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The 39 Steps (1935)
Handcuffed to the girl who double-crossed him
Filmmaker(s): Alfred Hitchcock

Richard Hanney has a rude awakening when a glamorous female spy falls into his bed - with a knife in her back. Having a bit of trouble explaining it all to Scotland Yard, he heads for the hills of Scotland to try to clear his name by locating the spy ring known as The 39 Steps.

The 39 Steps (1935)

Step By Step Performances

All but two Hitchcock films are cursed by the transcended achievement of those two. So the remainder will always seem pale in comparison while unfairly having elements of those retroactively applied.

But I believe that the early Hitchcock was a simply competent filmmaker and only later came to understand the more complex tricks and structures of narrative.

This early and excellent project could prove me partially wrong. You decide.

Nominally, it is a spy story using elements of noir before they matured and became planetary.

It has amazing texture and pacing. Comedy, tension and such. Lots and lots of side stories. The laughable unbelievability of the story and the economy of coincidence is mitigated by those side stories, unusual then and now. The one you notice is the gruff Scot with the young wife, or perhaps the joking underwear salesmen. The one that impressed me the most was the inclusion of the evil professor’s daughter. Her small role had a huge impact on the texture.

But none of that is what this comment is about. Narrative structure is our topic.

Here’s the setup: this is a performance which features as its gimmick a performance, a stage mentalist. So far so good, a simple fold, ordinary for the period. But just as we have side stories, we side references to the performance. There are two main ones: our hero is thrust upon a stage to make a political speech and does exceedingly well. Later he spins a tale for the woman to whom he is handcuffed, equally with relish. That tale refers to yet another show, the wax museum.

None of this parallelism is done lightly. It is deft engineering decades before he would actually begin to base whole movies on folding.

Posted in 2005

Ted’s Evaluation — 3 of 3: Worth watching.


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