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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 18.42%
Average: 2.63%
Pretty Bad: 2.63%
Total Crap: 2.63%

2 reviews, 26 user ratings

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39 Steps, The
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by Jay Seaver

"The '35 Masterpiece."
5 stars

"The 39 Steps" is by no means the first "falsely accused man on the run" thriller, but it is certainly a template for many that came afterwards - the fortuitously-timed parade in "The Fugitive", for instance, is lifted directly from this picture. It remains a delight, in large part because Alfred Hitchcock and company recognize and anticipate what would become drab or rote, evading cliché as their protagonists evade the law.

Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is nobody special, but when shots ring out at a music-hall show one night, he finds himself taking a most unusual girl home. Miss Smith (Lucie Mannheim) - though she readily admits to having many names - claims to be a freelance agent being pursued by a pair of killers. It proves true, and Hannay follows the clues she left to Scotland, with the police rapidly catching up and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), the girl he meets on the train, in no mood to help him.

At one point, the pair are famously manacled to one another, and while that sequence may be what the movie is most remembered for, it actually lasts only twenty minutes, with the filmmakers casting it aside once they feel they've done enough with it. Indeed, it's cast away almost carelessly, in perhaps the most obvious example of just how loose Hitchcock and screenwriters Charles Bennett and Ian Hay opt to play things. There's seldom a moment when the audience will that things couldn't happen that way, just that sometimes things seem a little more sloppy than playful.

Thankfully, that's not very often, and Hitch is feeling very playful here. The villains are often convivial sorts, with a frustrated Hannay sometimes the most overtly menacing - in fact, one of the things Hitchcock does extremely well is to briefly switch up the point of view to show how reasonable people might find Hannay threatening beyond what the circumstantial evidence says. There's quality physical comedy in Richard and Pamela stumbling about together as well as other genuinely funny passing gags (the hat in Hannay's photo is frankly hilarious); some of which release tension and some of which heighten it by highlighting the absurdity of the situation Richard finds himself in. Hitchcock and company occasionally seem to pre-spoof elements that would be done to death later.

Having Robert Donat on hand doesn't hurt. He gives something close to an ideal early-talkies performance, with a face that's expressive enough for silent comedy and a delivery that's clear enough for the stage without going too far in either direction. He has an easy charisma, engaging in witty repartee without sounding like he's telling jokes and easily gaining the audience's trust even though the filmmakers don't bother to establish Hannay's bona fides much at all. He's also got nice support; Madleine Carroll may not appear until nearly halfway through the picture, but she's a great foil for Donat, funny and strong-willed. Even the small roles are well-done, notably John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft as the couple who give Richard shelter one night.

They're one of my favorite parts of the movie, parts of little scenes that are much better than they might be (even if I do feel bad about laughing at the punchline of their last scene). It's one of the best of Hitchcock's career, let alone his British period.

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originally posted: 03/27/12 14:30:06
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User Comments

9/02/20 Suzanne Excellent and witty script; Donat was a delight. 5 stars
4/14/16 Katrina Weiss fast paced, good mystery 4 stars
4/25/15 David Hollingsworth Wonderful early Hitchcock favorite 5 stars
4/13/15 jokerass lol 1 stars
12/09/09 Josie Cotton is a goddess Exciting and sometimes funny 4 stars
7/13/09 millersxing The villainy is lackluster; sliightly below Hitch's high standards for suspense. 4 stars
12/19/07 Pamela White early Hitchcock but good effort 4 stars
10/21/07 fools♫gold Oh Hitchcock, how does it end? 5 stars
12/15/06 cher ok when watched it 2-3 times but becums utter suckfest after watching it 50-bajillion times 3 stars
12/13/05 Edward Cantu I was so ingaged in the plot that it didn't matter that it was in black and white. 4 stars
11/23/05 mytee hitch's best 5 stars
11/17/05 Conor excellent 5 stars
9/02/05 Zack best of hitchcocks british films 5 stars
1/24/05 Peter-John Johnson Excellent!!!!! 5 stars
9/27/04 Anthony Sun contrary to some, this pic holds up amazingly well. a definate classic 5 stars
9/18/04 Michael Very entertainingly written. Script is witty, quick-moving, and always thinking ahead 5 stars
6/22/04 Sean Scanlan Alfred Hitchcock is the best director 5 stars
5/31/04 Daveman Hitchcock's masterful manipulation techniques are in full swing here. 5 stars
2/17/04 Mr. Blonde Step right on up to a delicious spy thriller from ol' Hitch. Takes all the right steps! 4 stars
1/03/04 Heidi If you've never seen it, you'll be surprised at how good it is. 5 stars
12/11/03 john I love Hitchcock but this one has always seemed forced and unconvincing - doesn't hold up 2 stars
11/18/03 Charles Tatum Fantastic early Hitchcock 5 stars
4/27/03 R.W. Welch Hitchcock's breakthrough film, using intrigue & touches of humor. Prints now a bit degraded 4 stars
9/07/01 Padraic Coffey Possibly my favourite Hitchcock movie. 5 stars
8/07/01 E-Funk Hitch's best British film. This guy invented this formula that all the hacks try to copy. 5 stars
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  01-Aug-1935 (NR)
  DVD: 02-Nov-1999

  02-Jun-1935 (U)


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