Film Diary: The Thirty-Nine Steps (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)

Sunday, 5 October 2008

39-steps

Long before there was James Bond, in an age when the cinema was still a novelty and the enemy was Kaiser Bill, there was Richard Hannay, suave hero of John Buchan’s riproaring yarns. Buchan may or may not have realised that his brand of muscular adventure was perfect fodder for the film industry but she sure scored a bullseye. All that was needed to make it memorable was the budding talent of Alfred Hitchcock. Now why would somebody want to make a film with slippery Germans in 1935 of all years? Just as the year before Robert Graves had written a Roman epic also full of slippery Germans? Was something going on that not everybody was seeing properly? It’s even updated to the 1930s.

So, a mysterious and very frightened woman takes refuge in Hannay’s flat. Before the sun rises she’s dead with Hannay’s breadknife in her back, and there the fun begins. There are spies and there are establishment figures of decidedly fuzzy loyalty. There’s a dramatic escape by train including an episode in a compartment with an unknown woman, and there’s a dramatic confrontation in a wild and lonely place. A quarter of a century on, Hitchcock will do much the same thing again, in colour and with the inimitable Cary Grant in the lead, as North by North West. It will be a great film but it won’t be half as charming as this one.

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