Made after "The Man Who Knew Too Much," Alfred Hitchcock's version of John Buchan's 1915 novel exploits the director's favourite theme - of an innocent man involved in extraordinary circumstances - while firming up some of the directorial approaches that ultimately defined a Hitchcock film, and his recognizable persona.
In his marvelous collection of Golden Age screenwriters, "Backstory," author Pat McGilligan interviewed screenwriter Charles Bennett, who revealed how many of the film's most popular aspects - such as the character of Mr. Memory, and scenes involving a farmer's wife - were their own inventions, after detailed story construction sessions between writer and director.
Bennett also criticized the inflated contributions of Alma Reville, Hitchcock's wife (who receives a "Continuity" credit for "39 Steps" but, according to Bennett, had nothing to do with the screenplay), and Hitchcock's own awareness of creating a recognizable persona to further his stature as the Master of Suspense. While not discounting the auteur theory, Bennett makes it clear that writers certainly played an important part in shaping and creating a Hitchcock film. Along with John Michael Hayes, Charles Bennett is one of the few writers to have worked on several Hitchcock films - consecutively - thereby refining, if not assisting, in the maturation of the director's key themes. "Blackmail," "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "The Secret Agent," "Sabotage," and Young and Innocent" cover a long stretch, from the director's breakthrough silent film in 1929, to his final British films, in the late Thirties.
If you subscribe to the auteur theory wholeheartedly, then Marian Keane's feature-length commentary track will fit your perception of a Hitchcock film; if, on the other hand, you find flaws with auteurism - a narrow theory which eschews the concept of collaboration and asserts everything in a director's film is predetermined by the director, with little concessions from a production's participants - them Keane's observations are beyond the reality of studio filmmaking.
Keane hits all the right marks by citing and explaining key themes and motifs that are widely evident in the director's films: the pursued innocent man, illusory perceptions and the reality of a situation (such as what the police believe to be true, and the core truth of a crime that only the innocent in flight know is true); and visual approaches to create intense suspense, with a generous nod to German Expressionism. However, amid a few open gaps on the track, Keane also spends a great deal of time describing the patently obvious: announcing scene transitions which the viewer is clearly observing for him/herself, and recapping story twists and scene content, moments after the unmistakable has occurred.
Where her observations in the DVD's booklet are concise and standard for theoreticians, her commentary overall comes off as padded and rather disengaging. Some claims also demand patience and imagination from skeptics, such as citing a pull-back from a coat hanger infers some mysterious phallic symbolism between Robert Donat and an abused farm wife. Maybe the hanger's curved tip is a visual metaphor for danger, outlining the clean metallic shaft of a bullet that may pierce Donat's body in a future scene; or perhaps, if indeed phallic, then it's symbolic of the abusive farmer, left emasculated by Donat after being nourished with fried fish by his sexually vibrant wife, and receiving both her sympathy and assistance when danger approaches. Or maybe it's just a clue to the hubby that his good Sunday coat is missing, and his wife is complicit in the stranger's departure…
To add some factual content to the DVD, Criterion's included an installment from a film series narrated by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., from 1973. "Vintage Hitchcock" covers the director's key British films, with clips from all except "Juno and the Paycock" (using stills instead). Like Keane's commentary, the short documentary covers themes of conspiracy, the persecution of an innocent man, and Hitchcock's penchant for cameos. It's an efficient work with an emphasis on the visual, and though taken from a worn 16mm TV print, the documentary fills in some of the historical facts absent from Keane's commentary.
England had established its own film industry by 1935, yet very little archival materials exist, so it's a rare treat to see some of the stylish black & white production sketches, and the film's original press book (courtesy of the BFI). Each page is displayed in full, and using your player's remote, graphic sections are accessible in close ups. The extensive text has been retyped, so actor and director bios are readable, along with publicity hype for optimum audience recognition.
The last goodie is the original 1937 Lux radio show, hosted by Cecil B. DeMille, starring Robert Montgomery, Ida Lupino, and Gene Lockhart. Like Keane's commentary, each major section is indexed for easy access, and there's a detailed production list for the radio show.
Criterion's "39 Steps" manages to answer the needs of Hitchcock fans in search of theoretical examination, and offers valuable historical materials to present a well-rounded release, although a feature-length theoretical analysis may be too stuffy for the mainstream Hitchcock fan.
Technically, the audio track has been cleaned up, though the levels sometimes vary between low dialogue exchanges, and the mixed sound effects and Louis Levy's music score. Visually, the film's never looked better, showing no artifacting, and with extensive digital restoration from a 35mm composite fine grain master, blows away those antiquated public domain releases we've had to live with for at least two decades.
"The 39 Steps" was remade in 1959 (starring Kenneth More), and in 1978.
Hitchcock titles released by Criterion include "The Lady Vanishes," "Notorious," "Rebecca," "Spellbound," and "The 39 Steps."
© 2002 Mark R. Hasan