The 39 Steps appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this Blu-Ray Disc. Though the movie showed its age, it usually looked relatively good.
After a rough start, that is. The opening scenes with “Mr. Memory” tended to look awfully soft, and intermittent ill-defined shots continued to pop up through the movie. However, delineation improved quite a bit after that first sequence; while I’d be hard-pressed to identify razor-sharp elements, the majority of the film delivered reasonable accuracy.
No issues with jagged edges or shimmering marred the presentation, and I noticed no edge haloes. Print flaws remained surprisingly minor given the flick’s age. I witnessed occasional specks, small hairs and nicks, but those weren’t a substantial issue. The image looked much cleaner than anticipated.
Contrast usually looked solid, though some exceptions occurred. I thought a few shots came across as too bright, but most of them showed adequate to good definition. Blacks were dark and firm, while shadows seemed generally positive. A couple of low-light shots were a tad dense, but those were exceptions. Overall, this was a more than satisfactory presentation.
Similar thoughts greeted the perfectly adequate monaural soundtrack of The 39 Steps. Like most films of the era, speech sounded somewhat tinny and brittle, but the lines always remained intelligible, and they lacked notable edginess. Effects were also thin and without much range, but they seemed fairly concise and didn’t suffer from significant distortion.
In terms of music, the score tended to be bit shrill but acceptable. As for source noise, the track sounded a bit hissy on occasion but didn’t suffer from any pops, clicks or other distractions. The audio seemed more than acceptable for its age.
Expect a nice set of supplements here. We open with an audio commentary from Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane. She offers a running, screen-specific look at the movie’s themes and cinematic techniques as well as how it connects to other Hitchcock films.
When I hear commentaries from film historians, I prefer a mix of facts and opinion; I think the best tracks give us filmmaking nuts and bolts along with some introspection. Keane almost exclusively deals with interpretation of 39 Steps, so don’t expect to learn much about the participants; she throws in some token notes about Hitchcock and that’s it.
Keane does deliver occasional insights about 39 Steps, but much of the time, her commentary feels more like narration. At times, I wondered if I’d stumbled upon one of those “Audio Descriptive Service” tracks instead of a proper commentary. While we find a smattering of informative observations, the commentary lacks enough meat to make it a consistently good piece.
A few programs follow. We see a British documentary called Hitchcock: The Early Years, a 24-minute, seven-second take on the director’s formative time. We hear from author/crime historian John Kennedy Melling, English Hitchcock author Charles Barr, Lady Vanishes second AD Roy Ward Baker, The Man Who Knew Too Much film editor Hugh Stewart, and Sabotage and Young and Innocent 3rd AD Teddy Joseph. “Early Years” examines Hitchcock’s career through 1941’s Jamaica Inn. Though I wouldn’t call this the most in-depth program I could imagine, it nonetheless an enjoyable overview of the director’s first couple of decades as a movie-maker.
For a vintage 1966 TV interview, we shift to Cinema: Alfred Hitchcock. This lasts 40 minutes, 14 seconds and includes the director’s thoughts about how he got into films, his shift from art direction to director, thoughts about some specific flicks from 1927’s The Lodger through 1966’s Torn Curtain and general insights into movie-making.
I could listen to Hitchcock discuss his craft all day – and all night, too. He offers remarkable insight here and shows why he’s arguably the greatest film director of all-time – he knows pretty much everything there is to know about his craft. This is the Blu-ray’s best extra.
The Borders of the Possible brings us a 23-minute, 59-second “visual essay”. Accompanied by commentary from film historian Leonard Leff, we learn about John Buchan’s novel, its adaptation to the screen, specifics about 39 Steps and other aspects of Hitchcock’s work. We find a good take on the subject matter here.
Stills show up in a Production Designs Gallery. We find 26 frames that show sketches as well as the actual sets. This becomes a nice little collection.
An audio-only Hitchcock-Truffaut interview gives us a 22-minute, 16-second chat between the two cinematic legends. They cover a mix of topics related to 39 Steps. The need for constant English-French/French-English translation slows it down a bit, but it’s still an informative, engaging piece.
From December 13, 1937, we get Lux Radio Theater Presents The 39 Steps. This broadcast features Robert Montgomery in the Robert Donat role and uses Ida Lupino for the Madeleine Carroll part. The show runs 59 minutes, 22 seconds as it delivers a truncated take on the film’s story. I always enjoy these old radio adaptations, so this one’s another fun addition.
As usual, Criterion includes a Booklet. In this 20-page piece, we find an essay from filmmaker/writer David Cairns as well as some photos and credits. While not as substantial as some of Criterion’s booklets, it provides good info.
The 39 Steps offers a very good early film from Alfred Hitchcock. While the film doesn't live up to the great productions he'd release in later years, it does seem entertaining and thrilling nonetheless. The Blu-ray offers generally positive – for their age – picture and audio as well as a nice collection of supplements; the commentary disappoints, but a long, fascinating interview with the director compensates. I like the film and feel pleased with Criterion’s presentation of it.