monday, april 07, 2008
The 39 StepsAlfred Hitchcock looms formidably over modern cinema to the point that undertaking the examination of his work can be a daunting endeavor. But it is worth remembering that one of the key reasons his work has retained its importance for so long is because it’s so damned enjoyable to watch.
Best of all, it’s funny. Wickedly funny.
What makes it amazing is that you can start from there and go just about any direction you want because he’s taken such meticulous care in crafting the thing that it’s packed full of meaning waiting to be unleashed to the curious observer. But that’s certainly not a necessary requirement when you sit down to get started. All you need to do is sit back and trust him to do his thing.
The 39 Steps is seen as the high-water mark of the famed director’s stretch working for UK film companies before he decamped to Hollywood. This twelve-year span was less a period of apprenticeship than a honing of the skills he would then explore to their extremes over the rest of his career. It served as the genesis of his genius as the pre-eminent auteur.
The tale was penned in 1915 by Scottish author John Buchan who called it a “shocker”which he defined as a “romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.” And that’s about all Hitchcock felt the need to preserve for his cinematic version.
The 39 Steps starts in anonymity. A ticket is bought, admission is granted but who it is remains unknown. There is a sense of infinite possibility but, since the viewer at the time probably went through a similar process minutes before, there is also a sense of identification. The hero will be an everyman in the widest sense possible.
The theater is a sea of anonymous faces and a confusing cacophony of sound. It is not until the performer picks out Canadian Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) that we are introduced to our hero. And, within minutes, he is whisked away on the path that will lead him along this strange adventure and us along with him.
It is a devotion to his country that motivates Buchan’s hero but, in contrast, Hitchcock’s Hannay is a Canadian, a subject of the empire but his nation is not directly in peril in the same way. His objective is to elude pursuit and that, primarily, by the police. He is driven to expose the plot in order to clear himself of murder.
This is an archetypical Hitchockian theme and, by 1935, he had spent more than a decade exploring it already. When he came to make The 39 Steps he finally had the array of techniques he required to fully explore the power of film to tell his favorite tale.
These influences are clearly evident in The 39 Steps. The use of dramatic lighting and shadow are consistent throughout the film. While the Germans used these effects to create a cinematic world where horror, darkness and insanity were the basis of reality and their experiments would later influence American film noir and fuel the nascent horror genre as well.
Hitchcock, of course, took the effects and used them as a tool for his own ends. In his hands they are a means of heightening the suspense and feeling of paranoia in otherwise mundane settings. The world looks normal but you don’t quite feel it is that way.
The farmer’s cottage echoes the non-realistic, geometrically absurd sets taken to such powerful extremes in films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The window in the bedroom is dramatically askew even though it appears normal for a closeup when the woman peers through it to see the cars approaching the cottage looking for Hannay.
Hitchcock is less interested in making the bold artistic statement than creating the undercurrent of unease that marks the sexual relationship between the farmer and his young wife.
One thing that makes Hitchcock’s use of these techniques stand out is his control where lesser directors would have relied on them too heavily. The famed “Dutch angle,” for instance – a cliché today due to overuse – is employed sparingly but effectively. The effect starts off the film with the shot of the teller booth at the music hall and shows up once more at a critical point of the plot but he eschews it elsewhere.
Throughout the film, shadows and light are also used in specific scenes to set a specific mood then set aside elsewhere. In fact it’s the absence of effects that make one of the more dramatic scenes bristle with tension. Hitchcock “leads you down the garden path” and, the moment you relax, he unveils his dramatic point.
All of this, of course, is bent to the director’s ends. One of which is plumbing the uncomfortable battlefield in the war of the sexes.
The interaction with Madeleine Carroll’s Pamela is as close to slapstick as Hitchcock ever allowed and, even at this case, it’s to hone in on the sexual tension that ripples beneath the surface of the entire film. Carroll is superb as a woman dead set against this man she’s been shackled to but who learns to listen to her own intuition about him.
Their attempt to obtain a room at a hotel while handcuffed together focuses almost completely on the sexual tension between them. His pleading has so far put her off but his forcing himself on her has clearly raised her passions (although not her sympathies). A good bit of this sequence is played as jest but Hitchcock’s camera makes sure danger of the sexual overtones is there as well.
When Pamela tries to remove her stockings Donat chipperly offers to help and is turned down, ostensibly in jest but, one suspects, not completely. Hitchcock involves the viewer in the tension by holding the camera on her legs much longer than necessary to simply underscore the point of how clumsy it is to complete the maneuver whilst handcuffed to someone else.
His lewdness would be almost shocking if it weren’t so tongue in cheek. His sexual connotations start off as a sort of running in-joke but become so commonplace they raise more disconcerting questions about the character’s sexuality and the conflicting moral standards we hold toward sex in general.
Take two contrasting cases Hitchcock lays out for the viewer in The 39 Steps. When Hannay tell the milkman the truth of his plight – that there is a murdered woman in his apartment – the man is suspicious. Then, when he changes the story to a sordid little tale of adultery the man not only believes but becomes an accomplice. Making another man a cuckold is somehow acceptable in this case.
Yet, when he’s in the Scottish cabin, the situation changes completely. The farmer accuses him of trying to sleep with his wife. Hannay, in desperation, tells the truth – he’s an accused murderer – and suddenly the farmer’s disposition changes. In this case adultery is grounds for punishment but murder, that’s negotiable.
And the general perception of sex of those around him seems to be of irreverence or ridicule. The discussion between the two men in the cabin is unmistakably full of innuendo. It’s a well laid device following the willing complicity of the milkman and the leering jeers of the drinks of the music hall.
“Put a pretty girl inside those and she needn’t be ashamed of herself anywhere,” the salesman quips. “Bring it back to me when it’s filled,” responds his companion.
Similarly, they are dismissive of their own chosen relationships with their wives; the one man visibly shuddering when considering her in sexual terms. The idea of a healthy relationship between a man and a woman that includes a sexual aspect seems beyond comprehension to the characters in the film up to this point.
Hannay is clearly a casual womanizer. Given the offer to take an anonymous woman home with him he doesn’t struggle too long over the moral peculiarities of the situation.
Eventually, he does get Smith into his bed, just not in the manner he intended.
But his home is empty as his life is empty. White sheets cover the furniture in his apartment and it doesn’t seem to bother him too much. There is no-one he is answerable to but there is also nothing anchoring him as well. But he will be caught in chains soon enough.
When Hannay meets Pamela on the train he’s a desperate man trying to evade the police. When he enters her compartment and immediately embraces her in a kiss Hitchcock highlights her surprise – and arousal – by a shot of her dropping her glasses. That same shot shows how Hannay has “linked” himself to her wrist. They are not physically hooked together yet, but the connection has been made.
Although she is clearly aroused by the overture, when he becomes apologetic she immediately spurns him. There is a clear allusion that she desires Hannay to play the role of the sexual predator – a pattern that continues when they become handcuffed together.
Each time he is pleading or polite she becomes frigid while every time he threatens to overpower her she becomes more sexually aroused. And the scene with the stockings implicates the viewer in this charged situation as well.
But Hannay and Pamela are not merely seeking a sexual diversion, there is a real connection growing between them emotionally that matches the one that is holding them together physically. When Priscilla frees herself and then learns the truth she still chooses to stay with him instead of returning to her business.
And then, at the end, they join hands voluntarily even though the handcuffs that once forced them together still hang on Hannay’s wrist. Hitchcock’s point is clear, the connection between them now – though not visible - is just as real and much more permanent.
Which, of course, is one of Hitchcock’s other great themes – the redemptive quality and permanence of love.
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