Saturday, June 27, 2009

I haven't mentioned every Hitchcock movie -- yet

Alfred Hitchcock is probably my favorite director, and it's no surprise that if TCM is going to spend a month honoring great directors, Hitchcock gets a full day. TCM can only get the rights to so many of Hitchcock's movies without having to pay a pretty penny, so most of today's lineup the more well-known, more often-aired movies. One of the movies I haven't recommended before is The 39 Steps, airing overnight at 4:30 AM ET.

Robert Donat stars as a Canadian living in London who goes to a music-hall show, and gets approached by a strange woman. He takes her back to his apartment, whereupon she gives him dangerous information that foreign agents would like about an organization called The 39 Steps. The information is, in fact, so dangerous that the agents kill her while she's in his apartment, with all the evidence pointing to his being the murderer. So, it's off on a chase around the island of Britain to find out who The 39 Steps are, and what information they're trying to take out of the United Kingdom.

If the plot sounds familiar, it's because it is. Hitchcock more or less re-used it in Saboteur when he came to America, and again in North by Northwest. I personally think that Saboteur is the best of the three, but The 39 Steps is right up there. It's often considered to be the first big success featuring the combination of suspense and black humor for which he would become famous, although in fact, the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much came out a year earlier. In the case of The 39 Steps, the humorous touches include getting saved by a bible; the way he finds out who the bad guy is; and having to cover for a parliamentary candidate he has in fact never met. There's also one of the earliest Hitchcock blondes, in the form of Madeleine Carroll; she naturally doesn't believe Donat at first, but begins to accept his story once she gets handcuffed to him. All of this leads up to a satisfying ending that comes full circle to the beginning of the movie.

The 39 Steps is by no means Alfred Hitchcock's greatest movie, but it's eminently enjoyable and, thanks to its somewhat lighter subject material and shorter running time, not a bad way to introduce people to some of Hitchcock's lesser-known works, as well as a reasonably good way of introducing slightly older children to Hitchcock. It's available on DVD, but as a British import, the good prints are rather more expensive than your average DVD.

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