Richard Hannay is a remarkably adaptable fellow. After enjoying a night at the music hall, he thinks he has received an unexpected bonus when an exotic young beauty asks to go back to his London flat. When they get there, she informs him that she’s not in the line of business he suspects, but rather she is an international spy (though she prefers the term “agent”). No worries, thinks Mr. Hannay, who listens quite non-judgmentally to Annabella’s story about a rival spy (agent) who is missing part of his pinky, though perhaps Hannay is still coming to terms with the knowledge that he’s not going to be getting any tonight. And what about the two dangerous-looking men lurking outside waiting to capture her? These things happen.
Hannay is a bit more perturbed when he is woken up in the middle as Annabella barges into his bedroom clutching a map of Scotland in her hand and a knife in her back, but he’s not one to linger over such matters. He promptly marches down to the lobby, borrows an outfit from the milkman, and hops on a train to Scotland. On the train he quite adroitly evades the police (who think he is murderer which is, admittedly, a bit of a nuisance) then suddenly finds himself crossing the moors. Eventually he reconnects with Pamela, a woman he liplocked on the train, masquerades as a local politician, gets saved by a flock of sheep in the fog, and zips back to the London Palladium for the final scene. If only he had known the denouement was going to occur down the street from his flat, he could have been spared an awful lot of bother, but these things happen.
It never occurs to Hannay to ask whether any of these surprising events actually make a lick of sense, and it doesn’t occur to the audience either. Did the bad guys break into Hannay’s apartment to jab a knife into Annabella’s back, then return outside to wait politely for him to leave in the morning? Doesn’t matter. Such was the genius of Alfred Hitchcock who was never one to be concerned about plausibility. He believedthat as long as he kept the story moving, and kept the audience engaged with the characters, nobody would stop to wonder how the heck we just got from that last scene to this new one. And an imaginative fellow like Alfred Hitchcock can work wonders when he doesn’t have to waste time on tedious logistics.
Hannay is played by Robert Donat who helped establish the “wrong man” template that Hitchcock would return to time and again. Several of his films have been labeled remakes of “The 39 Steps” (1935), but it’s probably more accurate to say that movies such as “Saboteur” (1942) and “North by Northwest” (1959) are nifty variations on a formula that might not have been created by Hitchcock, but which was certainly perfected by him. A man stumbles into something much bigger than him, gets enveloped by said big thing, and against all odds wriggles his way back out of the bloody mess. The “something” was Hitchcock’s famous MacGuffin, something whose specifics were irrelevant so long as it was simply something. In this case the something is a British military secret that’s about to be smuggled out of the country, but never mind that.
Back to Donat. He was a marvelous actor who embodied the sophistication of the British gentleman without the haughtiness of the British upper class. The suave everyman appealed to audiences on both sides of the pond, and was the perfect choice for this potboiler adapted from a “shocker” novel by Hitchcock favorite John Buchan. Hannay is resourceful but never a superhero whose triumph against any obstacle is a mortal lock (he even gets shot square in the hymn book after making a very bad guess), and he is both frightened and occasionally amused by his curiouser and curiouser situation. Donat plays particularly well against Madeleine Carroll who, as Pamela, gets roped into the situation along with him. In one of the funniest scenes, Hanay gives up trying to convince Pamela that he’s innocent, and instead confesses his childhood of depravity, inventing a story no less plausible than the one that’s been forced upon him.
The film has several marvelous set-pieces which show that Hitchcock was already a fully formed auteur even at this early stage of his career, including the harrowing, claustrophobic police chase on the train and the brilliant climactic sequence where it seems about a dozen smaller stories are unfolding all at once. For my money, “The 39 Steps” is the best of his British films, and it is at its most breathtaking when both Hitchcock and his characters fully embrace the surreality of the story (and of the studio recreations of a shortcut, supernatural Scotland) to its fullest, just living in the goofiness of the moment and strutting their stuff. The story has been adapted on film several times, and though I haven’t seen any of the others, I can’t imagine anyone even approaching this version.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I don’t have the Criterion SD from 1999 as a point of comparison, but I’m sure that this 1080p transfer represents a meaningful upgrade. The strongest aspect of the transfer is the rich, thick grain structure which becomes even most noticeable when you freeze-frame the Blu-ray. Unfortunately it appears that the source print Criterion is in need of some restoration as the level of image detail is generally soft throughout. This is most evident in close-ups but also in background details which don’t exactly pop the way they do with Criterion’s upper echelon high-def transfers. There are some instances of scratches and visible debris but not in excess. Nonetheless, this is a fine rendition of a 77 year old movie and and I doubt anyone has seen it look better.
The LPCM 1.0 audio mix sounds a bit hollow and the dialogue is sometimes a little bit too quiet, requiring a volume boost. The music is a little tinny as well. Again, I suspect this is mostly attributable to the available source material. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
Criterion has imported several extras from its 1999 SD release and added some new features exclusively for the 2012 Blu-ray.
Held-over from the SD release:
A full-length audio commentary, recorded in 1999, by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane. I have not had the opportunity to listen to this yet.
The hour-long 1937 radio broadcast of “The 39 Steps” performed for the program “Lux Radio Theatre Presents,” starring Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino in the lead roles, and presented by Cecil B. DeMille. I’ve only listened to snippets of this, but it’s always fun to have these radio shows preserved in their entirety, including introductions and commercial breaks. I doubt it will make anyone forget about the Hitchcock film version, but it’s a nifty supplement.
A still gallery of original production designs.
New for the BD release:
“Hitchcock: The Early Years” is a 2000 documentary by Carlton International Media (24 min.) which cover Hitchcock’s pre-war British films. Tackling such a broad subject in such a short time frame requires superficial coverage, and this serves strictly as informational material for Hitchcock novices, but it’s quite useful on that front.
Of great interest to just about any viewer is some rough footage from an interview conducted for the British TV program “Cinema” in 1966. The BD info describes this as raw footage from a program that no longer survives in its entirety, but the 40 minute edited version we get is quite substantive. British TV producer and broadcaster Mike Scott interviews Hitchcock on a broad range of subjects, focusing in detail on his early days as a title designer and art director and then his breakthrough as a director, a career move he did not (supposedly) envision until it actually happened. This is one of the more interesting Hitchcock interviews I’ve seen, and I think it actually benefits from being in a “raw” state.
“The Borders of the Possible” (24 min.) is a new visual essay by film historian Leonard Leff, and consists of Leff’s audio commentary over stills/clips from the film. Though a visual essay, this feature is pretty heavy on narrative and character analysis and skimpy on discussion of the mise-en-scene, but it’s still interesting material and well worth your time.
We also get 22 minutes of audio recording from possibly the most famous film interview of all-time, the 1962 marathon meeting-of-the-minds by Francois Truffaut and Hitchcock, with translation by Helen G. Scott. Many film buffs are probably familiar with this material in some form, but it’s still nice to have the audio available on a disc like this.
The SD had a a feature called “The Art of Film: Vintage Hitchcock” which is not included on this BD. The excerpts from the “original 1935 press book” have also not been carried over from SD to BD.
The surprisingly slim 16-page insert booklet includes an essay by writer and filmmaker David Cairns.
The Blu-ray release of one of the earlier Criterion titles (Spine Number 56) is not as pristine as we might hope for, but the high-def transfers is still a strong one. The Blu-ray is loaded with smaller extras, the best being the 40 minute “Cinema” interview. If there’s anything to complain about, it’s the loss of a couple of features from the SD (listed above), but Criterion’s 1080p treatment of one of Hitchcock’s best early films is still strongly recommended.