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brianmartin

Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

The 39 Steps (1935), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock was a master of turning minor works of literature into major motion pictures. "Rear Window" and "The Birds" were short stories, although very good in their own right; Psycho was a simple potboiler. But before all of these was John Buchan's novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, an enjoyable but episodic and largely superficial thriller. In Hitchcock's hands it became what we can still see today: a masterpiece of ingenuity and pacing, as taut as it is entertaining.

It's still about an everyman-type who must go on the lam after learning of a plot against the British government. And Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), the runner, is still a genial, likable sort of chap. Beyond this, however, Hitchcock uses only what is convenient from Buchan's novel, changing elements at will in order to tighten the story, heighten the suspense, and give it a different sense of humor.

The alterations begin immediately. The film opens at a vaudeville theater featuring the act of a man called Mr. Memory. Shots ring out and the audience stampedes for the doors. Outside the theater, Hannay is joined by a woman who desires that he take her home with him. None of this is in the book, although it is too much to say that the woman is a new character, as other reviewers, blithely unaware of the contents of Buchan's novel, have claimed. She is simply Scudder, Hannay's neighbor from the book, revamped. Here, she is the one who spills the beans about the conspiracy and mentions "the 39 steps." The "steps" themselves are different here, but even less time is spent solving this particular "puzzle."

Another woman added by Hitchcock is a genuine departure. Madeleine Carroll, destined to become the first of the director's famous "icy blondes," plays Pamela, who only tries to do what she thinks is right but winds up handcuffed to Hannay for her trouble. Everything having to do with Pamela is new to the film, and it delightfully binds the picture in a way Buchan could never have imagined, with sexual tension and screwball comedy.

The story is fast-moving, spinning from one idea to the next with abandon. I complained that the novel was often implausible, and the movie is, too, if you stop to examine it. The difference is, the movie eschews the episodic development of the novel and everything dovetails so nicely here that you feel that all those implausibilities would somehow make sense if a few missing pieces had been supplied. They are well dispensed with, however, for they would only have slowed down this exciting and fun adventure.