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39 Steps, The (Blu-ray Review)

9 Jul, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll.

Alfred Hitchcock’s early-but-not-first The Lodger (1926) was the first screen suspense pic to be literally “Hitchcockian,” and it was eventually followed by 1929’s Blackmail, which is now regarded by some experts to be that shaky movie year’s most durable release. The first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) took the director’s career to an even higher plateau — paving the way for this immediately subsequent 1935 landmark, which can take its place on a list of Hitchcock’s most emblematic and purely entertaining movies.

Though you may recall the degree to which The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield hated and railed against the movies, the Salinger lad made an exception when talking about sister Phoebe’s love for Hitchcock’s breakthrough movie — an on-the-lam drama that toyed delightfully with some of the director’s later trademarks. These include the falsely accused protagonist (Robert Donat); a demure blonde for all seasons (Madeleine Carroll); a wild-goose-chase galore — including the early employment of Hitchcock’s famed “McGuffin” (or red herring plot point); and leaps in who-really-cares logic (as in the way Donat traverses an amazing amount of Scottish geography in remarkable little time while ankle-ing it away from a London murder charge).

This Criterion upgrade, which adds a new essay by Scottish critic David Cairns that tipped me off to these geographical leaps, is a very clean rendering of a now elderly release whose negative has had to have spent its life being run through the printing ringer. Yet Steps remains a pleasure to revisit as an example of A-grade escapist fare invariably double-billed with Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes in ’70s repertory theaters again and again. I know this first-hand because for four years, I lived two doors away from one of Washington, D.C.’s two premier revival houses (there were two more in the city as well). What an era it was for seeing vintage movies with people — but truth to tell, the prints were rarely as polished as what Criterion routinely gives us.

Here are a few more thoughts on a household name in any movie-literate family abode, including the upscale Caulfield apartment:

• Commercially speaking, how did the always commercially savvy Hitchcock become an institution in the 1950s — a status that easily held with future generations? Well, the ’50s was his greatest decade artistically, which never hurts, but there was also his CBS TV show with those reliably droll introductions and a tie-in mystery magazine that someone always seemed to have left in your hotel room. Overlooked, though, is the fact that many of the director’s formative British films (Steps included) were sold to television extremely early and were constantly exposed on the tube, while several of his early Hollywood outings (Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion, Lifeboat for three) followed not too long after. This had to have fortified an already strong base that came from Cary-Jimmy-Grace classics-to-be concurrently playing in theaters.

• Lady runs about 86 minutes, and 1959’s equally zippy North by Northwest about 136 — which befits the latter’s broad expansion of the earlier picture’s themes. The later masterpiece artfully throws in much more comedy and has more colorful villainy, but it adheres to Lady’s template.

• Brit-born Carroll did a follow-up Hitchcock movie at home right away (Secret Agent), but by 1936, her Lady stock was so high that Hollywood immediately grabbed her for Paramount’s The General Died at Dawn (adventure intrigue that I’ve always liked) and Fox’s Lloyd’s of London. The picture did a lot as well for Donat’s career, which had already been on the rise; The Citadel and his Oscar-winning performance for Goodbye, Mr. Chips would follow before decade’s end. Carroll, by the way, was the Hitchcock prototype for Grace Kelly, Kim Novak and Eva Marie Saint, and Tippi Hedren. I’d love to see what he could have done with January Jones (something a lot of guys I know have said about themselves).

• Steps came out after the Production Code got teeth, and it’s hard to imagine a 1935 Hollywood movie where (obviously thinking of Carroll here) would be seen pulling down her stockings while handcuffed to her leading man. You can just see this at MGM, right?

• I was looking not long ago at a website devoted to vintage movie exhibition, and it noted that while Steps did good business in major markets, its keen mix of suspense, sophistication and sex had to be pulled in some Oklahoma venue and replaced with a “B” Western. Thus, the seeds were planted for the future election of James Inhofe as U.S. senator.

• Hardcore moviegoers know this, but I wonder how many civilians pick up on the fact that the actress playing the quietly attractive and husband-oppressed farm wife who comes to Donat’s aid is Peggy Ashcroft — who nearly half-a-century later won a 1984 supporting Oscar for playing elderly Mrs. Moore in David Lean’s movie of A Passage to India.

• I always wonder if the fictional “Mr. Memory” — the professional remember-it-all whose London music hall stage act is a key part of the set-up and climax here — might have made it in the early days of television had he been a real person. Does anyone remember “The Amazing Dunninger” — the mentalist who was on both NBC and ABC in the ‘50s? Mr. Memory could have served a workable summer replacement show for ABC’s "Pat Boone Chevy Showroom."

Also carried over here from the standard DVD are an audio essay by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane; a 1937 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation with Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino; and a short documentary on British Hitchcock films. There are also original production design drawings, a pertinent excerpt from the famous 1962 Francois Truffaut Hitchcock interview and (a special treat) chunky excerpts from broadcaster Mike Scott’s hugely entertaining TV interview in 1966 (probably to promote Torn Curtain), by which time Hitchcock was starting to get used to belated artistic respect and even adulation.

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