...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, November 25, 2011

George Herman Hitchcock project, Chapter 4B: The 39 Steps


Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2A  and  2B

Chapter 3A  and  3B

Chapter 4A

continuing from Chapter 4A

Hitchcock had just released the abysmal mess of Number 17.  He followed that up with Waltzes from Vienna in 1934, which he too embarrassed about to even discuss.  Waltzes is unavailable on home video in the US, which is just as well for me.  It becomes difficult to watch him flounder repeatedly after all the promise of Blackmail.  His stylings were bursting at the seams in Rich and Strange, but at least were crazy enough to be interesting.  In Number 17 there were random bursts of strange angles and camera tricks that awkwardly distracted from the story, as if he was fighting with the film or with boredom.

As I'd quoted at the end of Part A, after the release of 17 and Waltzes Hitch underwent a bit of introspection.  He was only going to commit to projects that interested him personally, films that would fully involve his craft.

What remains largely unspoken is that after this period Hitchcock never again had a screenplay credit.  Instead he entrusted the writing to others while he focused on direction.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Not to be confused with his 1956 Stewart-Day remake, the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is an abrupt track change to Hitchcock's career.  Working with (at least) five writers, Hitch crafts a classic thriller as if he'd been doing so for his entire career.

As a thriller genre writer, I found this exhilarating.  When I use the term "classic thriller" I mean that it fully fits the structural mold of a thriller that we all use today.  It's easily pitchable:  After a family accidentally discovers a terrorist group's plans, their daughter is kidnapped.  If the parents involve the authorities, the bad guys will kill the girl.  So they are left to search for her on their own.  The first, second, and third acts just pop right out of it.

Thanks to the work of that team of writers (Charles Bennett, D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, Edwin Greenwood, A.R. Rawlinson, and Emlyn Williams) the film is funnier, faster, and leaner than any previous Hitchcock work.  There are set-ups and payoffs in theme, character, and story.

The two parents, played by Edna Best and Leslie Banks, transition from a bantering but sexually bored marriage to a smart hard-working team throughout the conflict.  The daughter, played by Nova Pilbeam (fantastic name!), arcs from happy-go-lucky to exhausted shock.

Peter Lorre is tremendous as always as the bad guy.  He's really one of the great cinematic presences, absolutely nailing character and feeling the moment he steps on screen.  Here in The Man Who, he's like an evil Ralph Wiggum, a pudgy little demon.  Lorre was also reciting most of his lines phonetically since he'd just left Germany as the Nazis came to power.  But one can't see any issues with the language or the dialogue since he looks so comfortable in character.

On top of this great actor direction, Hitchcock's visual style is present only to serve the story.  Little is wasted, in direct contrast to Number 17.  The lighting progresses from light to dark, white to black, day to night.  The suspense in the concerto assassination scene is textbook perfect, shot to shot, devoid of dialogue.  And the penultimate police shootout is brutal, dead bodies everywhere.

It all feels like it was directed by an old veteran of the form.  Perhaps this is because this director was inventing the form right here.  We are told that the assassination will happen during the cantata performance; the gun will go off when the cymbals crash.  We hear the piece beforehand on a record, then we're in music hall, we hear the music, we see the cymbals, we see the gun, the cymbals, the cymbals, the cymbals, the gun, the cymbals are lifted, the music rises, and...

The 39 Steps (1935)

Sir Alfred goes on to prove that this wasn't a fluke with The 39 Steps.  He brought in Charles Bennett (again) and Ian Hay to adapt the novel by John Buchan.  Together they assembled the first solid Wrong Man-themed Hitchcock film and introduced his first Macguffin.

A Canadian tourist (Robert Donat) is visited by a spy who is then killed his apartment.  The bad guys frame him for the murder, so he sets off across Scotland to find the lead criminal and prove his own innocence while being chased by the cops and the baddies.

Remove the specifics and that's actually the mold for an entire cinematic genre.  The setup could make for a terrifying film, but Hitchcock always keeps the pace moving quickly because he's not aiming for psychological horrors.  He's out for thrills.

The film plays pretty steadily and reliably until the third act, when it propels into the stratosphere.  Donat gets handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll, a woman who's determined to turn him in.  The two are genuinely disgusted with each other and squabble their way up to the ending, when they finally work together to solve the mystery of The 39 Steps.  Carroll is (gorgeous and also) phenomenal in a physically demanding role.

And what is this Macguffin thing, mentioned above?  It's The 39 Steps.  It's the suitcase in Kiss Me Deadly.  It's the suitcase in Pulp Fiction.  It's the microfilm in North by Northwest.  It's the uranium in Notorious.  It's the catalyst that gets the story going, the thing that everyone is after, but "it's the device, the gimmick" (Truffaut 138) as Hitchcock says, because ultimately that one item doesn't matter.  The story it propels is what's important.

So we get the innocent man on the run, the cool blonde, and the Macguffin all here (and executed well) in a 1935 film.  It's all kept to 86 minutes, and nothing is wasted.

Hitch's style has now fully merged with the narrative.  As a result there are no flourishes to point out because everything he does here serves the story.  That's true mastery of the craft of visual storytelling.  He'll make greater cinema, but he couldn't get there without arriving here first.

At this point in their careers, Ruth and Hitchcock seized the rare opportunity they had and showed the beginnings of making good on the promise they'd had earlier.  Ruth though very successful on the mound forced his way to the plate by showing his doubters that he could fulfill a previously unknown potential.  Hitchcock's early films had become financially profitable enough so that he was getting hired out three times a year to crank out picture after picture.  But this sort of achievement was limited, and as his craft began to fray he quickly changed direction and began producing the sort of cinema no one had yet seen.  But here, the two big men were merely carpeting the floor.  The ceiling lay ahead.

Spoto, Donald. The Art Of Alfred Hitchcock. Anchor Books, New York. 1992.
Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock. Simon & Schuster, Paris. 1984.