Wednesday, January 12, 2011

- 'The 39 Steps' Open Thread

   What did you think?

Join us for the rest of the shows at Movie Club.


  1. This looks to be good, but I have to admit I have a hankering to see the latest version with Rupert Penry-Jones.

  2. Well, we could do that one, too. Might be fun to compare.

  3. Hmm. That sounded much more enthusiastic in my head!

  4. The films Hitchcock made in Britain in the thirties to my mind stand head and shoulders over any other chapter of his work, and this is a beautiful example of why. Many think me mad for saying such a thing, and I'd hate to think of anyone assuming I didn't like Rear Window or Strangers On a Train or Rope, or for that matter just about any Hitchcock movie up to and including North By Northwest. I love 'em all.
    But there is a purity and an economical brilliance to the British work that is lost when he goes Hollywood.
    This is one of those films where every line and every set-up serves a narrative purpose, and not one second of footage is redundant or ineffective. It's one of the small number of films that could not be improved.
    It also has that incredibly sexy scene where Madeleine Carroll takes her stockings off while she's handcuffed to Robert Donat. A man would have to be a porn-addled ox not to find that arousing.
    There are two remakes you might enjoy looking at too: the fifties one with Kenneth More is a bit of a lead weight, but the seventies one's a treat. (As are the seventies remakes of The Cat and the Canary and The Lady Vanishes - with Cybill Shepherd and Elliot Gould - all made around the same time.)
    Hope it was okay for me to stick my nose into here - do let me know every time you do one of these open thread things if I'm allowed to look in. I've refrained from commenting on The Graduate because as you know, apart from the fact that I've always found Mrs Robinson oddly repulsive sexually, I'm basically with Ebert all the way on that one.

  5. Matt, drop in any time. I should probably really call the Movie Club the Movie Lover's Club, as the movies are all ones that somebody liked and suggested to share with the rest of us. We try to see if there is anything that we could also appreciate. It's not movie criticism as you do, so much as sharing of things we enjoy. My hope is we are definitely pulling for the movie, because the movies themselves sometimes say things to the person that shared them. So a favorite of mine is shared, and then a favorite of someone else. My hope is that I will end up seeing and enjoying films through someone else's perspective, films that I would never have picked out on my own, and that has happened, certainly.

    As to The 39 Steps, it was very much a hidden treat. I really enjoyed Robert Donat as Richard Hannay. He was an utterly charming hero, and his self confidence and easy manner were very engaging. What started out as a bizarre initial association (which Donat handled very gentlemanly) led to a very enthralling and confusing chase, where distinguishing between the good guys and the bad guys was difficult to do. As the main characters sort out the problem we are still left with the problem of convincing the authorities that a danger exists that they do not recognize. Hannay's solution of calling out a question to Mr. Memory to uncover the plot was a great scene. The look of conflict on Mr. Memory's face, followed by the almost involuntary release of the answer, forcing the nine fingered man to reveal himself was a great resolution. At that point, even those flats at the Yard could figure out something was amiss.

    I especially enjoyed the smaller characters, Margaret in the cottage who befriended Hannay and helped him escape, the whole story of her isolation there and her pleasure at being noticed and appreciated by Hannay added depth to the movie, as did the little couple that ran the Inn. When the husband asks "D'ya think they ah married?" and the wife responds "I doin kin an I doin care." it brought a smile to my face. I love those small background characters in these well done older movies. Many times they are very good, and these most certainly were.

  6. What struck me as extremely creepy was Hannay finally arriving at the Englishman's house in Scotland, and after all efforts to reach here and warn the man, it is discovered in the most matter of fact way that the professor was the nine-fingered man. The idea that great evil is lurking right there, and posing as ordinary and even examplary society, is very troubling, and also I am afraid, often true.

    I loved the scenes on the bridge, the conductors anger over the stopping of the train and his insistance that the rules be followed, the scenes of the bridge with the sound of the telegraph taping out the information ahead of our hero, making him, an innocent man, a man who must hide from reports of him that others might discover about his past, even though they weren't true - that was very good.

    I also really enjoyed the meeting where Mr. Hannay was mistaken for a war hero, him being asked to step out onto the stage and speak to the assembled gathering about the future of the country, all the while noticing the gathering of plainclothes "agents", and the send off by the real speaker "You're a hard man to follow" offered with a warm grin.

    Throughout, I couldn't help thinking about how London theaters would all be bombed out in a few short years, and the many men and women that would die at the hands of a designing foriegn power. Sobering to think of it.

    The readiness of Margaret to believe him and hide him from the police was in sharp contrast to Madeline Carroll's character. Is that the Scottish in her, that knows a man running from the British is as likely to be a good man as not? As opposed to the English gentlewoman, who is far more inclined to believe that anyone whom the police chase must be bad.

  7. Oh, bother. I've started to write up some comments three times, having watched the movie twice already, but keep getting pulled away. But I wanted to at least say that I really liked it (hence the second viewing -- so far!), and More Later.

    (Loving your comments, BTW!)

  8. First off to Blogger. Go bother yorself.
    If you can't detect that I am signed into my Google account, the least you can do is to save the comment for moderation.

    I propose we up our game and go for the trifecta.: The 1935 Hitchcock version; the 2008 BBC remake; and the 1978 version directed by Don Sharp. I'll throw that last one in as my coming pick.

    Of course, this is the perfect time for Matthew
    Coniam and anyone else to get involved. The book first published in 1915 invented the concept of the all-action hero that could get themself out of any predicament--as far as I know. And that provided fodder for that new medium of visual storytelling--cinema. Funny how these things go hand-in-hand like that.

    Anyway, I have access to all three now and I'm working on it.

  9. First up--Hitchcock.

    Margaret's trust in Richard has more to do with the man she lives with. I guess you do need darkness to see light. Richard put his trust in Margaret by telling her the story of how he was wanted for a crime he did not commit and she returned that trust by protecting him. How many times have we seen this since? A dashing man on the run relying on women to see him through? Dr. Richard Kimble might be able to tell us.

    Seeing the film, I had forgotten that I promised to use the line, "It's you're funeral" when a woman asked to go back to my place. I'll never forgive myself for that.

    All and all it was a thoroughly enjoyable film, very much ahead of it's time. I enjoyed seeing that early helicopter hovering the moors. Great cast as well. Now if all films today were as enjoyable. . .

    Great choice, Cathy!

  10. Next, the 2008 BBC version with Rupert Penry-Jones.

    Not as bad as I was suspecting. A little confusion with the writers treating WWI as if it were WWII, but no more so than say The African Queen. I thought Rupert Penry-Jones
    did a good job overall, he just lacks some of the bad-boy playfulness of Robert Donat.The twist they were going for at the end didn't appeal to me at all. And the German agent on the dock would have had to have been in on it to have carried it off successfully. Or were they saying that the military/medical personnel left him there knowing that he was still alive and would shoot to provide her with the "out" she was looking for? (Or were that incompetent, but it gave her an exit anyway.)

    Some PC intrusions, but on the whole, not terribly bothersome.

    I liked the Hitchcock version better, but that is no knock on this production.

  11. The readiness of Margaret to believe him and hide him from the police was in sharp contrast to Madeline Carroll's character.

    Don't be too hard on Pamela -- her skepticism only mirrors Hannay's, for whom it took seeing the men down on the street corner to make him believe Anabella Smith's story. In fact, it was great fun watching Pamela fight her growing appreciation for Hannay well before she heard the agent's phone call that corroborated his story.

    And of course, he didn't exactly win her sympathy on their first meeting. Believe me, being kissed both heartily and unexpectedly by a complete stranger does not automatically predispose a young woman to see him in a favorable light.

    What struck me as extremely creepy was the coolness of Jordan's wife, completely unperturbed at the scene she walks in on, indifferent to both the tension between the two men and the gun in her husband's hand, to remind him his lunch is waiting.

    One of my favorite scenes is of Pamela and Hannay, having escaped the fake policemen, when Hannay points out that Pamela had better cooperate with him, just in case he is the killer he's believed to be, and he starts playing tough-guy, while she tries to decide whether she should be afraid of him. And the whole exchange about registering at the inn, and Madeline Carroll's face as the horror ("Perhaps I could lend the young lady a nightgown?") unfolds. And then to watch her Pamela trying not to laugh as Hannay "recounts" his criminal history.

    (I really enjoyed the way they lingered on the actors' faces even in the less dramatic moments, portraits in light and shadow and soft-focus, letting us watch the characters take in what's happening, watch them process or ponder or suddenly understand the implications of what they've learned.)

    And Donat's Hannay is just so delicious. Cool, calm and collected -- well, mostly -- with his natural friendliness and irrepressible humor.

    I loved that there was so much humor throughout the movie, not just the moments that come from the characters' interactions, but also the silliness, on and off the stage, of the music halls -- such an interesting glimpse of such a different time.

    And I love the more human scale, and pace, and the generally lighter tone of this "thriller," compared to so many of the movies made since that have increasingly left the viewer more exhausted than the hero. Perhaps this is a happy by-product of what Matthew Coniam was admiring about Hitchcock, and the purity and an economical brilliance to the British work that is lost when he goes Hollywood. So now I want to watch the various other versions of The 39 Steps AND the other early Hitchcock's, especially, goodness knows why, The Lady Vanishes.

  12. I'm rewatching the 1978 version, which I haven't seen for years, this afternoon. I shall return...

  13. The wife and I really enjoyed it. Content-wise a real jumble of bits from the Hitchcock, bits from the original novel not in the Hitchcock, and a few all new ideas, notably the climax (which is the most famous thing about this version, but which I won't spoil just in case you don't know what happens - but it's great fun.)
    Only problems are a slightly hurried ending and - this a problem not for fans of the book but only for those coming to it hot from the Hitchcock - the comparitive lack of visual distraction for gentleman viewers. There is a heroine, but she doesn't get handcuffed to Hannay or have to take her stockings off; the mysterious lady spy that hides out in Hannay's flat at the beginning is Sir John Mills this time round.
    It all looks like a very glossy tv movie, studded with classy British thesps, nice photography, good locations.

  14. ... I won't spoil just in case you don't know what happens...

    Thank you! (I'm nowhere near caught up.)

  15. (Odd -- I thought I posted this last night.)

    Darrell, wait up!

    The 2008 Penry-Jones version isn't a streaming option from Netflix, so I won't be able to get it 'til mid-week.

    From what I've read so far, it seems that the 1978 version (that's the one you want for your pick, right?) is the closest to the novel, which I very curious about. It isn't available on Netflix at all, or at any of the Blockbusters near me, but there is an on-line site I could try. (; McAfee SiteAdvisor OKs it, so I'd be "safe," right?)

  16. "Don't be too hard on Pamela -- her skepticism only mirrors Hannay's, for whom it took seeing the men down on the street corner to make him believe Anabella Smith's story. In fact, it was great fun watching Pamela fight her growing appreciation for Hannay well before she heard the agent's phone call that corroborated his story."

    Yes, of course that is a very good point.

    "And of course, he didn't exactly win her sympathy on their first meeting."

    Well, yes, I recognize the young man's actions were presumptuous. I suppose certain liberties must be taken when attempting to allude the police, but I do not pretend to condone such brazen forwardness.....

    : )

  17. Hey, he took a chance! (I think Pamela forgave him.) ;)

  18. Of course I meant "It's your funeral." My monitor is going out and I can hardly read the small text on the left side (where the comment box is).

    Pamela thought the kiss was a ruse to escape police, Had she thought it was an uncontrollable reaction to the sight of her, she might have felt differently about it.

    Does anyone here believe that someone involved with a murder doesn't have to face police questioning? I found their relationship plausible and charming. Although I would have expected a bit more screaming for help when he escaped from the car, dragging her along. At the point she would have felt that it was her last chance before being killed, if he really was that dangerous.

  19. I had to settle for the 1959 Ralph Thomas remake of the Hitchcock version starring Kenneth More and Taina Elg. But it did give me stockings coming off and a charming accent. . .Finnish with a coached wee bit of Scottish thrown in for good measure.

    My source for the 1978 version disappeared and it only left a Chinese site that wouldn't let me take it from the US. Hollywood pressuring the poor Chinese. I guess they didn't get the memo about who is in charge.

  20. I was not able to see the versions that Darrell was speaking of, but I did get the 2008 version with Rupert Penry-Jones, which I thought was good. I enjoyed Mr. Penry-Jones, but they were trying to do something quite a bit different with the story, and the double crossing and false fronts, of the heroine in particular, ended up making the hero somewhat of a flat. Giving him the slip after being shot and then allowing him a brief glimpse at the railstation prior to leaving for a war that many will not return from didn't make the story any more palatable. I still enjoyed the production, and I found the characters engaging. Still, I suppose if I am going to watch a re-make of a Hitchcock classic, I probably should allow more time between the two to give the remake a better chance.

  21. The 1959 remake is on Netflix streaming.

    They also destroyed his motivation/sense of peril for clearing his name by telling you that British Intelligence was on to it from the beginning.

    Let's call this one a rewind or reboot.

  22. Everything except the "heads up" refers to the
    2008 version, of course.

  23. The production was good, and I enjoyed the actors, but everything they did to the story confused and undermined it. I believe they felt the had to butch up the heroine so we could see she was Hannay's equal. The sad truth is that she was that in the 1939 original, the fools just didn't seem to realize it.

  24. " we could see she was Hannay's equal."
    Superior. She was the pro. He was a dabbler.

    I'd like someone to explain to me how that ruse on the dock could have been planned in advance.
    Did they put blanks in the German agent's gun?
    If not, what if he would have shot Hannay? Why didn't anyone say "Hey! You missed one" when the crowd of police, soldiers, spies was leaving? No room on the meatwagon? Couldn't Hannay take "no" for an answer or "I'm too busy with the coming war and such to date right now?" Did they need Hannay going about drumming up support for the war? Was she so well know that she needed a cover
    of being dead? {But not changing her look, or disassociating herself from her brother.]

    I know, they just wanted a surprise reveal. Good show! I bet you can add one of those to anything.

  25. Oh, it seems like spies are always taking advantage of being nearly killed to let everyone think they're dead. No one needed to have planned the shooting on the dock to decide it made for a good opportunity to have an agent in play that everyone thought had been eliminated.

    As for the rest of the 2008 version, I thought they kind of over-complicated things with the premise that the Home Office knew all about Hannay and let him think he was on his own, when really , etc., etc., etc. And the brother who's not good with secrets (that the supposedly-dead agent uses to set up her assignation??) -- was he really a lovable misfit running for office, or was that part of the cover story that let Victoria attach herself to Hannay when they "mistook" him for the speaker? I had thought him a very dear character, and I was happy to see he had found a calling when he showed up in uniform, but then I wasn't sure how much he had been in on all along.

    But the show was fun, and so different from the Hitchcock version* it doesn't even seem like the same story. (I do hope we can find that 1978 production -- otherwise I'm going to have to read the book, and it's the first of five featuring Hannay, and that could end up taking quite a while... ) I liked watching Patrick Malahide (Rev. Casaubon from Middlemarch) in such a different role. And, although Persuasion is probably ;) the better movie, I thoroughly enjoyed Rupert Penry-Jones.

    * (which I could, and probably will, watch a third time)

    I hope to watch the 1959 version in the next day or so.

  26. Well, I believe I am up. I think we could do with a show about resolving conflicts with your family, valuing life, letting your children know how much you love them and putting things into perspective, played out by an excellent Anthony Hopkins confronted by death, who has taken the form of the handsome young Brad Pitt. Joe, as Hopkins calls his companion.

    The movie has an excellent score. I think you all might enjoy 'Meet Joe Black'. It should be up in a couple of days.

  27. OK, so, I watched the 1959 The 39 Steps, and found it to be a very... odd, experience. Adding new, or leaving out, scenes was no biggie, especially since I don't know what was in the book and what wasn't. And we'd already seen that different versions added or modified characters. What was weird was having big chunks of dialogue repeated verbatim from the Hitchcock version, in between the stuff that Ralph Thomas et al made up.

    As for the cast -- Taina Elg was quite fetching.

    And the scenes where Hannay and "Fisher" are declaring their dislike for each other were very believable. ;)

    Mostly, though, it makes me appreciate Hitchcock, Donat and Carroll that much more.

    But now I have to read the book, if just to see whether there's a fortune-teller in it.

  28. That's why I said remake of the Hitchcock version.
    Just relying on memory, the people associated with the 1959 version had the rights to Hitchcock's version. The director (Ralph Thomas) essentially said that Hitchcock's was the perfect film, so he decided to make an homage to The Master--with a few changes thrown in to provide a wee bit of originality. Thomas did talk to Hitchcock beforehand, explaining what his obligations to the studio and asking "permission." Hitchcock told him to do as he must, but keeping in mind that the new version won't be as good.

    It's main value, to me, is the glimpse it gives us of 1959 Britain.

    By the way, I think that the changes do work better than the original, making the plot a bit more plausible, less coincidental.

    I've also realized that I have seen all of these versions over the years--including the 1978 one. I remember the Big Ben scene from the DVD cover art.

  29. Oh, btw, no fortune teller in the book.

    Stories like that were a favorite of London papers of the time (1950s and 1960s), though. Reporting fraud convictions on one hand, while promoting the
    uncanny predictions of others and building interest.

  30. I dont understand how can anyone like this movie so much.

    Watching it in 2011
    The plot is dull.
    Watching it 70 years later obviously the only other saving grace to the film could be brilliant characters and actors which imo this film is lacking. This is no Kind Hearts and Coronets

    This is a mediocre film that does not merit watching it 70 years later. Which only selling point is that Hitchcock was involved

  31. Answering for myself, there are tricks involved in appreciating older movies. The first is to make an attempt to imagine you are actually living at the time the film was made - think of what was going on in the world, how people were getting around, what were people saying and doing, what were they concerned about. The opportunity exists in watching an older movie to get an insight into the people of the day, one that you would never get from watching a movie made today attempting to represent the time period in question. In fact, this is one of the major complaints that I and fellow movie lover and critic Matthew Coniam have with today's period pieces, which is the vehicles, machines and uniforms all look correct, but the characters themselves are all wrong. 1998's 'Saving Private Ryan' is a good example, where the CGI of massed C-47 transport planes looks right, and Hank's Capt. Miller is spouting off the names of the machine gun types the German's are using like nobody's business:

    "Yes sir, the German's were using three M-39s and two M-42s protecting those 88s"

    Hmm. He's speaking with far more certainty and authority than most officers and any enlisted man in the US army of the day. Then midway through the movie Pvt Richard Reiben decides that he's not putting up with Captain Miller and his soft headed notions about dealing with prisoners, and he decides to buck the captain and quit.

    How's that, again? An army Ranger? Fighting in the middle of the biggest operation this country has ever attempted in it's epic fight for freedom and Democracy, and he just ups and quits?! He's gonna shoot it out with the Sergeant over it? Simply put, that would just never happen. The man would never say those words. He never would even be thinking those thoughts - it simply doesn't work. We don't take a vote over whether or not you are happy with how the mission is going. And though a movie made in 1939 would have distortions of its own, that would never be one of them. In an effort to become "real" in its presentation, the movie of today is utterly unreal in its presentation of the people. A movie made in 1939 is absent these odd, modern attitudes, and is full of attitudes that make sense to the people of the day. The Scottish inn keeper being wise about the young couple in their room, or her lack of compunction over thwarting the authorities chasing them, it all fits perfectly for the time. If it seems curious to you, then the problem is you have failed to enter their world, or even conceived that they are operating on different ideas than you may today.

    The second recommendation I would have is to not be distracted by what appears to you to be substandard props. My own father, in criticising 'You Gotta Stay Happy', said it was a fun show, but the plane flying through the storm didn't look realistic at all. Well, who the heck cares? Do you think anyone flying through a storm has a good view of what their plane would look like from outside at 20,000 feet? Do we really think that being able to see an underwater view of the Titanic as it sinks to the bottom enhances our understanding of what has gone on? These are mere window dressing, and when the window dressing competes for our attention we have a poor drama. One might as well be critical that the back drops of a stage production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar didn't convince you that you were looking at early Rome. The columns were of the wrong design, or the vegetation seemed wrong for Italy. It all falls into the category of "Who cares?" Look past those minor things the show may not give you and look to what the show does give you. There was great stuff in 'The 39 Steps', and it will still be there for you if you trouble yourself to look at it again.

  32. Nicely put, James.

    Although I agree with your father about realism.
    It's all about maintaining that suspension of disbelief. Some, like me, don't like to break the spell. That's not to say that it ruins the whole movie, but it does motivate some to pursue technology--like CGI--to make it far less likely to happen in the future.

    Enjoy older films that show the world of the time
    outside of studio sets. That is something that human beings could not have for thousands of years--save for paintings. How lucky we all are now!

    One last point. Without those oldies blazing the paths, we would not have what we have now. And Hollywood would have no plotlines to resurrect and embellish. There are some like 94 sequels and remakes greenlighted as of this year. Hollywood doesn't have to guts to go wholly original.

  33. You shame me, James!
    When I saw this I was going to post a snarky one-sentence comeback, and only didn't because of this darned sign-in problem...
    Now I see what you've written I am reminded that it is always better to explain than to dismiss.
    Wonder if it sank in?

    But my position is that I have no interest in realism at all, partly because it never really is - only whatever is fashionably taken for it at any given time - and partly because it has nothing to do with art anyway.
    I say roll on the miniature sets, unfurl that backcloth, and tell me a story...


  34. I guess that explains Torchwood and
    Dr. Who, Matthew.