This time, during the Christmas season of the 50th anniversary of Psycho, mi amigo Tom Gale takes a holiday look at the poster for one of Hitchcock’s earlier films . . .
It’s tough to stay away from Hitchcock films in a project like this because, besides the fact that the films themselves are so good, the poster designs for even his early films are vibrant, dramatic, and well composed; perfect vehicles for a little holiday parodying. “The 39 Steps” is a particular favorite film of mine in a vein similar to “The Thin Man”; a terrific pairing of leading man and woman with great chemistry amidst a fast-paced and well written script. The movie introduces one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes, the innocent man on the run, and like “North by Northwest”, the character is “forced” to share his journey of discovery with a beautiful stranger. Not the stuff of tragedies when you get a look at the companions.
Still in all, Robert Donat, the hero in “The 39 Steps” certainly doesn’t have an easy time of solving the mystery in order to save his freedom, his life, and the British government as well. Despite being handcuffed to the beautiful and strong-willed Madeleine Carroll, his quest is fraught with danger and discomfort, although punctuated with just the right amount of humor. My favorite scene is when Donat runs into a meeting hall to escape the police only to find himself mistaken for the principal speaker and forced to give an impromptu speech of support for a political candidate he doesn’t even know. The fact that the audience is none the wiser throughout the speech makes for a terrific tongue in cheek poke at provincial politics.
The movie is very loosely based on a book by John Buchan, which I read as part of a hard cover mystery series I bought a forgotten number of years ago, but which still are removed occasionally from their packing boxes for an unhurried and unstrenuous visit. If the movie doesn’t quite follow the book, it does have the advantage of making Buchan’s tenuous plot a bit more believable by resolving several all too convenient coincidences with some sensible plot development. Hitchcock was too good a director not too fix some of the novel’s irritating problems.
That said, I heartily recommend “The 39 Steps” for some easy and fun Christmas mystery viewing. Be careful, though, because a number of DVD releases of this film are taken from inferior film prints with soundtracks that make it harder than need be to understand the dialogue. I have read that the Criterion restored version is superior in both video and audio quality, although I haven’t had a chance to see that version. If you want to enjoy this film, don’t settle for less.
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