The Guardian (07/Mar/1999) - There are more than three steps to heaven - 36 more
(c) The Guardian (07/Mar/1999)
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Forth Bridge, Scotland, Godfrey Tearle, John Buchan, John Laurie, Madeleine Carroll, Peggy Ashcroft, Portland Place, London, Robert Donat, The 39 Steps (1935)
There are more than three steps to heaven - 36 more
I hope to write at some length about Alfred Hitchcock nearer to the centenary of his birth in mid-August. Meanwhile, let me urge you to get American friends to put the 32-cent memorial stamp on letters to you (a black-and-white portrait of the Master with a stencil of the celebrated self-caricature punched in the top left-hand corner) and to visit the Barbican's 16-film season which opens with a new print of "The 39 Steps" that will subsequently be shown all around the country.
I first saw "The 39 Steps" 60 years ago, when the film was four years old and I was five. The sexual innuendo no doubt escaped me, but I had little difficulty in following the story of the fugitive Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat, my mother's favourite actor) trying to clear himself of murder, and the movie made me aware of how dangerous the world was out there. Because the adults around me talked about it as a Hitchcock picture and urged me to spot his signature appearance, I became vaguely aware of some shaping person called a director, who seemed to be a combination of a teacher putting on a nativity play and a puppeteer working the Punch and Judy shows I so loved. When, much later, I read John Buchan's novel, I discovered how superior in suspense, humour and logic was Hitchcock's version.
It was some years before I saw "The 39 Steps" again. Numerous images were stamped on my mind - the two agents in a pool of lamplight in Portland Place; Hannay escaping from the police on the Forth Bridge; Godfrey Tearle as the suave spy holding up his right hand to reveal the missing tip of his little finger; the menacing autogiro hovering above the Scottish highlands (one of the earliest uses of a helicopter in a thriller); the bullet buried in the prayer book; Donat and Madeleine Carroll concealing from the publican's wife that they're handcuffed together; above all Mr Memory, the novelty performer whose 'Am I right, sir?' became a catchphrase for me and my friends, and whose feats of recall I set out to imitate. Only in my teens did I come to cherish Peggy Ashcroft's performance as crofter John Laurie's downtrodden wife.
In the seemingly simplest of Hitchcock pictures one always notices something new. At last week's viewing I was especially struck by the symmetrical succession of marriages - the milkman who helps Hannay because he too would like to be a philanderer; the middle-aged underwear salesman on the train talking of his unattractive wife; the jealous, tightfisted farmer destroying his young wife from Glasgow; the upper-class spy with his complacent, stiff-upper-lipped wife; the loving Scottish couple who give Donat and Carroll sanctuary; the final close-up of Carroll taking Donat's hand which still has handcuffs dangling from it. Seeing a movie such as this is reassuring - it reminds you that if nobody ever made another film, there are already enough to occupy anyone's lifetime.