For this week’s midnight feature I returned to the Landmark E Street Cinema to catch a showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, The 39 Steps. Based on the 1915 novel of the same name, this thriller is a British production made prior to his better-known American works. The 39 Steps stars Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll and has been called one of the greatest British films of all time.
The atmosphere for this showing was considerably different than for last week’s The Room. Whereas that theater was packed and boisterous, this midnight viewing had roughly ten people spread around the room including a friend and myself. We were by far the youngest audience members (twenty one and twenty two) and felt mildly ridiculous cradling our gigantic popcorn in such an intellectual feeling setting.
Despite being seventy-seven years old, The 39 Steps is still an action thriller, and it does not disappoint in that regard. Robert Donat stars as unlikely hero Richard Hannay in a plot that will not be all that unfamiliar to fans of Hitchcock’s better-known work. After a spy pursued by assassins dies in Hannay’s arms, he finds himself accused of murder and being pursued across the Scottish countryside as he attempts to uncover the mystery of the 39 steps.
Along the way Hannay becomes handcuffed to Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who is forced into being his unwilling accomplice. Misogyny is the source of much of the film’s humor, with gems such as “I hope this can penetrate that ivory dome of yours,” (spoken by our hero to Pamela) which may be off-putting to 21st century audiences.
Despite the occasional political incorrectness, The 39 Steps is very much worth seeing for anyone with an interest in classic cinema or with a desire for a bit of entertainment off the beaten path. Hitchcock shows his prowess as a storyteller and you can see in The 39 Steps a lot of the experimentation in cinematography and sequencing that will be perfected in his later works. I don’t want to go into too much detail regarding the plot, but it certainly never stops moving. In many ways this is simply another pulpy thriller, but with the additional benefit of feeling like a lesson in film history.