"The 39 Steps"

A crisp transfer shows the Hitchcock classic as you've never seen it before -- black cat and all.

By Charles Taylor
Published August 11, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"The 39 Steps"
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll
The Criterion Collection; original format (1.33:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Production-design drawings, audio essay, radio adaptation, documentary, more

Unless you were lucky enough to see Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" during its original 1935 release, you've probably never seen it as gorgeously presented as it is on Criterion's DVD. The disc is kitted out with all manner of extras -- production-design drawings, page-by-page reproductions from the film's press book, an audio essay on the film by Marian Keane, a documentary on Hitchcock's British films and a 1937 radio adaptation of the film with Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino.

The extras are fun, but the biggest treats are the restored images and sound, which surpass even Criterion's release of the film on laser disc. In one scene, you can even glimpse a detail that was never visible in existing prints: a black cat briskly crossing a Scottish street at twilight. I don't know how many dozens of times I've seen "The 39 Steps" (it's one of those movies I can watch anytime), but this DVD made me feel as if I were seeing it for the first time.

"The 39 Steps" is the film that introduced the distinctive combination of thriller and romantic comedy that Hitchcock went on to repeat in "The Lady Vanishes" and "North by Northwest," that Stanley Donen polished to perfection in the sublime "Charade" and that Steven Soderbergh tips his hat to in "Out of Sight."

The plot involves Robert Donat, with his offhand charm and light, lilting voice, becoming handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll in order to clear himself of a murder rap. But the real story is about danger as romantic enticement. And though in the final shot Hitchcock introduces the moral ambiguity and Catholic guilt that would mark his later, heavier-spirited period, it's the tone of casual sophistication that carries the film. Except in the scenes with the young Peggy Ashcroft as a lonely Scottish housewife married to a Bible-thumbing brute: As with Keith Carradine in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," you have to get Ashcroft out of your head as soon as she's off-screen. Otherwise you'd be too sad to even contemplate having a good time.

To the next review in the DVD Room

"The Birds" Tote up all its flaws and you still reach the same conclusion: Hitchcock's ornithological thriller is simply terrifying.
By Charles Taylor [08/14/00]

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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