Thursday, July 4, 2013

Hitchcock Week: The 39 Steps

Hitchcock Week is moving in stride and we will tackle another forgotten gem.  A story of espionage, murder, conspiracy and in general a thrilling concept to the likes we have not seen in cinema because the formula was lost.   Of course that could also just be my bitter theory regarding modern spy thrillers. So grab that bucket of popcorn with the real imitation buttery flavor, over ice your coke and avoid the row with the necking teenagers.   This is The 39 Steps.

Great Title Card, right?

There are 20 million spoilers in this island and I get to be chained to you.

At the London Music Hall Theatre, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat of Over Night, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Ghost Goes West, The Citadel, The Young Mr. Pitt, Vacation from Marriage and The Magic Box) witnesses a demonstration of the recall of stage act “Mr. Memory” (Wylie Watson of Leave It to Me, Radio Lover, Queer Cargo, Pack Up Your Troubles, Danny Boy The Saint Meets the Tiger and The Sundowners) a man with an Eidetic memory explaining something in detail when gunfire erupts from the crowd causing a mass panic in the building.  Hannay finds himself pressed against a frightened girl named Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim of Danton, Madame Wants No Children, The Bear, Yellow Canary, The Mistress, The Paris Express, Ich und Du and You Can No Longer Remain Silent) who talks him into taking her back to his apartment.  Fast mover is gal, eh?  

And now, a speech from the Minister of Silly Walks.

There the only revealing is that she is a spy being pursued by assassins and she has uncovered a plot to steal British Intelligence secrets, conducted by a man miss the top joint of one of his fingers.   She speaks of the “39 steps” but clearly she doesn’t go into giving the meaning behind it.  That evening Annabella bursts through Hannay’s bedroom with a knife in the back telling him to escape while he still can.  Clutched in her hand is a map of Scotland with a town circled.   Fleeing his apartment disguised as a milkman Hannay makes his way to the train yard for Scotland as a manhunt has been issued for him.   Can Hannay clear his name; circumvent this league of assassins and save the day?

I just have a quick couple of comments to be made about this film.  Filmed in glorious Black and White via 35 mm Spherical, Lime Grove Studios gets another visit for most of the interior shots but surprisingly enough several of the Scottish village shots were done in Edinburgh and Glen Coe but most of the exterior of the village itself was conducted at Welwyn Studios,Welwyn  Garden City, Hertfordshire, England.  This studio was known for some of the earliest works of both Boris Karloff and Bela Legosi.  This same studio shot Richard Attenborough’s tenth major motion picture Brighton Rock.

Ahh, the healing power of booze.

The film is compelling, clever, witty, dark and downright confusing.  Make no mistake folks, if you need to have a bathroom break hit pause.   To miss a scene means you are out of the loop of this impressive body of work.