OK, I hope I’m not diving into a review that may fall into the “film scholar” category, and thus rule me out of being taken seriously. When there’s a lull in buying new releases, sometimes my wallet gets cabin fever, and so I went out and picked up the Hitchcock set from Criterion, entitled Wrong Men and Notorious Women: Five Hitchcock Thrillers 1935-1946, and includes the previous Criterion releases from Hitchcock, namely Rebecca, Notorious, Spellbound and The Lady Vanishes. I’m tackling the earliest release of the bunch, entitled The 39 Steps. The story very much resembles another of Hitchcock’s later works, North by Northwest, in the aspect that the wrong man is thrown into a spy chase. While Cary Grant is taken through New York, a cornfield, and Mount Rushmore in the later film, in The 39 Steps, Richard Hannay, played by Robert Donat, attends a Music Hall production, meets and takes home a women (Annabella Smith, played by Lucie Mannheim), who he later finds out is a spy who is being chased by two men attempting to kill her. In the middle of the night, Annabella comes into Richard’s room, and falls over him, dead of a knife in the back. As the police chase him, looking to detain him for the murder, the two men, assuming that Richard has found out about the secret she held, start to pursue him in order to kill him. And whatever he does, some of Anabella’s last words to him are not to trust a man missing the tip of his right pinkie (It sounds strange to write the word “pinkie” in a review of Hitchcock, so I hope it looks out of place as you’re reading it).
This was one of Hitchcock’s last works before coming over to America to wow us with the movies that have become legend. For all of my DVD collecting, I’m still a bit green when it comes to the older stuff. And after seeing The 39 Steps, I now realize what I’ve been missing. For its time, it’s a pretty suspenseful film, with a lot of shots that are still used in movies today, and even the story has been used in some fashion or another over the years, though clearly not to the same effectiveness that Hitchcock has done. Despite the “Born On” date for this film, it’s a very good one, and to see many of the same devices used today, both within the story and within Hitchcock’s technical realm, make it an easy recommendation to those who are even casual film fans.
From source material that’s over 60 years old, Criterion’s transfer of the film is outstanding, with blacks at a surprisingly good level, and details brought out which would have fallen by the wayside due to its age. There is some image fuzziness with lighting, but that’s to be expected with the equipment and era.
The audio has been remastered to an exemplary level also, as I was amazed at how clear the soundtrack was. The presumed hiss or crackle I thought I would have heard is simply not as abundant as I thought it was going to be, and Criterion’s work in the audio and video for this release only reiterates the standard they put themselves to.
Criterion also included a good deal of extra material as well, the jewel of the bunch being a Lux Radio Theatre presentation, from 1937 and based on a different version of the film (both were based on a book by John Buchan). The feature starts with Cecil B. DeMille providing brief summaries of the key players in the presentation (Robert Montgomery plays Hannay, and Ida Lupino plays Pamela) before it begins. You can leave the audio running without your TV, and get the full effect, or if you leave your TV on, you’re treated to various photographs of the two, along with other pictures, some of DeMille. It’s just under an hour, and is an excellent piece of nostalgia.
“The Art of Film” is a feature that was produced as part of the Janus series of films covering directors, and was narrated by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. It’s about a half hour, and covers Hitchcock’s influences, and the time when he made films in Britain, roughly 1926-1938. It’s fairly analytical, with Fairbanks bringing up shots in these films that were springboards to scenes in later films, and doing an effective job on summing up the early films. There are clips from The 39 Steps included also, and the quality in those helps to provide an excellent comparison with the Criterion print, and the work that was put in to clean the image up. Another quality piece.
There is a commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane. As what may be the case with most commentary tracks from scholars, most of what she mentions is pre-scripted, and not too much is off the cuff. It’s very analytical, interpretive, and discusses a lot of the technique used, and is full of good technical information, but there’s a truckload of boredom with it, so proceed at your own risk. There are also 15 pictures of production designs, which were very elaborately drawn, and there is a reproduction of the press book that accompanied the film’s release. Much like the book which appeared in Criterion’s Monterey Pop multi-disc set, the 19 pages can be navigated with the arrows on your remote, and areas of interest can be enlarged when highlighted and the enter button pressed. It’s full of information, and well worth the inclusion here. The color bars were included also to give you the best possible manner to view the film.
The dramatically improved picture and sound make this an easy one to recommend to fans, despite the normally high Criterion price tag. The special features that are included make the decision even easier to make. Recommended for fans of film, and is a must-see for even casual fans of Hitchcock.