"The 39-Steps," a 1935 four-star thriller, was adapted from a popular British novel about an innocent man caught in a web of crime at the hands of - whom? That's part of the mystery in Alfred Hitchcock's caper, and with the master of suspense at the helm, we learn the whole story including the meaning of the "39 Steps," but only at the very end, when, with Hitchcock's famous "MacGuffin," all becomes clear.
A MacGuffin, according to Hitchcock, is anything inserted into a film to account for all the action surrounding it. The black powder in wine bottles, in "Suspicion," could be anything ominous. The reason for spies chasing Cary Grant in "North by Northwest" is another arbitrary MacGuffin. That's part of the fun in Hitchcock's formation of his titillating thrillers. As in the "39 Steps," we are kept in suspense right to the final moment of illumination.
Said the N.Y. Times critic, "The film is vintage Hitchcock at its best, blending comedy with thrills and suspense to just the right degree as it completely rewrites a famous novel of the times, improving it by adding wry humor and a romantic interest to the mix."
Another review, comparing it to the director's earlier classic "The Man Who Knew Too Much," admitted that "the gifted director has made one of the most fascinating pictures of the year, with the theme of an innocent man pitted against a group of attacking masterminds, with his very life at stake." That "man on the run" motif was to become a celebrated Hitchcock device in his later Hollywood films.
After being witness to a murder, the man in question discovers that he is now involved in a game of counter-espionage against foreign spies who have stolen a valuable military secret (Aha, the MacGuffin!) and are preparing to sneak it out of the country. He also learns that he must beware of a man whose little finger is amputated at the first joint. Those are the clues and that's the setup, a delicious one with just the right amount of perverse humor as the man is chased to a Scottish hamlet - handcuffed, to make things more difficult, to a lovely, equally innocent lady.
Hitchcock has not disappointed us with his cast. Oscar winner Robert Donat as the man on the run possesses the perfect combination of suavity and skill in managing to stay one step ahead of his pursuers. The lovely Madeleine Carroll, likewise, is perfect as his unwilling partner. The two are abetted by John Laurie as the treacherous Scot who pretends to harbor the two of them, Peggy Ashcroft as Laurie's sympathetic wife, Godfrey Tearle as the mystery man with the missing finger and last, but certainly not least, Wylie Watson as the "memory expert" who in a moment of dramatic intensity finally solves the mystery before an astonished audience in a music hall.
The suspense and gallows humor - both Hitchcock trademarks - brought world praise; Hollywood recognized his talent and beckoned. The rest, as they say, is history - all beginning with this, a product of his learning years in England not long after he was dubbed "Sir Alfred" by the insightful king of England.
Hitchcock's trademark for making wry, nail-biting films that sometimes border on the sadistic lives on; the great master of mystery thrillers still satisfies audiences with his cutting edge suspense. Even years later, backed by his now recognizable devices in lighting, camera placement, and carefully designed editing, Hitchcock never disappoints.
His rarely seen thriller will be shown at Calumet Theatre's Club Indigo on Friday the 13th at 7:15 p.m., preceded at 6 p.m. by an Irish/British buffet from Laurium's Irish Times Pub and Restaurant. Cost is $18 for both buffet and film and $5 for the film alone. There is a discount for kids. To register for the buffet, call 337-2610 at least a day in advance.
Copper Harbor's Gas Light General Store is the sponsor for the film.
Rotten Tomatoes average: "The Watch," D+