It had been far too long since the Blu-ray player in the household had something as good as Hitchcock inside of it. “Psycho” is a personal favorite and “Rear Window” and “Vertigo” are both really great films, as well. Embarrassingly enough, however, the rest of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography is practically unburied treasure on this end. So the opportunity arose to review the Blu-ray of The Criterion Collection version of “The 39 Steps.” When Hitchcock comes knocking at your door, you cater to his every whim.
A man named Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) claims to remember every bit of information that’s put in front of him. A routine presentation of his abilities becomes extremely rambunctious and a fight breaks out that quickly escalates until two gunshots causes the crowd to quickly flee the scene. Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a man who was at the presentation, is stopped by a strange woman wanting to come home with him. He obliges with little hesitation.
The woman acts strangely and calls herself Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim). She claims that two men were trying to kill her because she’s a spy who’s discovered that vital British military secrets are about to be stolen. She warns Hannay to never trust a man who’s missing the top joint of one of his fingers and mentions The 39 Steps. She’s killed in the middle of the night and Hannay is left accused of murder and trying to stop the secret information from being leaked.
“The 39 Steps” wastes little time pulling you in. You’re practically thrown right into the thick of things right from the start just like Hannay. As soon as your brain has accepted all that is transpiring, BOOM! Hannay is on the run for a murder he didn’t commit. Much of the film follows him as he outruns the authorities; constantly checking newspapers, looking over his shoulder, and hiding in plain sight. It’s how the film keeps its thrilling aspect alive its entire duration.
It seems like even the film’s flaws can be excused because the film is great anyway. Lucie Mannheim overacts to the extreme when she dies and the film has more than its fair share of outdated special effects. But this was also made in 1935 and there’s much to appreciate for it being over 75 years old. Robert Donat is really spectacular in the film and his chemistry with Madeleine Carroll is extraordinary even if Pamela (the character Carroll portrays) is extremely hard headed and her actions are a bit frustrating.
Despite the film being in black and white, you’re still able to notice how fantastic both the lighting and camera work really are. When Hannay is first apprehended by two men who claim to be policemen, he’s shoved inside of a car along with Pamela. There’s this seamless transition from the inside of the car (after Pamela complains about having to spend half the night with Hannay) to an outside shot of it driving on the road as it drives over the hilly countryside and into the distance.
“The 39 Steps” isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it’s an extremely solid mystery thriller. The twist doesn’t come out of nowhere, but it’s still very clever. Hitchcock always managed to keep the audience guessing and always had them in the palm of his hand. “The 39 Steps” still accomplishes that. “The 39 Steps” is an enthralling thriller that looks fantastic for its age.
Supplements on the Blu-ray include a new high-definition digital restoration, audio commentary by Alfred Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane, the 24-minute documentary Hitchcock: The Early Years, the 40-minute interview from 1966 entitled Cinema: Alfred Hitchcock from British broadcaster Mike Scott, the complete broadcast of the 1937 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation starring Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery, new visual essay by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff, audio excerpts from Francois Truffaut’s 1962 interviews with Hitchcock, original production design drawings, and an 18-page booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Cairns.
“The 39 Steps” is now available on single disc DVD and single disc Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. It is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio with monaural sound. It’s in black and white and is approximately 86 minutes long.