Classical Film Reviews · Film Reviews

Classic Film Review: The 39 Steps [1935]

Robert Towns, screenwriter of modern noir ‘Chinatown’ once remarked that it is ‘Not much of an exaggeration to say that all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with ‘The 39 Steps.’ This Alfred Hitchcock 1935 thriller certainly sets the foundations for the many ‘falsely accused man on the run’ films we have seen since.

Hitchcock, drawing on characters and situations created by John Buchan, in a novel that wasn’t much more than pulpy, here creates the classic movie-thriller recipe. He throws an amiable, innocent adventurer into a bubbling pot of espionage. Then allows the hero to sink so low he appears to be guilty—until finally he rescues his good name and the security of his nation.

The reluctant hero in this case is Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat), a Canadian staying in London who gets into trouble when secret agents kill a glamorous spy in his bachelor flat. Hannay runs to picturesque Scotland, to search for the kingpin of the spy network whilst eluding police who suspect him of the murder.

This theme- of the innocent man trapped in a web of intrigue- was one Hitchcock returned to so frequently the term “Hitchcockian hero” became shorthand for such characters. The audience hurtles along with the beleaguered hero through the twisting plot of a persecution and redemption fantasy. Enemy Agents and police chase our intrepid hero over breath-taking scenery. North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Saboteur are also amongst the films showing off his mastery of the technique.

The 39 Steps stands out because it was one of Hitchcock’s first “talkies”. As such, it is too brash in places…

but what stands out is his use of silence or the unheard. In one scene, a crofter mistakenly believes his wife and Hannay are plotting a late-night tryst after seeing them converse and not hearing what they say.

Another Hitchcock motif is clear in the film; When Hannay makes his getaway from London on the Flying Scotsman, he startles a bespectacled blonde (played by Madeleine Carroll) in a train compartment, forcing a kiss on her to fool the cops in the train’s corridor. In this era of rampant male chauvinism, Hannay expects her not only to have greatly enjoyed the forced kiss but also for her to utterly believe his protestations of innocence.

But Hitchcock’s women don’t behave that way- his icy blondes are strong and smart. Pamela won’t just take his word and in a taut thriller/slapstick mash up the two end up handcuffed together, with Hannay dependent on her for his freedom. Their odd-couple relationship is an erotic version of tough love.

Thriller films are either fantasies fulfilled or anxieties purged but The 39 Steps is both. Our hero is chained to a beautiful girl but accused of murder at the same time. Hannay might be Canadian but the film is quintessentially British- and here he fulfills another fantasy as he saves his country!

Hitchcock is able to rouse patriotic feelings without jingoism and with a master’s touch creates a whodunit throughout which we know who did it… but not why…

Film Reviews · New Film Reviews

Film Review: Shawshank Redemption [1994]

Shawshank Redemption regularly tops ‘best films of all time’ lists, and despite being a box office disappointment at the time, received multiple award nominations, has become a fan favourite and was selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. But is it actually a good film…?

Yes.

Obviously.

Shush.

Okay so, it’s a little mawkish, we never get to know the main character, it’s very long, the dialogue is deliberate, it’s almost universally bathed in a warm glow and it doesn’t break any rules or revolutionize the moviemaking business.

But isn’t that WHY it’s such a good film?

In 1940s Maine, banker Andy Dufresne is wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences at Shawshank State Penitentiary. There he befriends contraband smuggler Ellis “Red” Redding, who is also serving a life sentence. The film charts the men’s friendship as Andy tries to prove his innocence and break free, all whilst…

Oddly, for a film set inside a prison, “The Shawshank Redemption” creates warm feelings in audiences because we become part of the prisoners’ extended family. Ignoring the cheap thrills of vicarious experiences and superficial shocks of emotion from similar films (in which we pretend we relate to a situation the majority of us, fingers crossed, can never understand), the voiceover conceit is used so well here that the ‘othering’ actually brings us closer.

I say this a lot but I find that I’m more open and receptive to ideas when they’re not being shoved down my throat but instead subtly slipped in through a warm hug of a film. If you have a message to share then don’t make me turn away from the screen in disgust by using a brutal beating as a shock tactic- make me love that character so

I HAVE to keep watching to check they’re okay.

Although the hero of the film is former banker Andy, the action is never seen from his point of view and the voice over is Red’s. The redemption, when it comes, is Red’s. Through Andy’s example we’ve been shown that if you keep true to yourself, not give up hope, set a great example, bide your time and grab that chance when it eventually comes… you can make it.

The voiceover can be a sticking point for some viewers but it’s key to the film’s structure and shows that the film is not about the hero but about our relationship with him, the curiosity, pity and admiration. It adds a level of mystery that having Andy as the heroic centre would have destroyed. Yes, it keeps the viewer at arms length but no, that doesn’t stop our enjoyment. It in fact adds another level of deeper meaning- bare with me, I’m going to get meta here…

We don’t actually know for sure whether Andy did or did not commit the murders. He says he didn’t. He’s a good man. He doesn’t lie. The men surrounding him believe he didn’t do it. We feel for them, for him. We believe he didn’t do it.

But we don’t know.

This film gives an audience a message of hope, something we’re undoubtedly desperate for. We want him to be innocent and by keeping him in the spotlight but inscrutable the film makes him so. Could the film possibly be commenting on our tendency to allow our emotional reactions to cloud our judgement, the same way a jury does…?

And even if it isn’t, even if there is no deeper meaning… does that necessarily make it a bad film?

I for one am all for a feel-good.