I ran Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) for my co-critic Justin Souther last week—and to refresh my memory of it (well, it’s a good excuse)—and discovered that I loved it just as much today as I did when I first encountered it (in a much less lovely print than the current one) on PBS’ Film Odyssey back in 1971. Yes, this first of Hitchcock’s wrongly-accused-man-on-the-run thrillers is a little on the quaint side. It requires the acceptance of at least one highly questionable plot device (why don’t these ruthless spies just kill our hero when they murder the woman in his flat and be done with it?), but it’s a brilliant piece of pure—and purely enjoyable—filmmaking.
It’s a star vehicle in the best sense of the term, since it completely showcases two wildly attractive players—Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll—but does so in a way that gives them a full-acting workout and rewards them with delightfully witty banter in the bargain. It’s also a star vehicle for the filmmaker, designed by Hitchcock to show his complete mastery of the medium of film. I very much doubt there’s a wasted shot or a lackluster composition in the entire film. Done in a comedic tone around a series of amusing and thrilling set pieces (the one where Donat is mistaken for a public speaker and forced to address a crowd was reworked for Bob Hope in 1942 in My Favorite Blonde, which also starred Madeleine Carroll), The 39 Steps is intelligent entertainment at its finest. And it’s completely satisfying in terms of a structure that so deftly ties beginning and ending together that it continues to seem remarkable. An absolute must-see for anyone interested in the art and history of film.