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The 39 Steps
cast: Robert Donat, Lucie Mannheim, Madeleine Carroll, Peggy Ashcroft, and John Laurie

director: Alfred Hitchcock

82 minutes (U) 1935
Carlton DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by Gary Couzens

At the music hall, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) meets a woman with a foreign accent (Lucie Mannheim) who calls herself Annabella Smith. She is an agent for hire, spying for the highest bidder. The next day, she is killed with a knife in the back and Hannay is framed for her murder.
   Alfred Hitchcock had such a long, rich and prolific career that there are effectively many Hitchcocks. There are his British films and those he made in Hollywood. Some prefer his explorations into the dark side of his characters; others favour Hitchcock when he simply set out to entertain. If you are in the latter camp, then The 39 Steps (along with The Lady Vanishes) is one of the peaks of his British years. It's been remade twice, virtually scene-by-scene in 1959 and in a not-at-all-bad 1978 version that's much more faithful to John Buchan's novel. However, the 1935 version is still the best. Plot-wise, it's one long chase, leading all the way up to Scotland and back to London again. John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft (both looking frighteningly young) turn up as a crofter and his wife. Hitchcock's cameo is five minutes in, at a bus stop.
   As entertainment, The 39 Steps is close to perfection: an adroit mix of fast-paced thrills mixed with comic relief. For 1935, it was pretty racy stuff, notably the scene where Madeleine Carroll removes her stockings. Hitchcock analysts have had a field day with the fact that Donat and Carroll are handcuffed together for a third of the running time.
   Carlton's special edition DVD features English hard-of-hearing subtitles, biographies, a stills gallery and production drawings. The film itself is in its original ratio of 4:3 (in black and white) with mono sound. The major extra is a 24-minute documentary, Hitchcock: The Early Years. It's informative, though there will be nothing very surprising for Hitchcockians. However, there are some good anecdotes from those interviewed, plus a chance to see clips from some of Hitch's rarer films.

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