Alfred Hitchcock directs Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll and Lucie Mannheim in this thriller where a man is framed for murder and chases down the few vague clues he has to uncover the conspiracy he is fatally embroiled in.
The original man on the run chase movie. Donat’s Hannay is one suave motherfucker – witty in the face of impending doom, dashing even when harried in the wilderness, only a cad when the ladies are too pigheaded to listen to charming reason. He skips from set piece to set piece – rivalled only by Indiana Jones in his ability to find himself from frying pan to fire to jaws of death. Some of the cliffhangers are perilous stunts like his iconic escape from a moving train on the Forth Rail Bridge but many are with a variety of ladies who are fighting off an irresistible urge to fall for the desperate man. Hitch loads every male / female interaction with a chaste lustiness, you get the feeling if Hannay had a moments respite he’d be at it like a sewing machine. Edwardian mores and the long arm of law stop him from consummating any of his encounters even when he kinkily spends a night handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll. There are peculiar little commentaries on party politics, nationalism, bureaucracy and marriage laced throughout The 39 Steps. The movie seems to be lampooning institutions whenever it isn’t derring and doing. Even if you’ve watched a fair few releases from The Thirties before you’ll be shocked at how thrilling it all is. A real outlier, it is something else. Hitch went on to make many classics but I genuinely think his reputation was cemented the moment he made such an ahead of its time proto-blockbuster. We wouldn’t have North By Northwest, The Fugitive or 3 Days of The Condor without it, but in all honesty this is the finest example of the sub-genre… it just happens to be the earliest. It moves so neck breakingly fast, THE END card appears, we fade out… and it takes you a few hours to realise Hannay is still very much in the stew when we leave him on a minor moment of triumph.
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