• The 39 Steps

    By Marian Keane

    The occasion of the 100th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s birth rewards us with a new release of one of his greatest films, The 39 Steps (1935). This DVD provides a newly restored transfer, new critical audio commentary on the film, and supplemental material detailing the moment The 39 Steps was released.

    Fresh, funny, and filled with typically Hitchcockian suspense, The 39 Steps fully demonstrates the director’s unshaken status as a cinematic master. Based on the 1915 novel by John Buchan, this quickly paced adaptation follows Richard Hannay (played by the sublime Robert Donat) through one dangerous adventure after another and simultaneously tracks his romantic relationship with Pamela (Madeleine Carroll).

    Like many Hitchcock characters, Hannay is singled out for no apparent reason, wrongly accused of a crime, and caught up in a world of intrigue and danger. It slowly dawns on Hannay that he is among such diabolical forces, and that he must struggle to survive. This scenario often recurs in the director’s work, notably in Strangers on a Train, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (both versions). Through this theme of “the wrong man,” Hitchcock meditates on the issue of human identity and the related issue, in film, of human distinctiveness. He, also through this theme, contemplates what it means to be thrown into the world of a Hitchcock film. Death and exposure to being viewed are among the consequences, or risks, that human beings (characters, actors) face in his universe.

    Capable of ruthless violence and intent upon achieving global power, the character of Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) brings another major Hitchcock theme to The 39 Steps: the surrogate director. Hitchcock’s films recurrently incorporate these figures, through whom he reflects on his own understanding of film authorship. For Hitchcock, to direct a film is, among other things, to create characters through casting and to control whether they live or die, whether they find romantic happiness or dwell in isolation. Other important surrogate author figures in Hitchcock’s work include Vandamm and the Professor in North by Northwest, the enigmatic Gavin Elster in Vertigo, Brandon in Rope, Prescott in Notorious and, in the same film, Mrs. Sebastian and the Nazis.

    The challenge faced by Hitchcock’s romantic leads includes getting free of these author figures. To escape control, Hitchcock’s romantic couples need his help, his conviction. A consequent moral of Hitchcock’s filmmaking, we might say, is that no one within the world of a Hitchcock film has his power or authority over that world. But it is also true that, in most cases, these surrogate authors also lack his humanism and faith in love.

    No account of a Hitchcock film is complete without remarks about his camera and its idiosyncratic ways of framing and composing images. Hitchcock would not be “Hitchcock” if the camera, and the role it plays in the world of the film, were not identifiable and unique. All of the director’s famous cinematic gestures are present in The 39 Steps: high angle shots, such as Hannay’s view of the abyss from behind a pillar of the Forth Bridge (abysses in Hitchcock—especially memorable in Vertigo—register the terrifying aspect of the human condition); dramatically juxtaposed shots, such as the famous sound bridge between the cleaning lady’s scream and the roaring train; and deliberate and meaningful shot-reverse shot sequences, most notably in the dinner table scene at the crofter’s cottage. Significant point-of-view shots are prevalent as well; indeed, The 39 Steps can be understood as a study of film’s capacity to render human subjectivity. Consider, in this light, the camera’s role during the sequence in which Hannay is on the train, or when he delivers a speech at the political rally, or throughout the film’s wonderful climactic sequence.

    The last major theme of Hitchcock’s cinema fully present in The 39 Steps is theater; indeed, the film opens and closes with scenes set in theaters. But by the last scene, that which separates the world of the stage from the world of the film—the invisible line between theater and reality, stage and audience—is destroyed. The stage, and the events that take place on it, become part of the reality of the film. As in North by Northwest, where, in the end, real bullets replace fake bullets, and real life comes to take precedence over play-acting, theater is exposed in The 39 Steps as vulnerable to the medium of film, penetrable by reality itself. We should not underestimate the importance of this subject, and insight, to Hitchcock’s work. Along these lines, we would do well to contemplate the relation of the safety curtain that falls in the climactic scene of The 39 Steps to the shower curtain that falls in Psycho, and then think of the host of curtains that come down in all of Hitchcock’s cinema.

    The director’s deepest subjects—theater and its relation to film, the abandonment of human beings in vacant and foreboding landscapes, the complex human quest for knowledge, and the nature of accidents—abound in The 39 Steps. Hitchcock’s perception of the precariousness of human existence, and his belief in film’s capacity to reveal and reflect on it, lie at the heart of his achievement as a master of the art of film.

    Marian Keane is an Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is the author (with William Rothman) of the forthcoming Stanley Cavell's The World Viewed: A Philosophical Perspective on Film (Wayne State University Press).

13 comments

  • By Tod Fletcher
    November 05, 2010
    01:40 PM

    Criterion should not spotlight the postmodernist garbage of scholars like Marian Keane. She may have spent years "studying" Hitchcock, but she has evidently learned nothing from it. She has nothing to offer viewers of The 39 Steps. Her commentary on the film is worthless. It's a boring pastiche of personal word games, delivered in dull monotone that really drags the auditor down. It is shameful that the commentary space on this fine film was taken up by a fake film critic like Keane. Criterion, don't let the pomos take over your commentaries and essays. Just because they have taken over academia doesn't mean the public wants to listen to them!
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    • By Nick Tasche
      January 25, 2012
      04:16 PM

      That is a righteous comment. But come on man, this isn't serious analysis. It is fluff in support of a DVD release. Its worth is solely as semi-intellectual publicity. Something to make a layman feel special for knowing an old film. This essay has the perfect snippets to provide replies to snobs at cheese parties. Haha you shouldn't try to take that away from either party. God knows we all need the conversation. On another note, I'm writing a senior film analysis on this film and would love a point towards a real essay about this film. No one seems to have ever really written about it. Email me if you should ever read this.
    • By Marian Keane
      June 21, 2013
      04:14 AM

      Tod, This is Marian. Ask me a question about Hitchcock. Ask me two. I bet you don't have two good questions. And why are you worried about who takes over academia?
    • By Marian Keane
      June 21, 2013
      04:24 AM

      Who are the "pomos?" --and if I am a fake film critic, you are a bogus film blogger. Who are you?
  • By Phil
    November 30, 2010
    02:11 PM

    Okay, the last comment is just mean. Okay, opinions are opinions, everyone's got one, but how about providing a little, I don't know, support for your opinion? Does Tod have something insightful to say about The 39 Steps? Do some commentaries get a bit dry sometimes? Sure. But a "fake" film critic? "Garbage?" What nerve. Where does this guy get off?
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  • By Andrew Zindilis
    December 15, 2010
    10:47 PM

    The 39 Steps is one of Alfred Hitchcocks British Classics is an under statement, is there any future Blu Ray release , I hope very soon ???.......... Thank You Andrew
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  • By Oscar
    September 01, 2011
    09:56 PM

    Marian Keane's essay is chock-full of valuable insights into the art of Hitchcock. Her deep understanding of the film is amply evident even in this short format. Fletcher's offensive comments are typical of those who believe that the cinema is not worth taking seriously.
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    • By Philip
      June 27, 2014
      06:24 PM

      If you had sat through a semester of her horrible class on the films of Hitchcock you would not have said what you said because you would know she is no intellectual. And I agree that cinema is worth taking seriously but the problem is she talks a good game but it's obvious she's full of B.S. when you sit in her class. And she told us a story on the first day of class about something she said Hitchcock's father did who worked as a jailer. According to her story he took his son down to the jail and locked him in a cell to punish him for something that he had done and then told his son Alfred "This is what we do to bad little boys." and according to her that's what is on Hitchchock's headstone at his grave. Well she is wrong because what it does say is "I'm in on the plot" which is actually funnier. And I read one of her books that she wrote after I took her class to see what else she had to say that she might not have said ion class and it was so boring and I thought why on earth would anyone believe her nonsense.
  • By Shaun
    July 01, 2012
    06:13 AM

    This essay isn't bad, but her commentaries are among the worst in the Collection. She has a tendency to simply tell you what's on the screen which is awfully uninteresting to sit through. Compare that to the literate and insightful analysis of [i]Children of Paradise[/i] by Brian Stonehill for a comparison.
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    • By Philip Stevens
      June 27, 2014
      06:08 PM

      Does not surprise me because I took her Hitchcock film class at The University of Colorado and she by far is one of the worst professors I ever took a class from.All I learned in her class was that someone could actually ruin the pleasure of watching Hitchcock's movies. I think if Hitchcock could have heard what she said about his films he would have let her know she has know clue what she's talking about when she talked about symbolism in his films. And she didn't really let anyone have their own ideas about what something might represent in his films and to do well in her class you had to regurgitate whatever she said about the film instead of your own ideas and I remember when someone asked if sometimes something in the films were just what they are and had no meaning and she just shot that idea down.Like for instance when I suggested that the lamps in a hotel lobby scene in Vertigo are there because that's what you would find in a hotel lobby and not that they meant anything about what was going to happen to Kim Novack's or Jimmy Stewarts character. Which she basically just cut me off and never answered the question. She was abusive and rude to us as students and when I asked her a question when she was going on and on about "Who is Cary Grant on Film" wondering what the hell she meant about that nonsense. She pretty much ridiculed me. And I knew she was full of crap when she wouldn't show one of Hitchcock's greatest films "Rebecca" because it's a film where Hitchcock does not use any symbolism or some nonsense like that. Which of course was contradictory to what she had said that everything in a film has some kind of meaning. And of course boy is she wrong about the film "Rebecca" in fact if any of Hitchcock's films are rich with symbolism it's that film. The problem is her B.S. is being mistaken for intellectualism. I was told by someone she was eventually fired from the University Of Colorado because of complaints about how she treated her students which was very abusively. She should have been fired also for being an intellectual fraud.
  • By Terry E.
    May 26, 2014
    05:22 AM

    Marian Keane, I adore your film commentaries! Your commentaries for "The Lady Eve", "Notorious," and "The 39 Steps" are at the top of my list of best of all time DVD commentaries. The misogyny and anti-film scholarship of the boys that that dismissyour work astounds me with its unique form of xenophobia and small-mindedness. That said, I would love to correspond with you. How might I reach you? You may email me at dreamterry@gmail.com. I would love to ask you some questions about the films you love. Thanks for your thoughtful and deep contributions. Terry Ebinger, Berkeley, CA.
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    • By Bakr
      May 27, 2014
      11:54 AM

      39 Steps: comparing the waxing candle to a phallic symbol of their love was sophomoric and for me the last straw.
  • By Philip
    June 27, 2014
    06:51 PM

    And Ms, Kean aren't you a little old to be making comments to Nick that sound like you're a teenaged bully who wants Nick to step outside so you can beat him up? If you're an intellectual why do your comments to him sound so stupid and childish. I picture you like you're looking at him and sticking out your tongue and saying "Ha ha ha I know more about Hitchcock then you do" which of course that's not how an intellectual would respond. By the way your Hitchcock film class at CU was by far one of the worst classes that I ever took at a university.And your nonsense about his films made me hate Hitchcock for years and you are mistaken about his film "Rebecca" which you didn't show in class or talk about except to say you don't show it in your class or talk about it because it doesn't have any of the symbolism you are looking for in his films. Are you crazy if there is one film that is ripe with symbolism it is "Rebecca". And you know who Gary Grant is on film he's Cary Granted acting and playing a character in the movies. Not whatever your idiotic nonsense you kept talking about in class. I hated every moment I sat in your class because I love film and you basically took it and made it not enjoyable at all and you treated me like crap and many other people like crap in your class. I showed you respect as my professor because that's what I do when I take class but you treated me without an ounce of respect as one of your students. And by the way how can one grade something as subjective as someone's opinion and one doesn't learn anything if to get a good grade we have to regurgitate what the teacher says. And yes sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and has no meaning at all. No the lamps in the scene from Vertigo which you talked about in class and what you thought they symbolize do not symbolize anything they are what would be in a hotel lobby not something about Kim Novak's character's doom. Or whatever it was you said about it. Because is was such pseudo intellectual bullshit I forgot exactly what you said. Why did you have to take a class that could have been enjoyable and make it so utterly awful to sit through? I have no problem with you being a tough grader or expecting a lot from your students what I have a problem with is that tough is one thing being abusive is another and you were abusive.
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