Germany. Many of Hitchock's former colleagues in the film industry had fled from Nazi Germany. A few had come to Britain by that time although many initially went to France and from there to the USA.
1936 saw the Berlin Olympics and the Nazis were for a time on their best behaviour when it came to the treatment of German Jews. Although quite a lot of anti-Jewish laws had already been instituted - to say 'passed' would give a notion that there was some sort of democratic choice- these were preludes of things to come and at that point it appeared as though these laws were there to encourage Jewish emmigration, which of course was going on.
That the film concentrates on an air ministry secret based upon information about engine design is especially interesting. Churchill had recently already argued vehemently that 'the bomber always gets through' and there was a growing recognition that air defences were crucial in any future war. It was in 1936 that the Air ministry first ordered the Spitfire aircraft that was to prove so successful in the defence of Britain only a few years later. The film's secret focuses upon the secrets of an engine and it can be no coincidence that the Spitfire was powered by wht became the famous Merlin engine. It was the forerunners of these two which had successfully won the Schneider prizes a few years earlier. It was an obvious reference to British supremacy in this area at a time when German rearmament had really begun to accelerate rapidly. We can see from these circumstances that it is legitimate to read the film as an early warning to beware of presumed future enemy.
It is perhaps no coincidence either that Ivor Montagu was the film's producer. Montagu worked on a number of Hitchcock thrillers of the 1930s as an associate producer with Gaumont under Michael Balcon having first worked on Hitchock's 1927 The Lodger in a post production capacity. As a strongly committed member of the communist party Montagu would have certainly seen this film as an opportunity to raise political concerns about Nazism through popular culture. Robert Donat's adress at a political meeting essentially reflected the position of the French Popular Front which was a call for unity in the face of growing European extreme right-wing movements. The address would also be likely to have had the British Union of Fascists who by 1934-1935 were becoming increasingly anti-Semitic.
The Film Itself
I felt the film itself was a little uneven. It opened well with an out of kilter shot of a box and then followed the feet of a man who turned out to be Hannay played by Robert Donat. A typical Hitchockian device of holding back information from the audience. At times the film managed to build the tension very effectively whilst at other times the tacit agreement to suspend disbelief by the audience was stretched to its maximum.
The BFI Screenonline article on the film notes that the Robert Donat character Richard Hannay was being played for laughs and looking like a forerunner of Hitchcock's use of Cary Grant. Certainly this film at itmes reminded me of watching a Fritz Lang film such as 'M' with hints of expressionism but at times it seemed very clear that North by Northwest was at its heart a cold war remake of The 39 Steps.
It was difficult to dispute the back of the DVD cover which noted the 'icy blond' Pamela played by Madelaine Carroll. Certainly the Hitchockian fantasy was there and the bedroom scene where Donat and Carroll were handcuffed together was being heavily milked for some some fairly puerile sexual innuendo which foregrounded issues of the construction of the male gaze.
Hitchcock was clearly having fun parodying the Calvinist Scottish tradition when Hannay was on the run in Scotland. As a Catholic he was making the most of the plot's opportunity as scenes which were reminiscent of Visconti's rather later Ossessione developed in the kitchen. The repressed desire of the Calvinist farmer's wife played by a young Peggy Ashcroft was palpable.
Parts of the film stretched the audiences forebearance at times. The cut to offices of the Aircraft Ministry's top people talking to the Pamela character who had not been socially contextualised was on the silly side for example.
Mark Duguid's Screenonline article notes that:
The 39 Steps was a huge success on its release, and crowned Hitchcock as the undisputed king of British cinema. Campbell Dixon in The Daily Telegraph thought it "immensely cinematic", while the British Film Institute's usually reserved Monthly Film Bulletin described it as "first class entertainment". Sydney W. Carroll in The Sunday Times pronounced the director "a genius".
It would be churlish to deny that there were lots of excellent elements to the film and the clever way Hitchcock turns the original into a comedy spy-thriller undoubtedly helped to ensure a good reception. It would be interesting to find out whether any commentators of the time noted the distinctly anti-fascist flavour to the film. Balcon to his credit had certainly been concerned with the rise of Nazism and at a time when elements of the British establishment such as Lord Londonderry (see for example Ian Kershaw's book on Londonderry Making Friends With Hitler) were impressed with Hitler and wanted to make alliances this film has a clear contextual political edge.
Well worth seeing and historically important in Hitchcock's development as well as thinking about the context of the times, but don't be tempted to overpay for it.