Why is is that you’re always on the run from death with someone you hate who you inevitably fall for?
Adaptation By: Charles Bennett & Ian Hay
Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock
When I finished The 39 Steps I was struck with the same feeling I often get when watching an acclaimed directors early works. Elements of the greatness that was to come are present, but there are still plenty of chinks to be found in the armor. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s not a great movie either. It’s a bit like Hitchcock throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks and what doesn’t. From this template many of his later classics like The Wrong Man and North By Northwest would be born.
Some of the elements that Hitchcock will bring back because they do work in The 39 Steps would be the forlorn lover angle and his standard of the relationships overruling the reveal of the actual twist. He would also bring back the abrupt ending found in The 39 Steps, thankfully he would do it better in some movies while in others it would be just as awkward. The couple who don’t like each other forced to be together is a motif he would go to again, but in future outings he would change it up a little so that it wasn’t such a cliche one note.
On the things that didn’t work front, the floating head narration in the beginning really wasn’t needed and it only served to further restate exposition. The set-up was odd, but it did play into the odd ending as well. Still, it took forever for the meat of the film to get going and the first act of the film was so slow to unfold. In his later works Hitchcock would get a better handle on comedy, especially relationship comedy. In The 39 Steps there are some funny moments between Richard and Pamela, but a lot of their time together falls flat.
The above doesn’t mean that The 39 Steps doesn’t have any facets that work, because it was filled with some great elements. The suspicion in the farm house was set-up nicely, both over the extramarital affair and the idea that Richard was going to be turned in. The moments under the waterfall were very cool. To go along with that the various long shots of Richard and his pursuers silhouetted against the sky were choice.
The 39 Steps is an exercise in the formative years of a great director. You can see where some of his later ideas sprang from and you can watch as he attempts to find his own style. The 39 Steps isn a good movie in its own right, but it’s more a movie that Hitchcock buffs need to see than one that everyone needs to seek out.