Tag Archives: Gaumont British Distributors

The 39 Steps (1935, Alfred Hitchcock)

There are numerous good moments in The 39 Steps. Even the clunky finale is a good moment–director Hitchcock knows he’s got a good moment, he just doesn’t know how to fill in around it. This inability on Hitchcock’s part makes The 39 Steps immediately interesting when compared to the rest of Hitchcock’s filmography, but far less on its own. The film’s got a bad pace at less than ninety minutes. It’s a “man on the run” thriller with constant danger and it’s got a bad pace.

For the first half of the film, when lead Robert Donat finds out about a conspiracy against Great Britain and tries to stop it, is all right. There’s some great editing by Derek N. Twist and Hitchcock does well with the commentary on Londoners. And Donat and Lucie Mannheim, who plays a spy, have some solid chemistry. Donat’s just a regular guy–a Canadian who does business occasionally in London–so all this intrigue is a big deal for him. Only it’s not, because Donat doesn’t have a character to play. Charles Bennett and Ian Hay’s script does nothing for its characters–the most interesting thing Donat does is flirt with suffering housewife Peggy Ashcroft. It’s 39 Steps best scene in a lot of ways, because it’s entirely successful. Even Hitchock’s ambitious set pieces later on in the film aren’t entirely successful. There’s always something off, be it the editing–Twist is far better at confusion than action–or Bernard Knowles’s simultaneously impressive and problematic cinematography. Most of the set pieces have a big, detailed set to play out on and Knowles shoots them blandly. Hitchcock doesn’t use them well either, which is another problem (and reason 39 Steps is historically splendid), but the lighting would help a lot.

And then there’s “leading lady” Madeleine Carroll. Hitchcock, Bennett and Hay work to make her as unlikable as possible, then she gets her big revelation scene and gets to moon over Donat. See, she doesn’t believe he’s a good guy.

There’s a certain charm to how the film builds up–Donat moving around, meeting various people–even villain Godfrey Tearle only gets a few scenes and his mid-second act showdown with Donat is brief. The film uses that narrative device, which is mostly expository but imaginatively handled, for so long, it becomes the most distinct element of the film. And then Hitchcock chucks it for the last third.

The action set pieces during the chase in Scotland have a lot of enthusiasm but they just don’t connect. Maybe if Carroll and Donat had some actual chemistry when she’s got to hate him but they don’t. It’s even worse because Bennett and Hay go out of their way to make her worse. And she ends up the protagonist in the third act so Hitchcock can do a couple surprises. It’s got a lot of problems.

I can’t be particularly disappointed in The 39 Steps because it never actually seems like anything is going to fully connect. Hitchcock doesn’t have the narrative distance down, he doesn’t have the balance between cinematographic devices and narrative ones. Though that second half is so poorly paced, it just annoys.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, based on the novel by John Buchan; director of photography, Bernard Knowles; edited by Derek N. Twist; produced by Michael Balcon; released by Gaumont British Distributors.

Starring Robert Donat (Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela), Lucie Mannheim (Miss Smith), Godfrey Tearle (Professor Jordan), Peggy Ashcroft (Crofter’s Wife), John Laurie (Crofter), Helen Haye (Mrs. Jordan) and Wylie Watson (Mr. Memory).


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Sabotage (1936, Alfred Hitchcock)

Sabotage demands the viewer's attention. It opens with a dictionary definition of Sabotage, forcing the viewer to read something and then immediately relate it to the rapidly edited sabotage of a power station. This sequence, which sets off the first act of the film, takes place in maybe a minute, maybe less. Charles Frend's editing is rapid and fluid; it's ever moving, ever graceful.

This first act almost seems like a stage play, establishing the principal cast members. There's suspicious husband Oskar Homolka, his young wife Sylvia Sidney, her younger brother (the reason why she's married to a troll, even if he's nice) Desmond Tester and, finally, the too friendly shop keep from next door John Loder.

Over the film's first sixteen or so minutes, Hitchcock creates an odd domestic short. Sidney doesn't question Homolka, who maybe is just suspicious generally and not explicitly.

But then everything changes–the film follows Homolka and Loder on their separate paths, with Sidney and Tester sort of the spheres they're exerting gravity on. Hitchcock is very expressionistic during the first half of the film; the odd domestic situation, while apparently tolerable, is a little off.

Later on is when Hitchcock opens up, when Sabotage has its first amazing sequence. Then there's a lull and then the second amazing sequence. The second one is nearly silent. The finale, which is intricate, is just gravy.

Sidney and Homolka are both fantastic. Loder's strong. Excellent supporting cast.

Great script, great direction, great Bernard Knowles photography–Sabotage's entirely phenomenal.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, Helen Simpson, E.V.H. Emmett and Alma Reville, based on a novel by Joseph Conrad; director of photography, Bernard Knowles; edited by Charles Frend; produced by Michael Balcon; released by Gaumont British Distributors.

Starring Sylvia Sidney (Mrs. Verloc), Oskar Homolka (Karl Anton Verloc), Desmond Tester (Stevie), John Loder (Ted), Joyce Barbour (Renee), Matthew Boulton (Superintendent Talbot), S.J. Warmington (Hollingshead) and William Dewhurst (The Professor).


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Non-Stop New York (1937, Robert Stevenson)

I’d almost say Non-Stop New York has to be seen to be believed, but it might imply someone else should suffer through the film’s endless seventy-some minute running time. It’s a completely idiotic British attempt at an American proto-noir.

The film opens in New York, so you have a bunch of British actors not really even bothering hiding their accents. The opening introduces James Pirrie, Anna Lee and Francis L. Sullivan. All three are atrocious, but only Sullivan is at all interesting in his bad performance. He plays the portly villain a little like a flaming Adam West “Batman” villain. However, being interesting doesn’t make his performance any less awful.

Luckily, Pirrie dies quickly, then Lee’s off to England to be falsely accused in a related manner and she has to get back to the States to save an innocent man.

The idiocy of the script manifests most prominently in Pirrie’s murder case. Lee is a witness to the crime and the entire world (literally) is looking for her. Except, of course, John Loder’s Scotland Yard inspector, who dismisses her.

Loder’s bad too.

Particularly annoying is Desmond Tester (who appears in the second half, which is Grand Hotel with intrigue, set on a double decker airplane crossing the Atlantic).

The only passable performances are Athene Seyler and, to a lesser extent, Frank Cellier.

In defense of Stevenson’s weak direction, he seems to think he’s directing an absurdist comedy.

Unfortunately, the joke’s on the audience (I couldn’t resist).

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Stevenson; screenplay by J.O.C. Orton, Roland Pertwee, Curt Siodmak and E.V.H. Emmett, based on a novel by Ken Attiwill; director of photography, Mutz Greenbaum; edited by Al Barnes; music by Hubert Bath, Bretton Byrd and Louis Levy; released by Gaumont British Distributors.

Starring John Loder (Inspector Jim Grant), Anna Lee (Jennie Carr), Francis L. Sullivan (Hugo Brant), Frank Cellier (Sam Pryor), Desmond Tester (Arnold James), Athene Seyler (Aunt Veronica), William Dewhurst (Mortimer), Drusilla Wills (Mrs. Carr), Jerry Verno (Steward), James Pirrie (Billy Cooper), Ellen Pollock (Miss Harvey), Arthur Goullet (Abel), Peter Bull (Spurgeon), Tony Quinn (Harrigan) and H.G. Stoker (Captain).


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