Sunday, August 01, 2010

The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938)

We watched these two Hitchcock films because, “Hey, it’s Hitchcock,” and I had never seen them before. One was just okay, and the other was really good.

In “The 39 Steps,” Robert Donat plays Richard Hannay, a dashing guy who lets himself get picked up by a girl. It turns out she is a spy, and when she is murdered by enemy agents, Hannay becomes a fugitive to escape the murder rap and carry out the girl’s mission to prevent the theft of British military secrets. The film starts out with an appealing level of mystery, but it begins to suffer from an abundance of narrow escapes and strained plot elements. For example, would a beautiful, cunning female spy really need to or choose to tell a random guy all about her espionage work in order to spend the night in his flat? Towards the end, the film completely loses its tone as Hannay engages in cute banter with a girl who gets caught up in his adventure (Madeleine Carroll.) “The 39 Steps” is just not one of Hitchcock’s best. For some reason, he never creates a Hitchcockian level of suspense, and the characters do too many things that make no sense. The movie still has some good parts, and the film might have been saved with a better lead. Unfortunately, Robert Donat just isn’t that great in this role, and the film didn’t spend enough time building his character up so that I would care about him. I suppose I’m in the minority here. Many people seem to think this is one of the great films, but I don’t happen to be one of them. It’s definitely no “North By Northwest.”

Fortunately, we watched “The Lady Vanishes” next, and it restored my artistic faith in Alfred Hitchcock. This film does everything right that “The 39 Steps” did wrong. Time is taken to develop the lead characters, and the romance between them builds naturally. The suspense in this one is also more what I expect from Hitchcock. The plot device of having the heroine and the audience know that something is wrong, while all the other characters deny it, works brilliantly. We identify with the heroine’s frustration while at the same time starting to doubt her.

Margaret Lockwood plays Iris Henderson, a spoiled, American playgirl enjoying a last European trip with her friends before her upcoming arranged marriage. During a railway outage, Iris befriends Miss Froy, a retiring governess on her way back to her native England. The next day, Iris, Miss Froy, and a colorful cast of international characters resume their rail journey. Suffering a mild head injury, Iris naps. When she awakens, Miss Froy is gone, and all the other passengers deny that the lady was ever on the train. What follows is pure fun as Iris struggles to find the truth with some help from a charming, English musician played with playful brilliance by Michael Redgrave.

“The Lady Vanishes” manages to create real mystery while being playful, something that “The 39 Steps” did not quite achieve. Both films are worth watching if you are a Hitchcock fan, but the priority definitely goes to “The Lady Vanishes.”

The 39 Steps 2.5 stars
The Lady Vanishes 4 stars

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