DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

The 39 Steps, Blu-ray (1935/2012)

A classic wrong-man thriller from the early career of the suspense master, lovingly restored.

Published on July 1, 2012

The 39 Steps, Blu-ray (1935/2012)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Robert Donat, Madeline Carroll
Studio: Carlton Films/The Criterion Collection 56 [6/26/12]
Video: 1.33:1 B&W restored
Audio: English PCM mono
Subtitles: English, English for the deaf
Extras: Audio commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane, “Hitchcock: The Early Years” (2000) – British documentary, Footage from 1966 Mike Scott interview of Hitchcock, Audio excerpts from Francois Truffaut’s 1962 interview of Hitchcock (with stills), Visual essay by Leonard Leff, Lux Radio Theater broadcast adaptation of 1937, Original production design drawings, Illustrated booklet with essay by film critic David Cairns
Length: 86 minutes
Rating: *****

This spy story is regarded as an example of Hitch at his finest, before he came to Hollywood from Britain. Some of his same themes ended up in the later North By Northwest, and several directors have tried to re-do The 39 Steps, including James Hawes on PBS in 2010. None, of course, are as perfect as this one, and to see it in its pristine glory on Blu-ray with the many fascinating Criterion extras is pure pleasure, especially for those who have suffered thru grainy, scratched and foggy prints and VHS tapes over the years. Some critics feel his British films, made free of Hollywood’s moral conventions, are superior to his later acclaimed color classics. He even got around the British censor’s strict rule against having a man and women together on a bed, by having the two actors handcuffed together (plus leaning over just right, blocking the censor’s view and asking him a question when a questionable shot came up—he was blind in one eye).

Young Canadian visitor Richard Hannay is watching a mustachioed man, “Mr. Memory,” in the London Palladium. He commits trivia to memory and answers questions from the rowdy audience. Suddenly shots ring out and the theater is panicked. Hannay finds himself with a beautiful brunette with a German accent on his arm and asking to go home with him. She explains her spy mission and says she has to go to Scotland to meet a man. Later she stumbles into Hannay’s room clutching a Scotland map and with a knife in her back.

Now Hannay is accused of killing the woman. He takes the train to Scotland to try to find the man. On the way he runs into Pamela, who turns him over to the police. But the bad guy spies are also after him. He cleverly escapes from both, but a coincidence suddenly has him back with Pamela; not only that, but handcuffed to her. Hitchcock’s fear and lack of trust in the police—which started with him as a child—come thru clearly in most of his films. The plot is complicated and full of surprises, and mixes romance, comedy, action and suspense in the most entertaining way. It is also a prime example of Hitchcock’s “MacGuffin” principle in action. The interviews in the extras with both Mike Scott and Truffaut are especially worthwhile viewing. Hitchcock sternly corrects the idea that he said actors were cattle. What he actually said, he corrects, is: “Actors should be treated like cattle.”

—John Sunier




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