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Sir Alfred Hitchcock and The 39 Steps

W. J. Rayment / -- Classics are classic for a reason. Hitchcock is often called the master of suspense. For a lifetime of achievement he was knighted in 1980. Unfortunately, he was unable to enjoy the title for very long; he died in the same year. Yet, he probably sits in heaven, enjoying the irony of the honor.

He directed many masterpieces of suspense genre. They are all a bit quirky, fun and most still hold up to modern critique. "The 39 Steps" is one of those films that are almost whimsical, and yet carry the heavy weight of murder, espionage and edge of your seat excitement.

Robert Donat stars with Madeleine Carroll. Donat is an everyman character: suave, thoughtful, lucky, generous, witty, quick-thinking, and a deft hand with the ladies (just as every man deep down believes himself to be). By a series of events he becomes enmeshed in a plot to steal secrets from the RAF and turn them over to some evil foreign regime. The movie was made in 1935 and the evil regime in question was left vague. Though a later film "The Lady Vanishes" makes its own evil foreign power a bit more clear and a bit more Nazi-like. Of course, this would be the case as the threat of the fascist powers was becoming all to clear by the time the "The Lady Vanishes" was made in 1938.

Even while Donat is pursued by the spies of the amorphous evil power, he is also wanted for murder. Early in the film a young counter-spy is killed in his apartment and discovered by the land-lady. There is a memorable scene, when the land-lady discovers the dead woman her scream cuts away to a train whistling as it goes into a tunnel and Donat is on the train headed for Scotland.

It would not do to give away the entire plot, suffice it to say that Donat and Carroll are thrust together. She thinks him a murderer and he finally and humorously plays along, first, because she does not believe him, and secondly, so she will not give him away. The chemistry between the two is dynamic. Scenes with them together are funny and at times almost slapstick. Watch as Donat and Carroll, while handcuffed together attempt to evade their pursuers and one goes under a hand rail while the other goes over.

If there is one drawback to the film for American audiences it is that the dialogue, though witty and funny, must be gone over twice in order to catch all the nuances. In other words, this is one of those films that bears watching more than once. Indeed, it is a must see for any Hitchcock fan, a good study for any student of film and most of all a fun ride for the suspense thriller buff who likes a bit of comedy mixed in with his (or her) bitten fingernails.


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