I often wonder how people I know or admire get their start in their chosen careers. I want to know more about their beginnings. I imagine their moments to get from point A to B and so on. Was it easy or fraught with mistakes and do-overs? Was there ever a doubt in their minds that they would succeed? Were they satisfied with the result? I remember learning how to establish my journey for my art. Everything I did, I had to feel deep within. I had to envision it, dream about it, and make it come alive for anyone who worked with me or sat in the audience. I had to get “it” right, so what we did touched lives and made a difference. It is not easy to create. The options are clear… either soar or fail. It takes a piece of your gut each step along the way. The question was always asked of me after the final curtain, “What will you do next? How can you top what you just did?” This is why I was so demanding as a director and a teacher. If I gave my best, I would expect the same from those around me. I think about this whenever I watch THE 39 STEPS. It was only Alfred Hitchcock’s second major film. It was his beginning, yet he was a force to be reckoned with, and he had much to say as he built the movie standards for years to come.
THE 39 STEPS premiered in 1935. This black-and-white film was only 80 minutes but was filled with non-stop action, murder, intrigue, espionage, humor, and the start of a sweet, unexpected romance. The movie is breathtaking due to the fast storytelling clip at its finest. There is no room for dilly-dallying. Every scene and frame aims to propel the viewers through the mystery. It often felt like chapters or episodes within a book. Turn the page and visually see the script’s complexity before your eyes. The film was an adaptation of a novel by John Buchan, which filled the screen with biting comments, sarcastic one-liners, and sinister opening music. This led to back-stabbing, intense running, chase scenes through Scotland, gunshots, tons of sheep, and a villainous man with part of his pinky finger missing. And don’t get me started on Mr. Memory. He played his part well to the bitter end.
Robert Donat portrays Richard Hannay as an incredibly unlucky “hero” who mistakenly gets mixed up in this deadly adventure. His role is said to be compared to future JAMES BOND films. Critics call him the “first.” He was debonair, cool, sophisticated, and continually wearing a nice suit and tie. This mustache hunk for the times, could sweet talk or escape from any situation. He was funny, sexy, and daring. Move over, Sean Connery. He was matched with Pamela, played by Madeleine Carroll, a gorgeous blonde who was only featured during half the movie but was someone you would not forget. Stunning chemistry and a match for Hannay.
Alfred Hitchcock used some of his unique camera angles to capture the story’s heart. He would zero in on one detail, like two hands reaching for each other at the conclusion, to make sense of it all. He sometimes would use total silence during chase scenes to allow audiences to feel they were in the middle of it all. The technique worked beautifully. I loved the loud, rushing waterfalls, the sound of a handcuff clicking shut, the endless ring of a phone, and the “chutzpah” of a women’s foundation salesman showing his wares on the train. Cracked me up. I cannot say enough about Hitchcock’s directing. He will always be remembered with the highest respect and awe. He understood the delicate balance of art and film. His legacy will last forever.
THE 39 STEPS is a masterclass of storytelling. Hitchcock’s use of comedy and thriller will be mirrored for decades. His ability to capture the audience with quick, succinct scenes that are entertaining and quite compelling put him at the forefront of a spectacular career. His choices grip viewers from the opening minutes with twists and turns until the final seconds when the question arises again, “What are THE 39 STEPS?” The answer is simple. It is a classic beginning to a lifetime achievement in cinema.
THE 39 STEPS is available to stream on HBO MAX.