The 39 Steps (1935)

Genres - Thriller, Spy Film  |   Sub-Genres - Chase Movie, Escape Film  |   Release Date - Aug 1, 1935 (USA)  |   Run Time - 87 min.  |   Countries - United Kingdom , United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps firmly established the director's reputation beyond the boundaries of the British isles, but it did far more than that: it was also the film where Hitchcock's reach and grasp as a filmmaker began growing by leaps and bounds. He'd already made three excellent thrillers (The Lodger (1926), Blackmail (1929), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)) that had attracted considerable attention in America, but The 39 Steps, as a piece of screencraft, assembled all the best elements in those widely scattered successes (spread across eight years of his career) between two covers in a way that riveted audiences and industry observers. It played exactly the way that British movies weren't supposed to, lively and piercingly funny, rather than stodgy and dignified; it was almost as much a comedy as a thriller, which was something new in any country's cinema; and it was almost as much a battle of the sexes in the jousting of its two leads (Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll) as it was a quest by the hero to prove his innocence of a murder charge; by the end of the movie, we want to see not only how Richard Hanney (Donat) proves his innocence but also how he and Pamela (Carroll) manage to stay together. Not coincidentally, The 39 Steps was also the first of his major films in which Hitchcock ripped up and threw away most of the contents of the underlying source (a novel by John Buchan that had been a best-seller then and which has remained a perennially popular read ever since) -- he later followed this practice in his subsequent treatments of Josephine Tey's A Shilling For Candles (as Young and Innocent), Ethel Lina White's The Wheel Spins (as The Lady Vanishes), and Francis Beeding's The House of Dr. Edwardes (as Spellbound), among other literary properties. In the process, he struck a blow for the director as a creative voice in his own right, independent of and superior to the novelist (at least where actual screen adaptations were concerned), who might take one or two good ideas, a name or two, and perhaps a setting and a scene from a chapter and junk everything else, making it his own. In a time when producers and studios still occupied a place of cultural inferiority (even in their own minds) to the authors and publishers of the printed word, this was no small achievement, especially considering that it was done well and, thus, justified itself. So, in his own way, working within the thriller genre in The 39 Steps, Hitchcock helped open the way for virtually every major director who came after him.