3/23/11

GUEST POST- Hitch on the Hump: The Mike's 39 Steps Program

Hello folks and welcome back to another edition of Hitch on the Hump. Once more we have a guest in the house, and it's none other than the masked maniac The Mike of From Midnight, With Love. If you aren't reading From Midnight, then you're missing out on one of best Horror, Cult, and Genre blogs out there. From The Midnight Movie of the Week to his Midnight Top 5's and movie reviews, I always have to take some time out to see what The Mike has got going. This week The Mike is up to some mighty fine Guest Posting here as he takes a look at one of my favorite Hitchcock films, The 39 Steps.

"Ever heard of a thing called persecution mania?”

That's a question the lead character poses to a woman who insists she's being followed during the early scenes of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 thriller The 39 Steps. It's also a question that could be asked of countless characters who would appear in later Hitchcock films – a list that includes characters played by everyone from Jimmy Stewart to Cary Grant to Janet Leigh. It's no secret that a number of Hitchcock's films deal with false accusations and characters who are forced to fight to earn physical and mental safety, but the The 39 Steps lives on in my mind as the first great example of what we would see from the Master of Suspense throughout his long career.

The best definition of persecution mania I can find warns of the condition being “an acute irrational fear that other people are plotting one's downfall and that they are responsible for one's failures.” Of course, the rub of The 39 Steps – like plenty of Hitchcock's other works – is that the viewer knows that the fears presented by the doomed Miss Annabelle Smith (which are then transferred to Robert Donat's Richard Hannay) are not irrational. Though the audience and the lead character (and eventually his female companion) know there are real dangers approaching Hannay, the thrills come from watching him struggle to find his way out of the mess he's fallen into.

The 39 Steps lets us in on Hannay's journey to escape persecution; sending the viewer on a journey across the Scottish countryside and throughout London, often reminding us that no place is truly safe for Hannay. There are gunshots and executions in public places, there are men knocking down the doors of potential safehouses (or safe train compartments), and there's even a knife in someone's back in his own London flat. This consistent presence of potential harm was most famously recycled in North by Northwest, which seems to borrow a few direct shots and plot points from The 39 Steps, but also permeates other Hitchcock thrillers that would follow. Examples of his globe-trotting quests for truth range from Saboteur to the The Man Who Knew Too Much and more, and The 39 Steps can kind of be looked at as a template for future successes in the director's career.

The 39 Steps that are referenced in the title are also notable in the annals of Hitch, because they still stand as one of the director's biggest and best “macguffins.” The term would be trademarked by the director later in his career, but the 39 Steps are the personification of the unknown entity that drives the action of the film which Hitchcock often relied on. You can almost see the director smirking from behind the camera as he teases the audience with mentions of the 39 Steps throughout the film, and even as the film is wrapping up he refuses to give us all the details regarding the titular mystery.

Rest assured, The 39 Steps isn't just a stripped down version of Hitch's later hits (though, at 86 minutes, it is certainly one of his tightest films). There's a lot of comedy in the interactions between characters, and most of it starts with Donat's performance as the accused/endangered lead, which falls somewhere between the suave mannerisms of Grant and the blunt approach of Stewart. There's a lot of fun to be had as he makes his case to women like the farm wife who assists him early in the film and Madeleine Carroll's Pamela, who he is manacled to in the film's final act. Donat's Hannay isn't above calling Pamela a “button headed idiot” when necessary, and he's different from many leading men in his continued willingness to fight for his survival. Some of the dark humor we've come to expect from Hitchcock is shown off when he tells Pamela of his fictional and diabolical uncle, though the character's most humorous moment comes when he finds himself addressing a political assembly due to a case of mistaken identity. The character stands out due to his ability to think on the fly and improvise, which didn't seem to be the case with some of Hitchcock's later heroes.

Though I doubt the film struggled to get past the UK's Board of Censors, The 39 Steps also hints at how progressive Hitchcock's films would be. Violence against women occurs on at least two occasions (although it is off screen), and Hannay is borderline abusive to Pamela at moments when he needs her to follow his lead to survive. A bit of fumbling with the female lead's skirt and stockings is a far cry from the near nudity of Psycho's shower scene or topless strangling of Frenzy, but by 1935 standards it is a bit risqué. There's even a bit in which the vision of a floating head reminds Hannay of his plight, which reminds slightly of the dream sequences in Vertigo.

The 39 Steps does live on firstly as a buffet of plot devices for later films – the man on the run, the woman who is fatefully involved, the dangerous twists while dealing with espionage – and it's intriguing to look at the film to see where some of Hitchcock's trademarks were born. But it's also a film that offers a surprising bit of humor and drama, a fantastic lead performance, and plenty of the suggestive and thought-provoking moments I expect from Sir Alfred Hitchcock. The resulting final product is a film that's well ahead of its time; one that holds a special place in this Hitchcock fan's heart.


Thanks so much Mike. That was great. Please go check out The Mike over at From Midnight With Love, and join me back here next week for more Hitch on the Hump goodness.

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