The Set of 400: #327 – My Favorite Trivia-Based Espionage

Today! Because a beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen – sounds like a spy story –

The 39 Steps (1935)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Peggy Ashcroft, Lucie Mannheim, Wylie Watson, Godfrey Tearle, John Laurie, Helen Haye

Numerous remakes, including as a goofy play and a video game, may have dulled the memory of Hitchcock’s original film, which was instrumental in launching his fame across the ocean to America. Coming on the heels of his successful first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, 39 Steps’ tight spy tale was a big enough hit to secure him higher and higher profile talent, and cement him as a major filmmaker.

As I said in #370 Notorious, I’m not a huge Hitchcock guy, but his espionage thrillers still resonate with me. Sure, the proceedings probably aren’t given the proper gravity by Donat’s everyman Hannay, thus making it an easier tale to transform into straight comedy than, say, Notorious would’ve been (again, they did manage to make adapt movie into a stirring rap biopic though – see #329 Notorious). But the story still has enough twists and atmospheric moor-ish settings to fill the lean 86 minutes.

The middle spy plot is a fairly standard man-on-the-run-searching-for-the-truth yarn, but bolstered by Donat’s performance (solid, and kind of amusing) and bookended by the fascinating Mr. Memory vaudeville house scenes, the first taking on greater significance when you reach the second.

He commits so many facts to memory! But what are the 39 Steps??

Hitch grabbed a Best Director nomination from the New York Film Critics, but the movie was largely overlooked otherwise. Hitchcock never had a ton of success with the Academy, really, excepting Rebecca’s Best Picture win five years after this. I remarked a few years back when Kobe Bryant won for Best Animated Short Film – “You know, Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar.” Honorary, sure, but competitive? Why do we acknowledge what the Academy honors at all? So I’m going to hand over the true prize for this movie – Best Pressing Agricultural Inquiry, to the man insistingly asking Mr. Memory that timeless, unanswered question, “What causes pip in poultry?”

Hitchcock joins the Two-Timers Directing club today, becoming the eighth member of the distinguished guild. We are yet to honor a Three-Timer in this wing, but the day is rapidly approaching! If my glancing at the calendar is correct, it should be only another fortnight! Stay tuned!

Coming tomorrow! The bartender needs more cold deer –

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