peteg's blog - noise - movies - 2024 01 22 The39Steps

The 39 Steps (1935)

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Prompted by a mediocre article on "ethical espionage" by Tamsin Shaw, which was about state-based intelligence agencies and did not mention the role of whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg and Julian Assange, or journalists in general. Also some idle Hitchcock completism.

In black-and-white, of course, and as well made as you'd expect from the master. Given the date I figured it for one of his first but actually it's about a third the way through his feature film career. (IMDB trivia says twenty-second of 69.) Unfortunately the story was weak: a MacGuffin (spoiler: it is immaterial what the MacGuffin is) took lead Robert Donat from a raucous entertainment hall in London to the Highlands of Scotland on the Flying Scotsman ... or was it the Highland Express? ... and back again in a motorcar. Notionally Canadian, he snogged every woman he encountered though his costar Madeleine Carroll needed to be handcuffed to him for most of their encounter. She got into it towards the end, despite being married (?). Hotelier Helen Haye was chuffed to indulge a young couple so much in love.

Much of it could've been sponsored by the tourism board of Scotland except for the handling of some Scottish tropes. Crofter John Laurie humorlessly and faithlessly demanded money in return for protecting Donat from the police; I had expected some finesse or reliability there. His unhappy wife Peggy Ashcroft pined for the streets of Glasgow. I did not understand the origins of Godfrey Tearle's Professor or why he ended up in such a remote locale, trusted by the cream of the local society — so much for the canniness of the Scots.

Based on a book by John Buchan. Widely loved at the Guardian. Thomas Dawson: five stars, "arguably director Alfred Hitchcock's finest British film." There have been a few stage productions of it this century.