Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Too. . . Wheeze. . . Many. . . Gasp. . . Steps

And right on cue, here's a movie by Hitchcock, rather than a movie about him.

The 39 Steps is one of his earlier films, when he was still working I think exclusively in England. A London vaudeville show of some sort is interrupted by gunshots. As the crowd flees the building, a Canadian named Hannay (Robert Donat) is approached by a mysterious Miss Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who asks if she may go to his flat. Once there, she claims to be a freelance spy, trying to stop someone from smuggling the secret of England's new air defense plans out of the country. Hannay thinks it silly, but well, there are two guys standing on the street corner watching his place, and she does stumble into his room that night with a knife in her back, and a map of Scotland with one location circled. So it's off Hannay goes, the police hot on his trail as a suspected murderer. Except he keeps running into this one annoying woman (Madeleine Carroll), who simply won't believe his story, and keep pointing him out to the police.

The movie is very tongue in cheek. Hannay can be very determined when he's being actively chased by cops, but the rest of the time, he's wryly amused by the whole thing. Which means it isn't a very tense movie, but it is very funny at times. Hannay spends the night at the home of a deeply religious farmer, who suspects Hannay of trying to steal away with his wife in the night. He's almost relieved to learn she was actually just waking him up because the police are coming and Hannay is a suspected murderer.

The humor is somewhat undercut when we learn later that Crofter (the farmer) beats his wife because she gave his nice heavy overcoat to Hannay. I guess I should chalk that up to either Hitchcock's particular sense of whimsy, or maybe just a difference in the time I live, versus when the film was made.

But there are plenty of bits that are unambiguously funny. Hannay fleeing the cops by rushing into a meeting hall, only to be mistaken for a politico on the campaign trail, and getting into it by giving a stirring speech, even as the cops start filing in. Seeing as they were in Scotland, I felt he should claim the cops were working for the opposition, or better yet, landed English gentry. The crowd would surely have rioted and freed him.

You may have heard someone comment that a frequent problem with characters in zombie films is that they behave as if they've never seen a zombie film before. I had a similar issue with Hannay, in that he frequently seemed to make the worst decisions in terms of acting suspicious, or who to approach or not approach. Then my dad pointed out that in the 1930s, there might not be widespread access to stories such as that in any medium Hannay would be readily exposed to. And of course there's the fact that it's all very well and good for me to critique him from my comfy chair, but quite another to be the one on the run after a woman he only just met gets killed in his place.

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