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The 39 Steps (1935)


Ooooohhhhh – perfect!

Do you need more of a review than that?

This – second only to Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939) – is Robert Donat’s best film. And it’s not that far off Alfred Hitchcock’s best film. Or John Laurie’s, Peggy Ashcroft’s and Madeleine Carroll’s. Yeah, there’s good stuff to come for them all: Dad’s Army, A Passage to India and, um, My Favourite Blonde, but this one is it: style, wit and direction decades ahead of its time. True to the urbanity of the ’30s and the countryside of the last ice age, its ending is in its beginning, with tensions, thrills and – best of all – character-based funnies…we’re dealing with proper cinematic gold in The 39 Steps.

It starts at the theatre, with Mr Memory showing off to an audience where at least one voice is desperately keen to know Mae West’s age. Wylie Watson‘s Mr Memory is a punctilious and oddly clipped gentleman. Am I right, sir? He answers Donat’s question (Canadian geography – oh yeah – it’s amazing music hall died out…) with ease – and isn’t in the least bit dazed by the beauty of the man, sat amongst a crowd of London’s undershod, shining.

And then – action! A fight comes from nowhere, the crowd dives in and – Hitchcock doing his thing – we cut to a gun in a hand that’s pulling a trigger. Panic! And out rushes everyone, charging through the theatre doors. Donat is grabbed by Lucie Mannheim‘s Miss Annabella Smith. She suggests, with top quality flirting, that they go back to his place. “What’s the idea?” says Donat, suddenly the epitome of modern city suavity. “The plot, moron,” she says, “now kiss me!”

Ok, that last bit was a lie. For reasons that are classily glided over, the couple get back to Donat’s flat and Miss Smith starts hiding. For she is a spy under siege: some chaps are after her because she knows a secret…that others have a secret of national importance and they are perilously close to- Gulp! Gah!

Miss Smith staggers into Donat’s personal space in the middle of the night, a dagger in her back. She’s clutching a map of Scotland (the road to Killin, geography fans) and dies. The bad guys’ decision not to also kill Donat (as Richard Hannay, did I mention?) isn’t entirely addressed as the plot now turns on him. A curiously immoral conversation with a milkman (look, this is 1935, and old Jack here has trouble believing the world wasn’t virtuous moral and annoyingly religious), and Donat gets to the railway station in time to be a newspaper star: killer on the run!

And that’s just the start. What is alarming and refreshing is the view of Robert Donat in a world that feels as modern and questionable as our own. The 1930s, for 90 minutes, are a real place of sarcasm, sex and death. Never less than a device of the plot, Donat hides the mechanics with charm and urgency. You know he knows this is all a bit silly, but as he bounds into a train carriage and snogs the Hitchcockian (first, original) icy blonde and smart Madeleine Carroll and starts begging her to side with him against the chasing police, he flips the whole thing in a moment: his plight is real, desperate and now. The man was a star.

She doesn’t of course, so he toys with realism again and swings out through one cabin door, in through another and out into the corridor before the policemen with Carroll can…well…just turn back around and catch him in the corridor.

But ignore that, because he’s soon dangling from the Forth Bridge (all huge, metal and mighty in black and white), wandering the road of Perthshire and catching the heart of a third woman in one night, and begging a bed from her sharp, douce and unyielding husband: John Laurie‘s crofter with a scowl. He’s over thirty years off Corporal Fraser, but old Jack recognised him – and the thread between the two – instantly. Interesting to see where Laurie started: the comedy doom of later years began somewhere far angrier. That said, Donat does ask if his wife is his daughter, shoving a sharp nail into Laurie’s insecurities. And the wife? Peggy Ashcroft in an interesting accent (as are many…a peculiar RP Midlothian with jangly edges) is an instant ally to Donat…gives him a box bed, a coat and a way out when her husband’s pecuniary needs meet policemen in the night…

Of course, some of this is possibly Perthshire, but a lot of what comes is studio. Lovely studio. The kind of studio that brings comfort and warmth to an old soul, stuck in a TV room with black and white objectionists. They don’t appreciate the clever design, the beautiful shots (men, hunters, on mountains; bridges and waterfalls; crofts against the midnight sky…) or the point of speeding up the film as police and Hannay clamber across the glen…which, ok, is a fall from grace for the designed-moment-perfect Hitch.

So…Donat is on the run…trying to get to a good guy who can help him. Only…as warned…this guy ain’t got all his digits and The 39 Steps twists and turns into easily the most fun a film has any reason to be. For Donat bumps into Carroll, with handcuffs and bad guys coming after them, and they bitch, whinge and snark their way to a hotel where he half-threatens, half-jokes her into playing eloping lover… Oh, it’s grand stuff! Old Jack has seen this film twenty times and always loves these scenes: wet skirts, drying tights, pretend guns, ridiculous tales and impressive head lobbing (Carroll missed the realism class for kidnappees falling asleep). But it’s all about the angry blonde and the desperate fugitive, hiding from the plot for a few hours of vitriolic cooperation.

Apologies. This one has been something of a ramble. There are so many gems in The 39 Steps that old Jack here wants to write you a list. Trust me. They’re plentiful and shiny. You must – MUST – watch this film before you leave the planet. It goes at a fair old lick, so feels modern. It has clever characters at the end of their tether, so feels modern. And it has Robert Donat at the peak of his personal and professional powers. So watch the thing!


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