Continuing on with the British films I’ll review “The Thirty Nine Steps.” This is another espionage tale where the civilian protagonist is swept up in a confusing web of events that he must navigate or be left holding the bag in a murder manhunt. Our hero is a Canadian visiting London on a work assignment who meets up with a femme fatale at a London music hall and quickly gets drawn into her attempt to prevent a spy ring from stealing vital British military secrets. When she ends up in his apartment with a large knife protruding from her back he flees the scene to attempt to clear himself by finding and foiling the espionage ring.
The coincidences, unlikely events and sheer dumb luck that fills the story line makes the suspension of disbelief out of the question. But Hitchcock replaces it with humor, human interest and a twisting turning plot line that comes full circle and provides the payoff. Along the way you meet a varied cast of characters each lovingly fleshed out by the dialog and script. One of my favorites is a milkman delivering to the hero’s building the morning he’s trying to escape from the scene of the murder. He tries to recruit the milkman to help him escape the scene of the murder but the deliveryman flat out refuses to believe that there’s been a murder and he’s trying to elude the killers. When the protagonist relents and claims that he’s just spent the night with a married woman and is trying to elude her husband the milkman immediately falls in with the plan and agrees to help without further complaint. The fleeing man is obviously a brother in arms to the apparently philandering milkman. Quite a lot of dialog is lavished on this completely ancillary plot device but it’s just this attention to detail that makes the picture memorable and interesting. And there are several of these types of vignettes sprinkled in the picture. And there’s a sort of love story although it does involve being handcuffed to a fleeing murder suspect and being gagged and even choked at one point. But in Hitchcock love will find a way.
The final twist of the story as I mentioned, circles round to the beginning of the story and is quite clever although there were clues if you were paying attention earlier. All in all, it is a very well put together plot.
Once again, we have an earlier British Hitchcock that equals or even exceeds the quality of the Hollywood era “classics” that Hitchcock is famous for. With actors that are complete unknowns to an American audience and immersed in the unfamiliar and idiosyncratic milieu of 1930s Britain, Hitchcock constructs an interesting and highly entertaining story out of a totally improbable premise.
I will dial back my praise with one caveat. For the younger readers who have been saturated from birth with high definition picture and sound quality, it may be a little off-putting to see an old black and white movie from the 1930s. This is a restored film where the worst of the sound and visual damage has been repaired. But it’s picture quality is not even close to 2018 standards. For those viewers of an older vintage this warning is of course unnecessary.