The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 5 – The Thirty Nine Steps – A Classic Movie Review

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.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 4 – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) – A Classic Movie Review

This review is of the earlier British version of the film.  Simply stated, in my opinion, it’s the better film.  No disrespect to Jimmy Stewart or Doris Day but the 1950s version is not even close to the original.  Once again Hitchcock gives us a tale of everyday people colliding with the world of spies.  In this story there is an international plot to assassinate a foreign leader.  And an English couple who accidentally become entangled in it are forced to choose between stopping the killing or getting their kidnapped daughter back alive.

The film opens up in the Swiss Alps where Bob and Jill Lawrence along with their young daughter Betty are involved in some sporting competitions.  Jill is a competing in a skeet shooting match and sometime during the games they have befriended a French downhill skier named Louis Bernard.  After the competitions they all attend a dinner and dance party.  During the party Louis is fatally shot but he manages to tell the Lawrences that he has a secret message that must be given to the British Consulate.  Bob finds the message in Louis’ room but before he can inform the consulate he receives a message telling him to say nothing if he ever wants to see his daughter Betty alive again.  She’s been kidnapped.

So that’s the setup.  And it takes the rest of the movie for Bob and Jill to figure out the message and find the spies without the help of the police.  In between there are homicidal dentists, sun-worshipping churches and classical music performances at the Albert Hall and most importantly there is Peter Lorre as Abbott.  He will be the only actor familiar to American viewers and he is definitely the highlight of the movie.  Of course, he’s the head villain and the most interesting character in the film.  Being Peter Lorre, he is palpably creepy but at the same time not completely unsympathetic as a character.  His dealings with the Lawrences are strangely cordial, almost friendly, as if it’s all just an unfortunate business situation and there are no hard feelings.  And he can inject a touch of humor into the film such as in a scene where Abbott has left the hideout and gone down to the street to talk to the police.  When the gang hears a police whistle blowing they suspect the worst has occurred.  Hearing footsteps approaching they pull their guns.  When Lorre opens the door, he sees the guns and he puts his hands up and smiles playfully at his gang as if to say, “Well, you’ve got me.  Now what?”  It’s just a throwaway moment but it does provide a human touch to the character and gives an extra dimension to the scene.

The climax of the film is a protracted gun battle between the London police force and the spy ring.  Hitchcock really went to town with this scene and the bad guys start off with a fusillade of lead that seemed more appropriate in a World War II machine gun battle.  The merry mayhem goes on for a good little while and forces the police to raid a hunting store to obtain high powered rifles to compete with the weaponry the bad guys are sporting.  I guess Hitchcock can be seen here to be one of the fathers of the action film.

What I especially liked about this film is the way Hitchcock adds in the little touches that aren’t central to the plot.  During the gun battle the English police officers commandeer the surrounding buildings and watching them interact with the tenants and order them around in their own homes was very interesting not because it advanced the story or included characters that would be seen again but because it was humanly interesting.

I like the British Hitchcock films because I think they’re more grounded in the real world that he came from.  The common people seem a little more real than his later attempts at bystanders and incidental characters as if they were based on real individuals he had known.  Hitchcock is known for his crime films and these mundane bits don’t seem to belong in that genre but to the contrary, I think it’s the mundane but authentic elements in a story that make it feel real and that gives it impact.  Otherwise it becomes just fantasy.  Well anyway that’s my opinion.

07MAY2018 – Quote of the Day

Holmes again! Jeremy Brett starred in a BBC series which encompassed a large number of the Holmes canon.  The scene I highlight here was memorable so I decided to include this for today’s quote.

 

“When you combine the ideas of whistles at night, the presence of

a band of gipsies who are on intimate terms with this old doctor,

the fact that we have every reason to believe that the doctor has

an interest in preventing his stepdaughter’s marriage, the dying

allusion to a band, and, finally, the fact that Miss Helen Stoner

heard a metallic clang, which might have been caused by one of

those metal bars that secured the shutters falling back into its

place, I think that there is good ground to think that the

mystery may be cleared along those lines.”

 

“But what, then, did the gipsies do?”

 

“I cannot imagine.”

 

“I see many objections to any such theory.”

 

“And so do I. It is precisely for that reason that we are going

to Stoke Moran this day. I want to see whether the objections are

fatal, or if they may be explained away. But what in the name of

the devil!”

 

The ejaculation had been drawn from my companion by the fact that

our door had been suddenly dashed open, and that a huge man had

framed himself in the aperture. His costume was a peculiar

mixture of the professional and of the agricultural, having a

black top-hat, a long frock-coat, and a pair of high gaiters,

with a hunting-crop swinging in his hand. So tall was he that his

hat actually brushed the cross bar of the doorway, and his

breadth seemed to span it across from side to side. A large face,

seared with a thousand wrinkles, burned yellow with the sun, and

marked with every evil passion, was turned from one to the other

of us, while his deep-set, bile-shot eyes, and his high, thin,

fleshless nose, gave him somewhat the resemblance to a fierce old

bird of prey.

 

“Which of you is Holmes?” asked this apparition.

 

“My name, sir; but you have the advantage of me,” said my

companion quietly.

 

“I am Dr. Grimesby Roylott, of Stoke Moran.”

 

“Indeed, Doctor,” said Holmes blandly. “Pray take a seat.”

 

“I will do nothing of the kind. My stepdaughter has been here. I

have traced her. What has she been saying to you?”

 

“It is a little cold for the time of the year,” said Holmes.

 

“What has she been saying to you?” screamed the old man

furiously.

 

“But I have heard that the crocuses promise well,” continued my

companion imperturbably.

 

“Ha! You put me off, do you?” said our new visitor, taking a step

forward and shaking his hunting-crop. “I know you, you scoundrel!

I have heard of you before. You are Holmes, the meddler.”

 

My friend smiled.

 

“Holmes, the busybody!”

 

His smile broadened.

 

“Holmes, the Scotland Yard Jack-in-office!”

 

Holmes chuckled heartily. “Your conversation is most

entertaining,” said he. “When you go out close the door, for

there is a decided draught.”

 

“I will go when I have said my say. Don’t you dare to meddle with

my affairs. I know that Miss Stoner has been here. I traced her!

I am a dangerous man to fall foul of! See here.” He stepped

swiftly forward, seized the poker, and bent it into a curve with

his huge brown hands.

 

“See that you keep yourself out of my grip,” he snarled, and

hurling the twisted poker into the fireplace he strode out of the

room.

 

“He seems a very amiable person,” said Holmes, laughing. “I am

not quite so bulky, but if he had remained I might have shown him

that my grip was not much more feeble than his own.” As he spoke

he picked up the steel poker and, with a sudden effort,

straightened it out again.

 

“Fancy his having the insolence to confound me with the official

detective force! This incident gives zest to our investigation,

however, and I only trust that our little friend will not suffer

from her imprudence in allowing this brute to trace her. And now,

Watson, we shall order breakfast, and afterwards I shall walk

down to Doctors’ Commons, where I hope to get some data which may

help us in this matter.”

30APR2018 – Quote of the Day

I know, I know.  It’s almost May, but enjoy it anyway.

 

STAVE II:  THE FIRST OF THE THREE SPIRITS

“The school is not quite deserted,” said the Ghost. “A
solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left there still.”

Scrooge said he knew it. And he sobbed.

They left the high-road, by a well-remembered lane, and
soon approached a mansion of dull red brick, with a little
weathercock-surmounted cupola, on the roof, and a bell
hanging in it. It was a large house, but one of broken
fortunes; for the spacious offices were little used, their walls
were damp and mossy, their windows broken, and their
gates decayed. Fowls clucked and strutted in the stables;
and the coach-houses and sheds were over-run with grass.
Nor was it more retentive of its ancient state, within; for
entering the dreary hall, and glancing through the open
doors of many rooms, they found them poorly furnished,
cold, and vast. There was an earthy savour in the air, a
chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow
with too much getting up by candle-light, and not too
much to eat.

They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a
door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and
disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by
lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely
boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down
upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he
used to be.

Not a latent echo in the house, not a squeak and scuffle
from the mice behind the panelling, not a drip from the
half-thawed water-spout in the dull yard behind, not a sigh among
the leafless boughs of one despondent poplar, not the idle
swinging of an empty store-house door, no, not a clicking in
the fire, but fell upon the heart of Scrooge with a softening
influence, and gave a freer passage to his tears.

The Spirit touched him on the arm, and pointed to his
younger self, intent upon his reading. Suddenly a man, in
foreign garments: wonderfully real and distinct to look at:
stood outside the window, with an axe stuck in his belt, and
leading by the bridle an ass laden with wood.

“Why, it’s Ali Baba!” Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy. “It’s
dear old honest Ali Baba! Yes, yes, I know! One Christmas
time, when yonder solitary child was left here all alone,
he did come, for the first time, just like that. Poor boy! And
Valentine,” said Scrooge, “and his wild brother, Orson; there
they go! And what’s his name, who was put down in his
drawers, asleep, at the Gate of Damascus; don’t you see him!
And the Sultan’s Groom turned upside down by the Genii;
there he is upon his head! Serve him right. I’m glad of it.
What business had he to be married to the Princess!”

To hear Scrooge expending all the earnestness of his nature
on such subjects, in a most extraordinary voice between
laughing and crying; and to see his heightened and excited
face; would have been a surprise to his business friends in
the city, indeed.

“There’s the Parrot!” cried Scrooge. “Green body and
yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the
top of his head; there he is! Poor Robin Crusoe, he called
him, when he came home again after sailing round the
island. ‘Poor Robin Crusoe, where have you been, Robin
Crusoe?’  The man thought he was dreaming, but he wasn’t.
It was the Parrot, you know. There goes Friday, running
for his life to the little creek! Halloa! Hoop! Halloo!”

Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his
usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, “Poor
boy!” and cried again.

“I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his
pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his
cuff: “but it’s too late now.”

“What is the matter?” asked the Spirit.

“Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy
singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should
like to have given him something: that’s all.”

The Ghost smiled thoughtfully, and waved its hand:
saying as it did so, “Let us see another Christmas!”

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

IN PROSE
BEING
A Ghost Story of Christmas

by Charles Dickens

 

 

 

27MAR2018 – Quote of the Day

A little bitter but recognizable to all ages.

 

William Shakespeare

As You Like It.  Act 2 Scene 7

JAQUES

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

24FEB2018 – Quote of the Day

(I thought of excerpting this poem but I like it and Kipling too much to break it up.  So enjoy it in its entirety.)

Gunga Din  (by Rudyard Kipling)

You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ’ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ’im that’s got it.
Now in Injia’s sunny clime,
Where I used to spend my time
A-servin’ of ’Er Majesty the Queen,
Of all them blackfaced crew
The finest man I knew
Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din,
He was ‘Din! Din! Din!
‘You limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust, Gunga Din!
‘Hi! Slippy hitherao
‘Water, get it! Panee lao,
‘You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din.’

The uniform ’e wore
Was nothin’ much before,
An’ rather less than ’arf o’ that be’ind,
For a piece o’ twisty rag
An’ a goatskin water-bag
Was all the field-equipment ’e could find.
When the sweatin’ troop-train lay
In a sidin’ through the day,
Where the ’eat would make your bloomin’ eyebrows crawl,
We shouted ‘Harry By!’
Till our throats were bricky-dry,
Then we wopped ’im ’cause ’e couldn’t serve us all.
It was ‘Din! Din! Din!
‘You ’eathen, where the mischief ’ave you been?
‘You put some juldee in it
‘Or I’ll marrow you this minute
‘If you don’t fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!’

’E would dot an’ carry one
Till the longest day was done;
An’ ’e didn’t seem to know the use o’ fear.
If we charged or broke or cut,
You could bet your bloomin’ nut,
’E’d be waitin’ fifty paces right flank rear.
With ’is mussick on ’is back,
’E would skip with our attack,
An’ watch us till the bugles made ‘Retire,’
An’ for all ’is dirty ’ide
’E was white, clear white, inside
When ’e went to tend the wounded under fire!
It was ‘Din! Din! Din!’
With the bullets kickin’ dust-spots on the green.
When the cartridges ran out,
You could hear the front-ranks shout,
‘Hi! ammunition-mules an’ Gunga Din!’

I shan’t forgit the night
When I dropped be’ind the fight
With a bullet where my belt-plate should ’a’ been.
I was chokin’ mad with thirst,
An’ the man that spied me first
Was our good old grinnin’, gruntin’ Gunga Din.
’E lifted up my ’ead,
An’ he plugged me where I bled,
An’ ’e guv me ’arf-a-pint o’ water green.
It was crawlin’ and it stunk,
But of all the drinks I’ve drunk,
I’m gratefullest to one from Gunga Din.
It was ‘Din! Din! Din!
‘’Ere’s a beggar with a bullet through ’is spleen;
‘’E’s chawin’ up the ground,
‘An’ ’e’s kickin’ all around:
‘For Gawd’s sake git the water, Gunga Din!’

’E carried me away
To where a dooli lay,
An’ a bullet come an’ drilled the beggar clean.
’E put me safe inside,
An’ just before ’e died,
‘I ’ope you liked your drink,’ sez Gunga Din.
So I’ll meet ’im later on
At the place where ’e is gone—
Where it’s always double drill and no canteen.
’E’ll be squattin’ on the coals
Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,
An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!