I just watched Hitchcock’s 39 Steps for the first time — or I thought it was for the first time. I actually vaguely remembered some scenes, though, so I must have seen it before.
Anyway, it’s clear why I forgot it. It’s forgettable. Halfway through it I was like, jeez, this must be one of Hitchcock’s clunkers, right? The plot might be better described as a plot hole — from the early murder of Annabelle Smith (who stabbed her? how’d they get in the apartment? why didn’t they stab that idiot Hanney as long as they were there?) to the moronic denoument (Mr. Memory starts blithely spouting spy secrets just because someone asks him about them — that’s convenient) the narrative lurches from one nonsensical improbability to another. It’s like it was written by monkeys with their frontal lobes removed.
So, okay, stupid plot — hardly the worst sin in the world. Maybe the characters are engaging? But no. The aforementioned Richard Hanney (Robert Donet) has some charisma I guess, and a fair bit of comic timing, but the role is almost clinically bland. Look suave, look nervous, look suave again — why is this supposed to be especially appealing? You learn practically nothing about him except that he’s from Canada and…no, that’s all you learn about him. And that he has a mustache, I guess. And the ladies like him. Who the fuck cares? My hopes were raised when the bad guy shot him halfway through the film — thank god, maybe we’re rid of him. But, alas, it’s not that Hitchcock film. He and his mustache are up and about again in record time and its back to looking suave and then nervous and then suave.
That bad guy incidentally is one of the least interesting criminal masterminds to appear on film, unless you’re excited by porn shots of missing little fingers. Bad-guys; they’re deformed. Because they are bad.
Again, I don’t blame the actor; not his fault that all the script asks him to do is flex his finger. Ditto for the female lead, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). When she gets a chance she’s okay. There’s some fun screwball comedy banter when she and Hanney are handcuffed together. They hate each other but they’re chained at the wrist — get it? It’s a big fat cliche at this point of course, but presumably it was less so then, and the stars pull it off with panache. The scene where Pamela’s taking off her wet stockings and Hanney’s manacled hand flops up and down beside her leg in polite disinterest is especially nice. But against such witty fluff you have to balance the invidiously unimaginative portrait of the compulsively grasping Scotsman and his much younger and inevitably abused wife. I don’t know…maybe we’re supposed to be amused by the crappiness of the Scottish accents? Though of course it was the 30s, so Scotland hadn’t really been invented yet. Hitchcock — so forward looking!
I presume the camera work is what I’m really supposed to be looking at throughout. There’s nothing here that especially stirs my soul in that regard, but I’m willing to accept that it’s formally forward-looking and important. However, when Michael Wilmington in his Criterion Collection essay praises the film for its “seamless construction,” or the pedestrian ensemble as “truly excellent”…. or when Marian Keane declares that:
The director’s deepest subjects—theater and its relation to film, the abandonment of human beings in vacant and foreboding landscapes, the complex human quest for knowledge, and the nature of accidents—abound in The 39 Steps.
…I mean, they’re putting me on, right? This is a light, wooly-headed genre pic with nothing on its mind but broad laughs, attractive actors, and shocking plot twists manufactured the old-fashioned way — i.e., by utterly abandoning logic and consistency of any sort. It’s not about “the nature of accidents” — it’s just built around melodramatic coincidences! It’s not about “the complex human quest for knowledge” — it’s a dumb spy story about the complex human quest for chase scenes and last minute reveals.
I don’t need to hate it or anything. Like I said there are entertaining bits, and its pretensions are low. But that Andre Bazin thinks this is one of Hitchcock’s best films — what the hell? Michael Wilmington may be righter than he intends when he states that “More than anything else, the film keeps its preeminent place because this is the movie in which Hitchcock became ‘Hitchcock.'” This film has a historically important role in the career of a historically monumental director. Ergo, it must be a work of genius, even if, as a matter of fact, it’s a mediocre piece of genre fluff that in most circumstances would have been long forgotten.