The 39 Steps [Criterion Collection] Blu-ray Review
- Aspect Ratio: 1.33: 1
- Video Codec: AVC/MPEG-4
- Resolution: 1080p/24 (23.976Hz)
- Audio Codec: LPCM 1.0 Mono
- Subtitles: None
- Region: A (Region-Locked)
- Rating: Not Rated
- Discs: 1 (1 x Blu-ray)
- Studio: The Criterion Collection
- Blu-ray Release Date: June 26, 20112
- List Price: $39.95
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English director Alfred Hitchcock took the mystery-thriller movie genre and literally turned it on its head during his illustrious career. The 39 Steps, his 22nd film, was a generally heralded success, according to the British Film Institute. Robert Donat, best known for his portrayal of beloved movie schoolteacher, Mr. Chips, stars here as a Canadian expatriate (Richard Hannay), living in London. When a mysterious foreign woman, Annabelle Smith (Lucie Mannheim) ends up in Hannay’s bachelor flat, and then dies in his arms, this incident launches more twists and turns than the proverbial Rubik’s cube. In The 39 Steps, Hitchcock employs a trademark device, the “MacGuffin,” that, in this case, turns out to be a British military secret en route to the wrong side. Hitchcock’s recurring theme of mistaken identity has later appeared in a number of his classic films, including “The Wrong Man,” and “North by Northwest.” The casting of an attractive blonde co-star, Madeleine Carroll (Pamela), also a Hitch trademark, adds a sexual tension that builds throughout the latter half of the picture. The lesser roles, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), and the Scottish farm couple (John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft), are all short studies on how to create distinctive characters with a minimum of on-screen exposure.
The 35mm master positive of this 1935 film noir receives excellent remastering by Radius60 studios, using a Spirit Datacine. As might be expected, films of this vintage do not all age terribly well and the original sources for this restoration project appear to have been in pretty decent shape. A modest amount of grain, washout, and blurring of detail persist, but The 39 Steps is still a very watchable film. Close-ups are quite good and the artifacts are most noticeable in the scenes with darker backgrounds.
The PCM 1.0 mono soundtrack has been redone at 24-bits and noise artifacts were cleaned up with Pro Tools HD. It is boxy and flat but the dialogue is quite clear, an important consideration for a film that is very dialogue dependent. A voice-over commentary is also provided as an optional second track.
The Criterion Collection trademark is the inclusion of extra features. Here we are rewarded with the following:
- “Hitchcock: The Early Years”(2000): a British documentary
- Mike Scott’s 1966 television interview with Hitchcock
- Audio excerpts from Francois Truffaut’s 1962 interviews with Hitchcock
- Complete radio boradcast of the 1937 Lux Radio Theater adaptation of the film with Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery.
- New visual essay by Hitchock scholar Leonard Leff
- Original production design drawings
- Audio commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane
A booklet with an essay by Scottish writer David Cairns, “The 39 Steps to Happiness,” provides thoughtful analysis of this film.
The Definitive Word
This film has just about every element that have made Hitchcock’s films so memorable and entertaining: mistaken identity, implausible yet effective plot gyrations, chance encounters between the characters, and an evolving thread of mystery and suspense. Economically filmed and charged with moment-to-moment uncertainty, The 39 Steps features just the right balance of personal risk and outright humor. The escape sequence during which Hannay (still wearing a handcuff) delivers an extemporaneous address to a political rally is simply a hoot. Pamela and Hannay, together in a bedroom of the Argyle Arms inn, deliver a bald-faced homage to the physical humor that typified Hitchcock’s comedic fellow countryman, Charlie Chaplin. Hitchcock’s satire spares no individual or public institution, including politicians, the police, and the entertainment industry itself, a director’s distinct advantage since none of the entities involved is allowed to issue a rejoinder. The cast is superb, the camera work, deft with the trademark Hitchcock rapid sequence cuts, and en pointe dramatic pacing. An old film, for sure, but a truly enjoyable seriocomedy that set the stage for much of the fine Hitchcock work that followed.
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