Reviewed by
Chris Galloway

Title: The 39 Steps: Criterion Collection (1935)
Studio Line: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision - Handcuffed to the girl who double-crossed him.

The best known of Hitchcock's British films, this civilized thriller follows the escapades of Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), who stumbles into a conspiracy that involves him in a hectic chase across the Scottish moors – a chase in which he is both the pursuer and the pursued. This classic Hitchcock "wrong man" thriller includes a stop in John Laurie’s crofter’s cottage, a political meeting where Hannay improvises a speech without knowing who or what he’s supporting, and a period where he’s handcuffed to the resentful heroine (Madeleine Carroll). Adapted from John Buchan’s novel, The 39 Steps encapsulates themes that anticipate Hitchcock’s biggest American thrillers (especially North By Northwest), and is a standout among his early works.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie.
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 12 chapters; rated NR; 86 min.; $39.95; street date 11/2/99.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane; The Complete 1937 Broadcast of the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation performed by Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino; "The Art of Film: Vintage Hitchcock," the complete Janus Films documentary detailing the director's British works; Excerpts from the original 1935 press book.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/C/B+

The 39 Steps is considered by many to be Alfred Hitchcock's best but I cannot completely agree. Its plotline would basically be redone in the highly energetic North by Northwest, which I enjoy more than The 39 Steps. I guess that is unfair because NBN had a much higher budget and almost 25 years later, but overall, the film at over 2 hours was more fast paced than this one, clocking in at only 86 minutes.

I'm not saying this is a bad film, no, far from it. It's still a well executed thriller with a couple good twists that I do enjoy, but suffers from some of the little nuisances that I find plague most of Hitchcock's British films.

Canadian Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is visiting England for a short while. He goes to a local theater to watch in on a variety show and catches Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) who everyday for all his life takes into memory 50 new things. Everyone in the audience is having a ball asking him questions when shots ring out. People quickly vacate and Hannay comes across a young woman who insists on going to his place. She explains to him she is a spy and that she fired those shots because someone was trying to kill her. During the night, though someone succeeds and Hannay finds himself wanted for murder. Fleeing the police, he investigates into some of the things the spy had told him, in hopes of clearing his name and ends up getting involved in international espionage.

The plots and a couple of twists are pretty good, though now more predictable than ever. Although I will freely admit to those fans of this movie I could not guess where those documents were hidden, and I must say that was pretty clever. Hitchcock could always show us the answers but never really give it away. My main problem is I found the movie a little slow and stretched out a little more than it should. There are a couple thrills along the way. When hiking over the Scottish moors he comes across a house, being taken inside. We then have to worry whether the wife, recognizing him, will turn him in. The movie slows down to a crawl I found when Hannay is handcuffed to Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). I didn't see much chemistry between them, but I guess at that time any guy and girl together was considered a sort of chemistry. There are some humouress scenes involving them, like the insistence of Hannay to "cop-a-feel" while they're handcuffed together and she has to remove her stockings.

Sometimes I found the movie to become sort of cheesy. While the end offers a good surprise, I still found the way it was handled and executed came off as cheesy. Plus I didn't really feel it had ended, leaving some questions. Maybe that was the point, but it just felt incomplete. I would have liked to know at least what happened to the movies villain.

While the movie is still good, those are the flaws I found with it. I think its good, but I can't consider it Hitchcock's best. Plus, I'm not 100% sure what the 39 Steps are. I have an idea but their full purpose is still unbeknownst to me. Of course, maybe that was purposely done as well.

The DVD:

Criterion's DVD is a fairly good one, managing not to rehash their laserdisc. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, dual layered disc. The film is from 1935 so the movie is not going to look like A Bug's Life obviously. But the picture is a little disappointing. I may be a little more harsh on it than it deserves, but I had just watched Grand Illusion again before looking at this one, and the two do fall in about the same time frame. And Grand Illusion looked great.

Blacks and whites are acceptable, although some darker scenes are a little too dark and hard to make out. Specs of dirt are minimal I noticed, but the print suffers from just a little bit of grain on the most part. Sharpness isn't a strong feature either. The picture is pretty soft all throughout I found, only occasionally becoming fairly sharp. Lines seem to go through the picture occasionally as well. I noticed in one scene, where Hannay is addressing a crowd, his suit gives off a moiré effect. That was the only time I noticed the problem. This is definitely the best I have seen the movie but I felt it was still open to improvements.

Its mono track is nothing special, either. Background noise is minimal and the dialogue is very intelligible, but it has nothing really going for it. Music is generally flat, as is a train whistle and a couple gunshots. The last half hour of the film, though, there is a little bit of a kick given and the score comes off harsh, as do sound effects. The scene where Hannay is marching with a parade, eluding the police, the music is actually quite annoying, like nails down a chalkboard. That's the worst it gets. If they had found a balance between the first hour and the last 30 minutes, a better track would be present.

Its supplemental materials are pretty cool, though. There aren't as many here as some other Criterion discs but I'm impressed at what they have for an old film. This isn't including the commentary, though. Oh, wait "Audio Essay". Well I hadn't listened to it until I decided to review the disc and I will say it's not that bad. But it suffers from a lot of the same problems that other essays do. Like the insistence of the narrator, in this case, Marian Keene, of pointing out the obvious and telling us what scenes should mean to us. Like at the beginning where Hannay is leading the woman spy up to his room, Marian tells us what we should be thinking: "Will they fall in love, will they make love?" Well, I wasn't thinking that. Of course I guess it's unfair considering I had a pretty good idea she was going to buy the big one by the time the scene was over.

It makes up for this in a couple other areas. Like the radio adaptation of the film by the "Lux Radio Theater", which they also did with The Third Man. Unlike The Third Man, though, the full version is here, and its also divided into chapters. Not only is the full version here but we also get the commercials. Like one for Lux Flakes, the perfect soap for washing your silk stockings, because real soap will ruin them. Hey, those ads work! They also protect your hands and make them smoother while washing dishes! One thing that disappointed me was the graphic on screen. The Third Man had the cute idea of placing an image of a radio on-screen. Here it's just a background consisting of a couple microphones. It changes colour occasionally and images of the performers are displayed once in a while. Plus it informs us as to when we are in a commercial break or the intermission, where apparently a real ex-spy comes out to speak to the audience. He sounds a little stiff and nervous, but he is still fairly entertaining to listen to. Nothing is really offered from it and was probably there just to get listeners. The whole thing is here, including the overlong intro and conclusion, which announces there next show will feature Walt Disney. Damn, I would have actually liked to hear that, too. It's 13 chapters and falls 14 seconds under the 1-hour point. There are a couple notes that go along with this section as well.

There is a short documentary from a show called "The Art of Film". This episode covers Hitchcock's British days and gives a fair amount of info, but not as much as I would have liked. It mainly survives on showing long clips from his movies and ruining them for anybody who hasn't seen those movies yet. So I suggest watching this bit after viewing the movie, if it was your first time.

Another cool feature is the original Press Book. The book is displayed on the screen and you can flip to any page of the book using the index or arrows. It doesn't just stop there, though. Certain sections of the book can be selected with your remote and you can zoom in on the pictures displayed or get a text screen displaying the articles. This kept me busy for a bit and was very intriguing. I also found it interesting that the advertising department was trying to sell it as a romance film, even though that subplot only takes up 20 minutes if that. Production design drawings are also available. There are only 15 of them but their inclusion is very thoughtful. I thought stuff like this for a film this old would be harder to come by. A nice little treat.

And that covers it. No, not a lot but its great stuff, except for the questionable commentary. The movie is good but not as great as I had been hoping. It's entertaining enough to recommend a viewing of, though. The DVD is pretty good, showing Criterion is getting a better grasp of what DVD allows (I'm mostly thinking of the Press Book section there), but the image and sound track are not as good as they could be. Still, this is a good disc for fans of the film and I highly recommend it.

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