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The 39 Steps

Screening on Film
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
With Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim.
UK, 1935, 35mm, black & white, 81 min.

Freely adapted from John Buchanan’s spy novel, The 39 Steps set the standard for many Hitchcock chase pictures to follow: a charming and smugly self-satisfied man wrongly accused of a crime, his radiant and initially unwilling blonde accompaniment, a MacGuffin to bait the action, a rapidly evolving scenario, magnetic details, and the sneaking suspicion that the whole thing has more to do with sex than espionage. Robert Donat’s troubles begin after he brings a woman spy to his flat on a presumed one-night stand. Her dying words sets him off to the Scottish Highlands—beautifully photographed by Bernard Knowles—in search of a top spy with the telltale missing finger. The wrong man ends up handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll, a screwball turn that offers a fine preliminary sketch of Hitchcockian sexuality (“much teasing, much dissatisfaction, much tussling for dominance,” in the words of Raymond Durgnat).

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