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The 39 Steps Movie Review

The 39 Steps (1935)

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Written by: John Buchan (adapted from the novel by), Charles Bennett (adaptation), Ian Hay (dialogue)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim
Rated: – [PG]
Watch the trailer

A man in London tries to help a counter-espionage Agent. But when the Agent is killed, and the man stands accused, he must go on the run to save himself and stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information.

It was well received at the time, but the concept has been done better over the last eighty-five years. Even Hitchcock improved on the idea in North by Northwest. Older movies are difficult to rate as culture is vastly different, how movies are made is different, and so are expectations for realism and performance. This is a film history type movie, and an early insight into Hitchcock.
It depends.

Reviewing older films is difficult. They’re so far removed from contemporary culture and performances are more theatrical. There’s not as strong as a desire to capture realism. The sentiment of the time of what a movie is and could do is vastly different now. The problem is that I’m seeing this completely out of context. I’ve seen this type of movie dozens of times, but when this movie released there were few, if any, examples like it. I appreciate what it does and where it stands in the history of cinema even if I don’t particularly care for the movie.

The pace is certainly slower than a modern movie, but I could easily see this being remade.  A man is ensnared by a spy and becomes a fugitive as he seeks the truth. It sounds more exciting than it is. As a movie it just doesn’t grab me. I can think of many movies that follow a similar formula, but all of them came out after this movie. That’s what makes this a film history movie. All the movies that came after this one owe it a debt. This is early Hitchock, and you certainly can see it served as a basis for his later works, though this doesn’t outshine them. 

The acting is theatrical and performative; it never quite feels real. The plot is solid, as all the pieces matter, but this is focused more on adventure than character development. That’s fine except it just doesn’t feel real. It feels too much like a stage play.

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