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New York Times (14/Sep/1935) - Alfred Hitchcock's New Picture, 'The Thirty-nine Steps'



Alfred Hitchcock's New Picture, 'The Thirty-nine Steps'

Alfred Hitchcock, the gifted English screen director, has made one of the fascinating pictures of the year in "The Thirty-nine Steps," his new film at the Roxy Theatre. If the work has any single rival as the most original, literate and entertaining melodrama of 1935, then it must be "The Man Who Knew Too Much," which is also out of Hitchcock's workshop. A master of shock and suspense, of cold horror and slyly incongruous wit, he uses his camera the way a painter uses his brush, stylizing history and giving it values which the scenarists could hardly have suspected. By comparison with the sinister delicacy and urbane understatement of "The Thirty-nine Steps," the best of our melodramas seem crude and brawling.

If you can imagine Anatole France writing a detective story you will have some notion of the artistry that Hitchcock brings to this screen version of John Buchan's novel. Like "The Man Who Knew Too Much," the photoplay immerses a quite normal human being in an incredible dilemma where his life is suddenly at stake and his enemies are mysterious, cruel and disparate. Richard Hannay, a young Canadian, is sitting in a London music hall when a man is killed, whereupon a young woman confesses the murder to him and begs him for sanctuary. In his rooms she explains that she is playing a lone game of counter-espionage against foreign spies who have stolen a valuable military secret and are preparing to take it out of the country. Then the enigmatic lady is herself murdered, leaving Hannay with the meager information that his own life is now in danger, that he will learn the secret of the Thirty-nine Steps in a certain Scottish hamlet, and that he must beware of a man whose little finger is amputated at the first joint.

That is the situation, and for the next four days Hannay finds himself in the most fantastic predicament of his life. The police are hunting him for the murder of the young woman and the spies are hunting him because he knows too much. His career is a murderous nightmare of chase and pursuit, in which he continually escapes by inches of the hangman's noose and the assassins' bullet. Hitchcock describes the remarkable chain of events in Hannay's flight across England and Scotland with a blend of unexpected comedy and breathless terror that is strikingly effective.

Perhaps the identifying hallmark of his method is apparent absence of accent in the climaxes, which are upon the spectator like a slap in the face before he has set himself for the blow. In such episodes as the murder of the woman in Hannay's apartment, the icy ferocity of the man with the missing finger when he casually shoots Hannay, or the brilliantly managed sequences on the train, the action progresses through seeming indifference to whip-like revelations. There is a subtle feeling of menace on the screen all the time in Hitchcock's low-slung, angled use of the camera. But the participants, both Hannay and his pursuers, move with a repressed excitement that adds significance to every detail of their behavior.

Robert Donat as the suavely desperate hero of the adventure is excellent both in the comic and the tragic phases of his plight. The lovely Madeleine Carroll, who begins by betraying him and believes his story when it is almost too late, is charming and skillful. All the players preserve that sureness of mood and that understanding of the director's intention which distinguished "The Man Who Knew Too Much." There are especially fine performances by John Laurie as the treacherous Scot who harbors the fugitive, Peggy Ashcroft as his sympathetic wife, Godfrey Tearle as the man with the missing finger, and Wylie Watson as the memory expert of the music halls, who proves to be the hub of the mystery.