The 39 Steps: The Criterion Collection
While Alfred Hitchcock is best-known for his American films, which had generous budgets, big Hollywood stars, and a seasoned director behind the camera, serious Hitch aficionados know that his British career stretching roughly from 1922 to 1939 contains a treasure trove of small cinematic gems. Hitch fans love to pore over these films, picking out the most salient evidence of his budding genius, and while the 1937 The Lady Vanishes seems to be his most popular effort from this period, it is 1935's The 39 Steps that first introduced his favorite theme: the innocent man, wrongly accused of a crime, who must expose his antagonists before the police toss him in the klink. It's a plot Hitchcock never tired of re-fashioning over and over again, appearing in such later films as Saboteur, The Wrong Man, North By Northwest, and even his penultimate work, 1972's Frenzy. All of these films have their merits (North By Northwest is certainly one of Hitch's best flicks ever), but The 39 Steps is the crown jewel of his British period. Robert Donat stars as Canadian Richard Hannay, a sometime resident of London who must flee for his life after a woman turns up dead in his flat and the coppers finger him for the crime. Following a lead that may expose his houseguest's killers, Hannay travels by train and on foot to Scotland, but he walks into the middle of a spy ring that is only too willing to kill interlopers. With nowhere to turn, Hannay must rely upon Pamela (Madeline Carroll), an icy blonde (yet another first in Hitchcockian lore) who thinks he's a murderer. She also can't stand him, but as they are handcuffed to each other and on the run from the spies, diplomacy eventually becomes the better part of valor. Adapted from John Buchan's popular novel by Charles Bennett and Alma Reville (that would be "Mrs. Hitchcock" to you), The 39 Steps is easily a top-ten Hitch-flick as well as a masterpiece of economy, spinning its harried plot in a variety of directions before it arrives at a breathless conclusion, and all in a mere 86 minutes. Criterion's DVD release offers a digitally restored source print in the original 1.33:1 ratio and cleaned-up audio in the original mono on a DD 1.0 track. The presentation is very enjoyable and a relief for those who have suffered too long with the various low-grade videotapes in circulation over the years. Extras on this feature-packed item include a commentary track with Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane, a 20-minute Janus Films documentary on Hitchcock's British period narrated by Douglas Fairbanks Jr., the one-hour Lux Radio production of The 39 Steps starring Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino, original production-design drawings, and a recreation of the original press book for the film from 1935. It's enough to make Hitch fans think they've died and gone to heaven.