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The 39 Steps (1935)


laffite
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The 39 Steps is well-known and perhaps too old-hat for some here but I recently purchased it on eBay (along with a bunch of other films) and watched it and really felt good about it. I seem to be not only pleased with the movie but especially pleased by my own substantial reaction to it and so what follows is a sort of wallowing in my own enthusiasm. I am particularly happy with the way it gives us three female roles all with a fairly decent chunk of screen time and who play prominently in the plot. I love this structural aspect. None of the girls appear in a scene with the other two. They each have their own segments. This post will be dominated by the three goils.

 

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Innocent Mr Hanney (Donat) is implicated in a nightmare situation from which he spends the entire film extricating himself but Donat is too cool and does not show the outward angst that we usually see in an emotionally distressed victim of noir, and Annabella Smith #1 (played by Annabella Smith [sic]) can be likened to femme fatale but her intent in the story falls short. She does not measure up (or down) to femme fatal status IMO. Hannay says, "It sounds like a spy story" and she says, "It is," referring to her (and now his, alas) present circumstances, so I would go with that for genre. The movie does not feel noir to me, but I may be wrong. Perhaps an augur.

 

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#1 Annabelle/Annabelle Smith

 

Re #1, I love her calm, European demeanor and mild accent, her sophisticated beauty, and her "agent" status that includes a cold blooded lack of any allegiance to any territory (and of course she loves fish, she specializes in them in them in a way, lol). She might have come across histrionic and melodramatic but there is a restrainttotally commensurate with her station. Her mysterious conversation works too "Maybe I'll tell you tomorrow.". Of the ladies three she has the shortest stint. But she certainly gets the ball rolling, albeit not without paying the price. She stumbled through the doorway, makes a brief remark, lurches forward, and falls upon the bed with knife in the back. That happened before the to be said "tomorrow."

 

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I was not aware that my beloved Peggy Ashcroft (#2) was in this movie. When I noticed her in the credits I almost did a couple of back flips right out of my chair. Immense delight. Imagine seeing the younger version of a person you've known just a short time, quite suddenly. That happens with Dame Peggy. She made few movies when young and was mostly theater in her middle years. Like most, I know her best from all her brilliant television work later in life for the BBC, notably Jewel in the Crown in which she immortalizes that seemingly dizzy but in other ways wholly present and captivating Barbie Bachelor, a portrayal so brilliant to my mind that, silly as it may seem, makes me fantasize (non-psychotic mode) that Barbara was a real person. Peggy was 76 when she did Barbie and she was 28 when she did Margaret, the crofters wife. This old movie gives us good looks at this younger version of the great artist. There's a sort of thrill to note some of same particularities of her person 48 years earlier than what we see in Barbie B. Again, to have young Miss Ashcroft surprise upon me in this fashion was a moment of utter delight. And seeing her be Margaret was thrilling in that she is there at all, though portraying an unhappy person has it's drawbacks. No matter, Peggy is good here.

 

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#2 Margaret/Peggy Ashcroft

 

And Margaret was soooo sympathetic. Dannay, on the lam, manages to secure a passing night at her countryside abode where she lives with her husband, a bilious, greedy, religion-touched individual who deems wicked everything that Margaret feels is of value, i.e., a normal life, and which has at least a glimmer of what Madame Bovary was so intent upon, that touch of glitter.  She knows a little about this from her roots but learns a bit more in a very short time from Dannay, the great venues of the good life. When she stumbles on learning his predicament she resolves to help in a way that was intended to be a stealth operation, that is, until hubby sees them confer through an open window. She is so adamant in her purpose to help she stands up to her overbearing husband. When Dannay finally escapes through the back door, her face falls, tellingly. I am grateful that the screenplay doesn't have her say, "Take me with you." Not likely under those circumstances, of course; but desperate, lonely young women may not always be thinking clearly enough to realize such things at times like that. It fits her character that she doesn't say that. She is not some flighty type, insensitive to the complexities of this world and she seems too grounded to succumb to a fantasy wish like that.  But she IS unhappy, and it plays well throughout the sequence, thanks to Peggy. There are the disappointed "Ohs," the long faces, the general unhappy demeanor, the ruefulness, the rare smile not quite genuinely realized. and the sudden stiffness when her husband enters the room. I don't think she was in love with Dannay. There wasn't really time for that. I think she was in love with life, a life she doesn't have. Dannay represents that to her. Don't get me wrong, if Dannay had said, "You must come with me, you must," it certainly would have given her pause (but, alas poor Peggy, this is not a romancer.)

 

At the risk of "catching it" from her husband, her resolve was steadfast and her persistence in helping has a touch of nobility (a quality missing from Mme Bovary---the comparison above is misleading of course, Margaret is no Mme Bovary). Not that she didn't pay a little price. There is a brief return to that house later on when Margaret's husband discovers the missing jacket. She tries to explain but he gives her a swat. She is not shown in this brief scene but we hear her give a short but shrill little scream. Not seeing her is enough, the unpleasantness for Margaret comes through, perhaps more so for not seeing her. It accentuates her woeful situation and for those (like me) who feel her unhappiness and pain. All in all, she will return to her current life situation with the same dogged resignation and acceptance as before. I can't decide whether there is any hope for her or not. The screenplay doesn't give us much.

 

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In an earlier scene Richard Dannay has a moment that Roger Thornhill will have 24 years later in another Hitchie. Richard's experience is not propitious. While hotly pursued in a train he barges into a berth and desperately pleads for help from Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) #3 who, when the police converge says, "I think this is the man you're looking for." Again, a breath of fresh air, why would a woman help a strange man? Some lesser movies might do that despite it's unlikelihood (A comparison is not valid in the later film, we know who Eva turned out to be, she had an agenda-related reason to "help.")

 

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#3 Pamela/Madelaine Carroll

 

Skipping ahead, they are on the lam, hand-cuffed (***) [footnote below, but not now please] to each other. Madeleine's animosity is pronounced and unrelenting. She hates him because he got her into this, she hates him because she thinks he is a murderer, she hates him because she is handcuffed to him, she hates him because he is dragging her around and putting his hand over her mouth. She is also not particularly enamored with being dragged through fences as well other indignities unbecoming a proper lady. To manage her continuing intractability, he abandons the strategy of talking truth to her (I'm not a bad guy, really) and resorts to talking coarsely, characterizing himself as a murderer and she may be next. He is not very convincing but she tempers her wild rebellion and actually speaks with a tone approaching civility, though nowhere near warmth. Later when she learns quite by accident that he is an okay guy, she finally does take a softer tone. Just when we might see an exchange of smiles, the screenplay finds a way to get them arguing again. Hitch did not want the diversion of romance. Yet it was gratifying to see her in this better light, fleeting though it might be. The trouble is when she finally succumbs to a degree at least bordering on warmth, there are only 10 minutes left in the film. The final scene yields a low-key intimation of sweeter things to come but of course this will be denied us because the movie is over. I am not a saphead but I missed seeing a little eye-making between these two. Not like me, really. But Madeleine Carroll is so delicious here I would have liked to see her smile more.

 

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Robert Donat is basically restrained throughout, somewhere between extremely competent to brilliant, and is super cool. Probably his biggest scene is extemporizing the palaver in the political meeting in an effort apparently to create commotion for an escape. The scene has affinities with NbNW when Cary is doing the same at an auction, only in that case he is trying to get caught (by the police in a defensive maneuver) while Robert is not. He is on screen practically the whole time, gets to play opposite the three ladies, and is quite the gentleman in doing so, save when he is rough housing #3. A man does what he has to, even a gentleman.

 

This movie plays well to me, despite flaws of early technology. The exterior scenes, some of which are simulated, did not make me squirm. There is a long shot of Dannay walking over a bridge at night that is excellent, an example. There is no sense of claustrophobia which sometimes happen with low-budget or early films like this.  Anyone having seen the series Cinema Europe on TCM some years ago will remember that the English were way behind Hollywood (and everyone else) in early movie making, Hitchcock notwithstanding. This one was sure a feather in the cap.

 

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(***) ...and now the footnote... This may seem a bit silly but I am amused at myself for this. As time passed being handcuffed together, I began to have the squirmy notion that she should be experiencing the need to go to the bathroom. The hate she had for him is nothing compared to the acute indignity of ... that. A normal viewer would have jettisoned such a thought without a qualm but if you're like me and fall prey to disturbing thoughts on occasion, such dumb things as this can stick, despite knowing full well the whole idea is totally irrelevant and it's only a damn movie, for Heaven's sake. As the moments went by, however, a creeping sense of that nagging suspension of belief factor began to set in, which is a serious thing, right? I don't want anything to ruin the film, after all. But when she facilely and unrealistically separates her hand from the cuff while Richard is sleeping, something that I might call foul (I mean she wasn't that skinny) I instead felt a palpable sense of relief. So much so, that I might have gotten up and gone to the bathroom myself.

 

:D

 

FIN

 

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Great write up on The 39 Steps.  I'm ready to see it again!

 

Re: Margaret - I did not recognize her as Peggy Ashcroft

 

"I don't think she was in love with Dannay. There wasn't really time for that. I think she was in love with life, a life she doesn't have. Dannay represents that to her. Don't get me wrong, if Dannay had said, "You must come with me, you must," she certainly would given her pause."

 

I can just hear Donat as Dannay saying those exact words.  I like to imagine that Margaret's life changed in some positive way after that visit. Such as - leave that horrible man.

 

Lots of memorable scenes.  Robert Donat is a favorite of mine.

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Hope this next one stays up for awhile.  Don't know how his sandwich stays in place!

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  • 2 weeks later...

lafitte--Am delighted you so liked 'The 39 Steps" (1935).  His "breakout" film that made the British film industry take notice of him was "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934), a fast-paced 75-80 minute spy story.  Suffice to say, if you have seen the 1956 remake, you know the basic story.  If you like Hitchcocks' early  British films, "The Lodger" (1926) "The Lady Vanishes" (1938), and "Blackmail" (1929--the first British talkie), are of note.  Enjoy the other films you bought. :)   

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cinemafan--Look Closely at the second picture!.  You will see strands that are either tape of some sort, or glue.  That's how the sandwich stays in place.  Would hate to have to eat a glue sandwich! ;)

 

I think he was so pleasantly occupied at the moment the thought of eating a sandwich did not occur to him, even a ham and cheese with everything.

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  • 1 month later...

I can watch the 39 Steps over & over and never get tired of it, much like the Maltese Falcon.  Hitch creates a heady image of London, a city of adventure and romance.  Robert Donat experiences both.  Certain scenes -- the concert hall, the train trip, the hotel Donat & Carroll check into -- stay with you.  Very rarely has evil been presented in a banal, seemingly benign manner; the villain is usually a cartoon, easily recognizable. Of course Hitch followed this pattern later in Hollywood, with Foreign Correspondent (Herbert Marshall's character at the end does show remorse) and Saboteur.  

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