By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2012)
The 39 Steps – Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Along with The Lady Vanishes, this 1935 gem represents the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood period. In fact, many of the tropes that would come to be known as “Hitchcockian” are already fomenting in this early entry: an icy blonde love interest, a meticulously constructed, edge-of-your-seat finale, and most notably, Hitchcock’s oft-repeated “wrong man” scenario.
Robert Donat stars as a Canadian tourist in London who is approached by a jittery woman after a music hall show. She begs refuge in his flat for the night, but won’t tell him why. Intrigued, he offers her his hospitality. He awakens the next morning, just in time to watch her collapse on the floor, with a knife in her back and a mysterious map in her hand. Before he knows it, he’s on the run from the police and embroiled with shady assassins, foreign spies and people who are not who they seem to be. Fate and circumstance throw him in with a reluctant female “accomplice” (Madeleine Carroll). A suspenseful, funny, and rapid-paced entertainment.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray transfer is as good as a 77 year-old film is ever going to look. The biggest improvement is in the audio quality, which has been problematic in previous DVD versions. A highlight among the extras is a 1966 TV interview, wherein the ever-wry Hitchcock shares amusing backstage tales about his early career.