The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock / United Kingdom, 1935):

From London to the Highland Moors and back, a Canadian's tour. A fine dash of chaos gets it rolling, the bravura layering of applause and catcalls at a music hall (variously remembered by Fellini) culminates with a gunshot that steers the vacationing businessman (Robert Donat) into the freelance secret agent (Lucie Mannheim). "Beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story." The knife in her back gleams in the middle of the night, morning comes and he's a fugitive on the espionage grid. Kafka is funny and Alfred Hitchcock's Kafka doubly so, a POV shot during the train ride to Scotland splits the screen horizontally between a newspaper with incriminating pictures and the grinning eyes of a brassiere salesman. (A chase halts for a second so a cheery porter can offer a spot of tea in the dining car.) The shadowy leader is a Mabuse, "he has a dozen names and can look like a hundred people," his last guise is that of family man (Godfrey Tearle). Donat's suave comedy of anxiety cries for a partner, he gets one in the frosty blonde (Madeleine Carroll) who reluctantly joins the manacled race: "There are 20 million women in this island, and I'm chained to you!" Hitchcock in this breathless watershed misses nothing, the amputated pinky joint and the bullet in the hymn book, even Magritte's pipe makes an appearance. The camera jiggles inside a moving car and then backs away to watch it drive up the hilly, winding road; at the countryside hotel, it simply tilts down from the handcuffed couple on the bed for a Buñuelian view of damp nylons being peeled off. (By contrast, the interlude with the dour crofter and his young wife gives the skeleton of a Pinter playlet, piercingly fleshed out by John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft.) Saboteur, North by Northwest, Torn Curtain... Loyalty to art more than to conspirators, the dilemma of Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) is resolved with a swift nod to Griffith and a death concealed by dancing chorines—dark roots behind crowd-pleasing veneers, the Hitchcock signature. Cinematography by Bernard Knowles. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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