Blu-ray Review: The Lodger – The Criterion Collection

Spine #885

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: June 27, 2017

Region: Region A

Length:

The Lodger – 01:30:24

Downhill – 01:50:59

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

The Lodger – 2.0 Linear PCM Audio (48 kHz, 2304 kbps, 24-bit)

Downhill – 2.0 Dolby Digital Audio (48 kHz, 192 kbps)

Ratio:

The Lodger – 1.33:1

Downhill – 1.33:1

Bitrate:

The Lodger – 29.36 Mbps

Downhill – 15.09 Mbps

Notes: This is the North American Blu-ray debut of “The Lodger,” but the film was given a DVD release by MGM. Unfortunately, the MGM edition is now out of print. The release also marks the Blu-ray debut of “Downhill.”

Title

The Master Finds His Voice

PART ONE: THE LODGER

The Lodger is the first picture possibly influence by my period in Germany. The whole approach to this film was instinctive with me. It was the first time I exercised my style. In truth, you might almost say that The Lodger was my first picture… I took a pure narrative and for the first time, presented ideas in purely visual terms.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

It is rather easy to understand why Alfred Hitchcock considers The Lodger his true film debut, and the most obvious reason for this was his choice of subject matter.

“I had seen a play called ‘Who Is He?’ based on Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’s novel ‘The Lodger.’ The action was set in a house that took in roomers and the landlady wondered whether her new boarder was Jack the Ripper or not…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Obviously, the property was ideal for a Hitchcock project and the director tackled every aspect of the production with unprecedented relish. He had already worked with Eliot Stannard on the scripts for both The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle and brought the writer on board to help with The Lodger as well.

 “With the director whispering in his ear, Eliot Stannard wrote the script over the first two months of 1926; then Hitchcock went back over it one last time, breaking it down into several hundred master scenes, making notes and little sketches to guide each camera setup, ‘each one specifying the exact grouping and action of the characters and the placing of the camera,’ in his words. The script was always written with the flow of pictures in mind, but storyboarding was the final revision. Stannard was encouraged to suggest visual ideas, but again the more important contributor was the expert in continuity and cutting: Alma.” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Interestingly, Alfred Hitchcock’s first film to feature a man wrongly accused of a crime was considered a major compromise by the director.

“Of course, strictly speaking, he should have been the Ripper and gone on his way. That’s how Mrs. Belloc-Lowndes wrote the book. But Ivor Novello was the matinee idol of the period and could not be the murderer. The same thing was true of Cary Grant in Suspicion many years later. So, obviously, putting that kind of actor into this sort of film is a mistake because you just have to compromise.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Hitchcock claimed that he would have preferred to have the Lodger “go off in the night so that we would never really know for sure” if he is guilty of the murders or simply an eccentric innocent. This particular ending reminds one of Hitchcock’s ending for The Birds. It is impossible to guess how audiences of the time might have welcomed such an ending, but it is easy to imagine it having an extremely powerful effect on the viewer.

“The script satisfied the front office concerns that Novello’s character be proved innocent. But that left the second issue: Novello was a stiff, mannered actor, whose technique leaned heavily on his repertoire of tedious ‘handsome’ poses. That was a challenge to be addressed in the directing, but one Hitchcock had already anticipated, incorporating into the shooting script a brooding visual design to eclipse Novello’s flaws.” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Ivor Novello

Ivor Novello was one of Britain’s biggest matinee idols when he starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger.

Vintage newspapers and trade articles suggest that the film entered production in the early months of 1926 (as early as February), although Patrick McGilligan suggests that principal photography didn’t begin until March. Unfortunately, there aren’t many surviving production documents from this period in Hitchcock’s career, so a specific date is impossible to pinpoint. However, one can say with some degree of authority that some of Hitchcock’s already established crew returned to bring The Lodger to the screen—and Alma’s work as his assistant director and editor is no doubt the most significant. Baron Ventimiglia also returned as the film’s primary cameraman and lavish sets were designed by C. Wilfred Arnold.

Of course, certain scenes were shot on location which could sometimes be a significant logistical challenge for a film crew even in the silent era. In fact, one particular scene was such an ordeal that it still haunted the director over a decade later when he related his experience to the News Chronicle.

“…The thing I wanted above all else was to do a night scene in London, preferably on the embankment. I wanted to silhouette the mass of Charing Cross Bridge against the sky. I wanted to get away from the (at the time) inevitable shot of Piccadilly Circus with hand-painted lights.

The story demanded the dragging of a body out of the river. Here, I thought was my chance. But Scotland Yard said, ‘No.’ We pulled strings. We used influence. We went from step to step until we were within shouting distance of the Home Secretary. Scotland Yard says ‘No.’ but we were told that, if we did shoot the scene, we should not be stopped. That’s how we always used to get our permission: told usually in a hint, that authorities would turn a blind eye on us.

So we went down to the Embankment. We took two sets of light vans—that does not mean vans for light work. It means vans to carry lights. We had ‘sun arcs’—huge, powerful lights to give a real background. Otherwise, the brilliantly lit close-up shots would seem to have been photographed against black velvet. We parked the vans in the middle of the roadway on Westminster Bridge. We massed the arcs on the parapet of the bridge. We went to the Embankment and started shooting.

We took our short shots. They were fine. But I was concentrating on the long shot. Every time a tram passed we had to disconnect the cables that lay across the lines. Work below had to be held up until the lights came on again. But finally, we shot the big scene. The sun arcs turned night to day. The artists did their stuff. The bridge stood out clear and sharp. The camera turned.

The number of the scene was 45. It should have been 13. For when we went to the projection room, to see the rushes—the first prints of the day’s takings—there was no scene 45. We looked through all the reels. We looked through all the prints. We looked through positive and negative. There was no scene 45. The cameraman forgot to put his lens in the camera. That has happened more than once: call it tragedy or farce.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Arrival

The influence of German Expressionism can be seen in nearly every frame of The Lodger and would be a large part of Alfred Hitchcock’s aesthetic throughout his entire career.

Of course, the studio work went much more smoothly, and the director was very much in his element. Hitchcock’s time in Germany had a profound impact on the director’s artistic sensibilities, and The Lodger perhaps the first time expressionism becomes a major part of his aesthetic.

 “You have to remember that a year before, I was working on the UFA lot. I worked there for many months—at the same time [that] Jannings was making The Last Laugh with Murnau—and I was able to absorb a lot of the methods and style.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Hitchcock’s actors took notice of his unusually meticulous attention to framing, sets, and lighting design as they met the challenges that this attention to detail sometimes created for them.

“‘Fresh from Berlin,’ recalled June [Tripp], ‘Hitch was so imbued with the value of unusual camera angles and lighting effects with which to create and sustain dramatic suspense that often a scene which would not run for more than three minutes on the screen would take an entire morning to shoot.’ ‘Once,’ she said, she was forced to carry ‘an iron tray of breakfast dishes up a long flight of stairs’ some twenty times before Hitchcock was ‘satisfied with the expression of fear on my face and the atmosphere established by light and shadows.’” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Spending an entire morning on a scene is certainly not uncommon nowadays, but this was apparently less common in Britain during the mid-1920s. Alfred Hitchcock was a unique entity in the British film industry and went the extra mile to achieve his visual goals. This is more than obvious in the very first frames of The Lodger wherein what seems to be a simple shot of a woman screaming actually took quite a bit of creative ingenuity to achieve.

“We opened with the head of a blonde girl who is screaming. I remember the way I photographed it. I took a sheet of glass, placed the girl’s head on the glass and spread her hair around until it filled the frame. Then we lit the glass from behind so that one would be struck by her light hair. Then we cut to show an electric sign advertising a musical play, ‘Tonight, Golden Curls,’ with the reflection flickering in the water. The girl has drowned…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Of course, the director was always quick to point out that many of the film’s lauded visual flourishes were the product of the silent era. The limitations of the medium made it necessary for director’s to pictorialize sound in a clear and concise manner. A perfect example of this technique would be the celebrated invisible ceiling scene.

“In his room the man paces up and down. You must remember that we had no sound in those days, so I had a plate-glass floor made through which you could see the lodger moving back and forth, causing the chandelier in the room below to move with him. Naturally, many of these visual devices would be absolutely superfluous today because we would use sound effects instead. The sound of steps and so on… Today, I would simply use the swaying chandelier.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Hitchcock’s one inch thick plate glass ceiling was only six square feet, but this was large enough to sell the sound of the footsteps in a visual manner. This makes it clear to viewers that the chandelier is swinging because the lodger is pacing back and forth in his room. There were other examples of visualizing sound throughout the film, but the best (and certainly the most famous) of these is probably the staircase shot showing the lodger’s hand going down a handrail. Shots of the lodger leaving his room and eventually the house is alternated with shots of Mrs. Bunting listening to his movements. It is quite clear that she hears him leaving and is becoming suspicious of her new tenant.

“Just as much as the set I had built for when the lodger went out late at night—almost to the ceiling of the studio, showing four flights of stairs and a handrail. And all you see is a hand going down. That was, of course, from the point of view of the mother listening. Today, we would substitute sound for that. Although, I think that the handrail shot would be worthy of today in addition to sound.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

The Lodger Leaving

After six weeks of shooting, principal photography wrapped on The Lodger—but all of Hitchcock’s hard work was very nearly in vain. Unfortunately, the director had a few enemies at the studio. One of his biggest foes was his old friend and mentor, Graham Cutts (who was once considered one of the greatest directors in Britain). Hitchcock had served as his screenwriter, art director, and assistant director on a number of his films.

In fact, Hitchcock began building sets so that they could only be shot in a certain way—Hitchcock’s way. People started to notice that the success of these films owed as much to Hitchcock’s work as to his mentor’s directorial abilities—and Cutts made his dissatisfaction about these things known by firing his protégé. Some scholars suggest that Cutts also resented that Michael Balcon assigned Ivor Novello to Hitchcock’s film after having directed the actor in his star-making turn in The Rat (1925) and The Triumph of the Rat (1926). Whatever the case may be, it is enough to understand that Graham Cutts was under the influence of the green-eyed-monster and this resulted in a bitter enemy for the future master of suspense.

“After seeing an early screening of The Lodger, [Cutts] told ‘anybody who would listen that we had a disaster on our hands,’ said Michael Balcon.

Another diehard was C.M. Woolf, who still held Hitchcock partially responsible for the fiasco of The White Shadow. He had opposed Hitchcock’s promotion to director; now, paranoid that an ‘artistic’ picture could not be easily launched into the maximum number of English theaters, Woolf convened a high-level screening…” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

This screening was very nearly the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s career and the director would retell the terrible story in interviews for the rest of his life:

“It was first shown to the staff of the distribution company and the head of their publicity department. They saw the film and then made their report to the boss: ‘Impossible to show it. Too bad. The film is terrible.’ Two days later the big boss [C.M. Woolf] came down to the studio to look at it. He arrived at two-thirty. Mrs. Hitchcock and I couldn’t bear to wait in the studio to know the results and we walked the streets of London for an hour and a half. Finally, we took a cab and went back. We were hoping out promenade would have a happy ending and that everyone in the studio would be beaming. What they said was: ‘The boss says it’s terrible.’ And they put the film on the shelf, canceled the bookings that had been made on the basis of Novello’s reputation.

A few months later, they decided to take another look at the picture and to make some changes. I agreed to make about two. As soon as the picture was shown, it was acclaimed as the greatest British film made up to that date.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Actually, there is a bit more to the film’s resurrection than Hitchcock’s retelling would suggest. The truth is that Michael Balcon believed in both Hitchcock and the film. What’s more, the studio had quite a bit of money invested. It seemed worthwhile to give the film another chance, so the producer held another private screening—this time for an impartial party.

“Hitchcock—a shadowy figure at that time, whom I vaguely knew by name—had just finished a picture and [Michael Balcon] could not get the distributor to show it. He had taken a risk in promoting Hitch from floor assistant actually to direct. (Mick, all his life, loved recruiting fresh talent to direction, and this was not the least of his blessings to British film production.) But this was now not Hitch’s first picture for the company but his third, and the distributor would have none of any of them. The mounting unused investment was becoming impossible for Balcon to defend…

…They ran the film, with which at once I fell enthusiastically in love. Now, the hackneyed treatment of the plot and a weakness in characterization makes it look primitive. Then, by contrast with the work of his seniors and contemporaries, all Hitch’s special qualities stood out raw: the narrative skill, the ability to tell the story and create the tension in graphic combination, and the feeling for London scenes and characters.” —Ivor Montagu (Working with Hitchcock, Sight and Sound, 1980)

Graham Cutts
Graham Cutts was once Hitchcock’s friend and mentor, but he soon became one of his strongest adversaries: “I suspect that the director who had me fired as his assistant was still being political against me. I know he told someone, ‘I don’t know what he’s shooting. I can’t make head nor tail of it.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

The result of this showing should be obvious considering that Hitchcock is now considered one of the cinema’s greatest auteurs—but first there was quite a bit of work to do on The Lodger before it could be granted a release.

“[Montagu] was in something of a quandary, since he could hardly say that he didn’t think the film needed anything done to it. Finally, his solution was to get together with Hitch and suggest a couple of points in the film where something might be clarified by re-editing, plus some re-shooting of the final chase sequence where it was originally too dark to see details (Hitch willingly complied with this, since apart from anything else it meant an effective addition to his budget and shooting time for the film). The only radical modification Montagu suggested was to make the film more extreme in one area where Hitch had experimented cautiously. British films at this time were very heavy on titles, and British filmmakers knew little or nothing of the movement abroad in favor of telling the story as completely as possible in visual terms. Hitch had seen this done in Germany, but he knew how conservative his employers were, and so had left little to chance in verbal explanations of what was happening. Montagu told them that they should go all the way, reduce the titles to an absolute minimum and make those that were left as punchy and to the point as possible. Since he qualified as an outside expert whom they were paying good money (if not very much of it) to advise them, they took his word for it. He went ahead eliminating and tightening the titles, and brought in E. McKnight Kauffer, the painter and poster designer who was at the time considered very advanced, to design the credits and the title backgrounds.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

All of this additional work seems to have paid off because the film was a commercial and critical success. Nearly every critic focused largely on Hitchcock’s adept direction. An excellent example of such praise can be found in a review published in the Daily Mail.

“Here is a British film which grips the imagination… The very angles at which these scenes are photographed create terror, and the exquisite homeliness of the settings piles up apprehension. Mr. Novello has never appeared to such advantage, Miss June is natural and pretty as the heroine, and Miss Marie Ault [is] magnificent as the motherly but frightened landlady. The Lodger [is] the second fine British film this week and can more than hold its own against any foreign production. It is arresting without being in any way gruesome.” –Daily Mail (September 15, 1926)

Meanwhile, a similar review was published in the Nottingham Evening Post that very same day.

“There is further satisfactory proof of the fact that British films are on the upgrade in The Lodger… The story is adapted from the novel by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, and is a first-class attraction of the mystery order, with a series of sensational murders of fair-haired girls, committed by some individual who apparently does not prefer blondes

The direction of this theme by Alfred Hitchcock, a young Englishman who has little to learn from Hollywood in the technique of his craft, judging from some very original and clever devices in this picture, ensures its effectiveness. Ivor Novello gives a striking and arresting performance as the Lodger, against whom suspicion is pointed, and there is a charming heroine in the pretty musical-comedy actress popular with playgoers as ‘June.’” –Nottingham Evening Post (September 15, 1926)

The Sydney Morning Herald was especially enthusiastic about the film.

The Lodger is a film of a distinctly unusual type. When one looks back on its plot, to be sure, there seems to be nothing remarkable about it as a whole: but in the working out of the details there is much to absorb the spectator’s interest. Such originality can be easily explained, for the picture was made in England, and on this account escaped that contagion of methods and ideas which tends to standardize the output of Hollywood. The whole of the actors are English; also the director (Alfred Hitchcock). As a matter of fact, the acting throughout is very fine. Ivor Novello, who heads the cast, is every whit as handsome as the best-looking of the American leading men; and he is fortunate in having a face that photographs well from every angle. But In addition to being handsome, he has dramatic depth and fire. Some may object to his first entrance, and his actions in general during the earlier part of the play as being too theatrical, too artificial, slowed down as they are to a portentous languor; yet they form part of a deeply considered conception of the character, and fit exactly into their place in the light of subsequent revelations. For The Lodger is a mystery play. Not a thing of shrieks, and haunted houses, and grisly corpses, however. No. It is much more subtle than that. In fact, at the end the real motive for the series of murders, and the real perpetrator of them, are never revealed at all. They do not matter — they have served their purpose in the plot, and can be left freely to the imagination of the spectators to fill in at will. To presume the murderer merely a homicidal lunatic will provide an explanation as good as any. Surely this policy of vagueness is better than the plan usually followed by playwrights, of pitching on one of the characters at random and crying, ‘Behold the man!’ By methods too detailed to be explained here at length, the director has made some of the episodes remarkably gripping in their suggestion of the sinister. Indeed, for those interested in the technical side of motion picture production the whole film will repay close study. Besides Mr. Novello the cast includes Marie Ault, Arthur Chesney, Malcolm Keen, and ‘June.’” -Sydney Morning Herald (February 20, 1928)

The First Hitchcock Cameo

The first Hitchcock cameo: “It was strictly utilitarian; we had to fill the screen. Later on it became a superstition and eventually a gag. But now it’s a rather troublesome gag, and I’m very careful to show up in the first five minutes so as to let the people look at the rest of the movie with no further distraction.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

It is interesting to note that special mention is always made as to the film’s British origins and that the actors re discussed in a manner that betrays a public familiarity with their names. It might be easy for modern viewers to forget that these performers were both popular and well regarded at the time of the film’s release. In other words, the film was presented as a prestige project. Unfortunately, even prestige productions aren’t immune to critical condescension as this review in The Times adequately illustrates.

 “‘To-night… Golden Curls… To-night… Golden Curls.

Mr. Hitchcock has used the electric sky-sign, advertising a revue, as a symbol that appears again and again throughout his narrative. After its first appearance we see a murdered girl lying on the ground; she is the Avenger’s sixth victim and, in common with all the others, she has light hair. The news spreads. The tape-machine ticks it out; the printers print it; the newspaper vans distribute it; the chorus of Golden Curls read it in their dressing-room and the mannequins at a dressmaking establishment read it in theirs. There is, it seems, not a fair-haired woman in London that does not tremble in her decorative underclothes and go in terror of her life. Yet, though we see them tremble, we do not participate in their fear. The dark atmosphere of terror and the steady regard for character which were the making of Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’s book are dissipated by the sky-signs, the tape-machine, the frocks, and the absence of frocks. It is Jack-the-Ripper or the Avenger who should be brooding over London; instead it is ‘Golden Curls… To-night… Golden Curls.

And when a stranger knocks at the door of Daisy Bunting’s parents and asks for a lodging in their house; when we should all be wondering whether this dark young man, with a mysterious handbag and his face muffled in accordance with the police reports, is indeed the Avenger; when, observing that Daisy has fair hair, we should be in exquisite anxiety for her fate, there is no escaping the fact that Daisy is June Tripp and the lodger Mr. Ivor Novello, to whom, and through whom, no harm, in the films, can come. It takes the sting out of excitement. It might, indeed, have been possible to forget that June was June and Mr. Novello Mr. Novello, if Mr. Hitchcock had concentrated on any other aspect of Daisy and the lodger than their insipid charm. But that on the screen would never have done; the spirit of a good tale must perish so that the camera be not denied its close-up kisses, its soft yearnings over breakfast trays, and its whisperings through bathroom doors. The Lodger becomes, in consequence, a story, not primarily of mystery, but of the landlady’s daughter (who, of course, being a mannequin, is becomingly dressed) and the young man upstairs. Mr. Malcolm Keen, the detective, is appropriately jealous, and Mr. Arthur Chesney and Miss Marie Ault come much nearer than anyone else to preserving the novel’s genuine atmosphere. One or two of Miss Ault’s scenes, when she hears her lodger go out at night and is terrified by her suspicions, are an indication of the manner which, if the book was to be justly interpreted, should have pervaded the film. They are quiet and unforced; they have that shrewd insistence upon the truth of ordinary life and character by which Mrs. Lowndes obtained a great part of her effect. But the film has nothing else that is their equivalent. It has frittered away terror in garish irrelevance.” The Times (January 18, 1927)

Apparently, “the book was better” is an extremely old complaint about film adaptations. Frankly, this argument is nearly always short-sighted (especially when it comes to Hitchcock’s filmography). Alfred Hitchcock usually took the basic concept from a novel or short story and constructed a new screen story based upon that concept. The Lodger is an extremely accomplished calling card from one of cinema’s greatest auteurs and to concentrate on the diversions from the original novel is to miss out on a rich and rewarding cinematic achievement.

Title

PART TWO: DOWNHILL

After The Lodger found success, Alfred Hitchcock would take a short break in order to marry Alma Reville on December 02, 1926, but it wasn’t long before the director found himself tackling another project.

“When the boy wonder returned from his honeymoon in January, it wasn’t hard to convince him that, rather than stagnating, it made sense to follow The Lodger with another picture capitalizing on the rage for Ivor Novello—who, along with Constance Collier (under their pen name, David L’Estrange)—had written the hit play from which Downhill would be adapted.” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville on their wedding day. Alfred's older brother William is stood behind him.

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville on their wedding day (December 02, 1926). William John Hitchcock (Alfred’s older brother) can be seen standing behind him.

Unfortunately, the original play didn’t particularly interest Hitchcock and had less to do with the adaptation than was his usual practice. His particular contribution was the visualization of the scenes that were discussed in the script meetings with Angus MacPhail and Eliot Stannard (who remained relatively faithful to the original play). Luckily, the director tackled the direction of the film with the same creative fervency that distinguished his work on The Lodger. In fact, the director betrayed a genuine affection for a few of the ideas in the film during his interview with François Truffaut (even as he insisted that they werenaïve touches”).

“I experimented a bit. I showed a woman seducing a younger man, She is a lady of a certain age, but quite elegant, and he finds her very attractive until daybreak. Then he opens the window and the sun comes in, lighting up the woman’s face. In that moment she looks dreadful. And through the open window, we show people passing by carrying a coffin.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Descending

Shots of Roddy descending became a motif in the film. The above three screen captures illustrate three examples as the protagonist descends the stairs, the escalator, and the elevator.

Another touch that Hitchcock insisted wouldn’t work today is a motif throughout the film where Novello’s character is shown descending. The most famous of these shots involves an escalator heading into the Underground. “That’s when the boy is thrown out of the house by his father,” the director remembered later. “To show the beginning of his downhill journey, I put him on an escalator going down.” Apparently, this scene was shot on location after midnight so as not to disrupt the commuters.

“For more than three hours a British film company took possession of the Maida Vale tube station [in] London recently for a special scene in the Piccadilly Picture, Ltd.’s production of Downhill, directed by that most promising of the new school of English producers, Mr. Alfred J. Hitchcock. Late travelers arriving at the station were puzzled by the huge sunlight arc lamps installed along the escalator and vestibule until the familiar face of Mr. Ivor Novello—in yellow grease paint and a camera on trestles—explained the situation. In the street were loudly purring generators on lorries… Scenes were made by Mr. Novello entering the station and booking a ticket, but the real interest lay in a wonderful ‘shot’ on the moving escalator—the first of its kind made in England. The bore of the escalator gave some surprising lighting effects, and Mr. Hitchcock is making the ‘slow’ descent of the character something half symbolic…” –The Canberra Times (Film Making in a Tube, May 06, 1927)

Interestingly, Hitchcock directed the scene in an eloquent formal suit complete with white tie and top hat because he had gone to the theatre earlier that night! By most accounts, principal photography was otherwise uneventful, but there was one particularly unfortunate disagreement that led to the temporary loss of one of his most important colleagues.

 “Hitch had a quarrel over a rather strange matter of principal with Ivor Montagu, who had helped him change the apparent disaster of The Lodger into a triumph and was now working on the scripting and editing of Downhill. Montagu, as befitted a young intellectual invader of the cinema, had all sorts of principles about what could and couldn’t, or should and shouldn’t be done in films. He objected particularly to shots which seemed to contain a built-in impossibility or to be cheating in some way. He himself admits to a measure of inconsistency… but a shot Hitch was determined to include in Downhill stuck in Montagu’s gullet. It was a scene in a taxi with the knees of the hero, his new love, and her old protector all touching in a rather equivocal manner, photographed from directly above. Montagu complained that the shot was an impossible viewpoint—not even a fly on the ceiling of the taxi could see things that way unless the taxi was ten feet tall. Hitch, characteristically, didn’t care: the shot showed what he wanted it to show, and that was that. Montagu was irritated at his inability to put over his point, and though he remained quite friendly with Hitch he departed after preliminary work on Easy Virtue, and he and Hitch did not work together again until seven years later when fate and Michael Balcon reunited them on the first Man Who Knew Too Much.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Taylor’s mention of Montagu’s preliminary work on Easy Virtue brings up an interesting point. Alfred Hitchcock was actually working on that film throughout a good portion of Downhill’s production and the shooting of these two films overlapped a bit.

 “When the rest of Downhill was completed they still had a couple of necessary close-up shots left to do of [Ivor] Novello staggering through the east End of London on his return to England. Hitch had already begun work on his next film, Easy Virtue, and was on location on the Riviera. Novello came down very grandly, checked into the Hotel de Paris in Nice for one night, gave a lot of interviews there in his suite, and then, having got that out of the way, vanished to a very humble pension for the rest of his time on location. The shots were done on the flat roof of the pension, with a couple of men holding a painted backdrop of the London docks while Novello walked on the spot in front of it in the bright Mediterranean sunlight and the natives looked on incredulously, speculating as to what on earth these crazy Englishmen could be doing.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Once the film was finished and then released (in relatively rapid succession), it seems to have received some modest critical and commercial success with the overall critical opinion being extremely mixed. As a matter of fact, Iris Barry captured the overall critical response to the film in a single sentence when she wrote that Hitchcock “made a clever picture out of poor and indeed unsuitable and undramatic material.” Nearly every review reiterated these same sentiments. Alfred Hitchcock’s direction was always met with praise even as the scenario was torn to shreds as in this review published by the Yorkshire Post:

Downhill is the latest Ivor Novello picture, directed by Alfred Hitchcock… Mr. Novello has already had success in the stage play of the same name from which the film is taken, and I have no doubt that he will succeed in the film, for Mr. Hitchcock is remarkably skillful at combining clever photography with sound ‘entertainment value.’ But this story of an innocent school boy’s road to ruin is childish nonsense. We are asked to believe that the head master of a public school accepts without question the unsupported word of an obvious little minx from a tea shop, accusing his head prefect of having seduced her. Without inquiry the head master insinuates to Roddie that he must instantly pack his bags. Roddie arrives in London, where his father, not to be outdone by the head master, violently disowns him. The door slams mid we see Roddie starting down a tube escalator—symbolism—on the downward career that is to take him through chorus work to sudden wealth, to marriage with an expensive actress, poverty, cabaret dancing, and so at last happily home again.

Mr. Novello acts very competently throughout the picture, and Miss Annette Benson, as the minx who gets him expelled, displays the greatest promise. She will soon be well known. The direction and photography are consistently vivid, ingenious, and effective, but it is pretty plain that Mr. Hitchcock does not take this sort of stuff seriously. I am glad to see that he is now to direct a story of his own, called The Ring, for British International…” –Yorkshire Post (May 31, 1927)

A review published in The Guardian was just as critical and perhaps even more pointed than similar reviews that were being written at the time.

The Lodger was the best film made in England up to the end of last year. It had power, point, imagination, and an entirely new angle—new, that is to say, in an English studio of visual expression. Downhill carries out every promise of its predecessor without being at all a good film. It is interesting. It is shrewd. It is brilliant to the point of the camera. But the danger of a man possessing an individual and startling style is that he is apt not to be particular about the occasions on which he uses it. The material of The Lodger was slight and sensational, but the material of Downhill is down-right bad… I have never seen such an interesting production of rubbish nor [such] a clever film which deserved quite so little praise…

When Hitchcock sets to work on real film material… there will not be more than half a dozen producers in the world who will be able to beat him. There are none in England now.” -C.A.L. (The Guardian, June 11, 1927)

Critics rightly chastised the British Film Industry for their backwards attempts at improving their productions by focusing on the technical qualities rather than seeking out mature dramatic material and claimed that “no policy could be worse for the British film industry than an attempt to out-do Hollywood in mechanism to the neglect of human dramatic quality. To out-do Hollywood in technique is extremely difficult and not necessarily worth doing. To out-do Hollywood in dramatic value is immensely worth doing, and should be singularly easy.

A review published in The Times followed suit, but the most interesting aspect of their review is the mention of a short interlude that allowed Ivor Novello to perform a scene in person!

Downhill… shows more than anything else, the extraordinary way in which British film technique has advanced during the last few years. Many people will remember the play on which the film is based… This threadbare story has been taken over by Mr. Alfred Hitchcock… and by sheer technique, he has managed to breathe some life into it. He has not made it credible—that would be expecting too much—but he has at least made it seem far less ridiculous than one could possibly have expected.

The thesis is such an inverted one that it is difficult to know how he could have done better… That Mr. Hitchcock, with the improbable material to his hand, has succeeded so well is an achievement… Mr. Ivor Novello is excellent as himself, but he is never so much like a schoolboy as when he appears in person in an interpolated scene. This scene, on Monday night, seemed to interest the audience, but the advisability of mingling the two forms of entertainment seems very doubtful…” -The Times (October 12, 1927)

Not everyone disliked the film’s premise. A review in the Dundee Evening Telegraph betrays a genuine affection for Hitchcock’s direction and the scenario alike (even if they do describe it as being an “old theme”).

 “In the list of British films released last year which really can be classified as good the name of Alfred Hitchcock appears as producer opposite two…

…Hitchcock has taken a very old theme and dished it up anew, like cold mutton which is much more appetizing in rissoles form. He has given us the prodigal son in a new garb, and the hero shines more gloriously than the original, because his fall was due to his kindness of heart when he screened a fellow-student.

Thus the climax, when he returns broken and weary to his father’s house and all the things that can be summed up as ‘fatted calf,’ is just what is expected, but in various ways the picture has been cleverly thought out along fresh lines.

Several well-known British stars of the legitimate stage — Ivor Novello, Isabel Jeans, Norman McKinnell, Lilian Braithwaite, and Violet Fairbrother — are the featured players, the whole cast combining to give an impression of careful and clever direction.” -Dundee Evening Telegraph (January 10, 1928)

Modern scholars tend to agree with the majority of these old reviews and praise the director’s experimentation even as they condemn the plot—which is extremely dated and not particularly interesting. However, the film itself is a genuinely enjoyable experience and later scholarly assessments have been nothing if not grudgingly commendatory. An excellent example would be a mostly flattering paragraph published in Donald Spoto’s The Art of Alfred Hitchcock.

“Technically, the picture is superior to just about anything that was made in England that year: there are perfectly matched dissolves to relate characters and themes; a fine dream sequence; and astonishingly stable follow shots with a hand-held camera along the docks of Marseilles. The sets, to be frank, are more convincing than some of the acting.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

John Russell Taylor was even more admiring in his 1978 biography about the director.

“It is not, one would gather, among the films Hitch feels particularly proud of nowadays… But seen today, Downhill comes over as one of his liveliest and most joyously inventive silent films—possibly a lack of any great sympathy with the material (‘a poor play,’ Hitch says) made it easier to regard the film as an exercise in technique… And at the time Downhill was made, absolutely no one else in the British cinema was working with this kind of cinematic imagination, telling a story with this mind-grabbing command of the medium’s possibilities—which, one senses, Hitch was incapable of not doing, even with a subject not at all to his taste.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Taylor captures the thoughts and feelings of this reviewer quite admirably. Downhill isn’t one of his better films, but it does give the Hitchcock fan an opportunity to watch a raw cinematic talent as he is discovering his voice.

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The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. Criterion is known for their brilliant tailor-made cover designs and Geoff Grandfield has designed a cover for The Lodger that mirrors the style of poster art used the silent era.

As is their habit, Criterion also includes an attractive fold-out pamphlet that features two interesting essays by Philip Kemp. The first of these is titled “The First True Hitchcock Movie” and focuses its attention on The Lodger. The second essay focuses on Downhill and is titled, “Playing for the Old Boys.” Both essays are worth reading as they should add to the viewer’s appreciation of both films despite the unfortunate fact that Kemp seems to be a blind devotee from the Spoto school of Hitchcock scholarship (if you can call it “scholarship”).

Menu

The disc’s menu utilizes a still image of the film’s title art, which actually works quite beautifully. This artwork is coupled with Neil Brand’s new score for the film, and the result is elegant in its simplicity.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

As is Criterion’s usual practice, they provide information about their restoration work in the included pamphlet:

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. The digital transfer was made from the 2012 restoration undertaken by the BFI National Archive in association with ITV Studios Global Entertainment and Park Circus Films. A 35mm duplicate negative was scanned in 2K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner at Deluxe 142 in London, where restoration also took place. The tint and tones of the original nitrate print have been reproduced in the digital intermediate grade. Principal restoration funding was provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and The Film Foundation, along with Simon W. Hessel…” –Liner Notes

The restoration was originally released by Network in the United Kingdom, but Criterion’s release is its North American debut. This is a very different restoration than the one included on MGM’s 2009 DVD release of the film as is indicated by the shorter duration and the fact that this particular transfer showcases less (and very different) tinting. This makes one wonder about the reason (or reasons) behind these differences. Was the film tinted differently in different territories? Was the MGM release artificially tinted by the restoration team? So many questions come to mind.

Luckily, this transfer is the superior of the two and North American Hitchcock fans now have reason to celebrate! When one considers the film’s age, this transfer seems almost like a minor miracle. The image exhibits a surprising level of detail, and the grain pattern appears natural and well resolved throughout the duration of the film. Depth is strong for such an old feature, and contrast is about as good as anyone should expect considering the film’s origins. The restoration team has eliminated most signs of aging, although a few small and insignificant blemishes such as scratches, debris, damage marks, and lines do occasionally appear. Compression never becomes problematic either.

Our only small criticism concerns Criterion’s choice of putting both The Lodger and Downhill on the same disc. This particular release probably warrants a 2-disc treatment. Each film could have probably benefited from the maximized bitrate that this would have allowed—although The Lodger is reasonably well represented at 29.36 Mbps.

Criterion also includes information about their transfer for Downhill:

 “Downhill is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. The digital transfer was made from 2012 restoration undertaken by the BFI National Archive in association with ITV Studios Global Entertainment and Park Circus Films. 35mm nitrate print reels were scanned in 2K resolution on an Oxberry wetgate film scanner at Haghefilm Digital in Amsterdam. Digital restoration of the picture and intertitles took place at Deluxe142 in London. The tints and tones of the original nitrate prints have been reproduced in the digital intermediate grade. Principal restoration funding was provided by Simon W. Hessel” –Liner Notes

The result is an extremely solid image transfer (even at the relatively low bitrate of 15.09 Mbps) of the film. It seems every bit as strong as The Lodger and some aspects of the image might very well be marginally superior. Depth, for example, is extremely solid and detail often impresses the realistic viewer. Density can occasionally be less than perfect, but one suspects that this is due to the irreversible ravages of time. Like their restoration of The Lodger, the team has cleaned the image of distracting anomalies and only the occasional scratch and speck of dust remains here. This is an extremely satisfying image transfer.

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Sound Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Since original sound elements for silent films are usually nonexistent (as is the case with both The Lodger and Downhill), it has become the common practice to have new music written especially for these films. Whatever opinions one might have about this practice, it is admittedly the better of the two options available under the circumstances (the other being to simply release it without any sound track). This option at least allows the viewer a choice in the matter as one can simply mute their television sets if they don’t want outside sources to influence their viewing experience.

Criterion includes information about the included score for both films in their liner notes:

“Neil Brand’s score for The Lodger is presented in stereo sound. It was performed by Brand and the Orchestra of Saint Paul’s and conducted by Ben Palmer, with score preparation by Thomas Hewitt Jones. The performance was recorded at Eastcote Studios in London by producer Brand and engineer George Murphy…

…[His] piano score for Downhill is presented in stereo sound. It was performed by Brand and recorded at Eastcote Studios in London by engineer George Murphy.” –Liner Notes

The score for The Lodger is presented in a 2.0 Linear PCM audio transfer and is the more robust of the two tracks (and the only one presented in an uncompressed format. Since it is an orchestral score, the lossless environment gives the music more room to breathe and sounds fantastic.

Downhill is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital and is therefore compressed, but it still sounds great. It is a simple piano score and requires less room to breathe than his orchestral score for The Lodger. This is another area that might have benefited from a two-disc Blu-ray release, but one shouldn’t be as critical about the standard definition soundtrack for this film as they might be if this were a talking picture with original sound design. After all, these scores are in all actuality third-party supplemental features that have nothing to do with the original film.

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Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Downhill (1927)

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A 2K digital restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 follow-up to The Lodger is included on the disc as one of the film’s “special features,” and it adds an inordinate amount of value to the disk.

In addition to this bonus feature, Criterion includes over 2 hours and 51 minutes of additional video and audio based material that should fascinate fans of Alfred Hitchcock.

William Rothman: Hitchcock’s Visual Signatures – (32:54)

William Rothman discusses the visual signatures in The Lodger and how they can be found in many of the director’s later films. Scenes are dissected and analyzed in a scholarly manner, and even those who disagree with some of Rothman’s rhetoric will find something here to enhance their appreciation of the master’s work.

Interestingly, it seems that Rothman subscribes to the opinion that it is indeed Alfred Hitchcock who is seen in the angry mob at the film’s climax. This is certainly questionable and this fact calls some of his interpretations of this particular scene into question (which is unfortunate).

The Bunting House: Space and Structure in ‘The Lodger’(17:42)

Steven Jacobs (author of The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock) offers a rather comprehensive examination of Alfred Hitchcock’s use of architecture in The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog and offers comparisons to some of the master’s later work. The German influence is discussed and a diagram of the bunting home is even offered as Jacobs discusses the dream-like inconsistencies some of the film’s geography. It probably won’t appeal to all viewers as Steven Jacobs speaks with a rather unusual and distracting accent that only exacerbates what might be seen as an overly dry and academic tone. However, those who enjoy theoretical analysis will no doubt find their appreciation of the film enhanced.

François Truffaut Interviews Alfred Hitchcock – (26:23)

Interview1

Those who have been collecting Hitchcock films on Blu-ray will know exactly what to expect from this excellent excerpt from François Truffaut’s legendary book length interview with the master of suspense. This portion of the interview predictably concentrates on The Lodger, and it is an extremely interesting discussion that betrays Hitchcock’s genuine affection for the film.

Criterion presents the interview over a sepia-tinted silent film styled title card that says “François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock.” This allows Criterion to utilize less disc space, but these interviews often play better when they are illustrated with photos and film footage. However, this is merely a small complaint. The important thing is that they have included what has become an essential part of any Hitchcock release.

Peter Bogdanovich Interviews Alfred Hitchcock

Interview2

Criterion includes excerpts from two separate interviews and presents them over blue-tinted silent film styled title cards that say “Peter Bogdanovich and Alfred Hitchcock.” This is essentially the same style of presentation given to the Truffaut interview. Each interview is presented over a blue-tinted title card that says “François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock.”

It is surprising to discover that these two interviews are more comprehensive discussions about Alfred Hitchcock’s early life and career. In fact, there is very little overlap with Truffaut’s interview. Frankly, the information discussed in these interviews is richer and more revealing than the excerpt from Truffaut’s interview with the director (and the opposite is usually true).

1963 Interview(19:42)

1972 Interview(20:58)

Radio Adaptation of The Lodger (1940) – (30:48)

Alfred Hitchcock directs this radio adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger for the July 22, 1940 pilot episode of Suspense—which would become a CBS Radio series. Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent was set for release and the radio program would serve as a promotion for the film (which explains the presence of Herbert Marshall as Mr. Sleuth and Edmund Gwenn as Robert Bunting). Interestingly, Gwen was cast in the same role given to his brother, Arthur Chesney, in Hitchcock’s original film version.

It is an interesting radio drama and has the added interest of being directed by Hitchcock himself (who rarely worked in radio). It adds an enormous amount of value to the disc.

Neil Brand: Scoring Hitchcock’s The Lodger(22:37)

The least interesting addition to the disc is this rather comprehensive interview with Neil Brand about the new score that he provided for The Lodger. Since this discussion is less about the film itself and more about Brand’s thought process while composing a new score for silent films, it is bound to disappoint those who are essentially looking for information or analysis about Hitchcock’s breakthrough film. However, anyone interested in a detailed account of the work that went into Brand’s score will no doubt be impressed.

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Final Words:

The Lodger is Alfred Hitchcock’s best and most important silent film and Criterion’s release contains a strong transfer, instructive supplemental material, and Downhill (the director’s follow-up feature). This is an incredible release that has been a long time coming! We hope that cinephiles can expect Criterion releases of some of the master’s other British thrillers in the near future.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Material:

Staff Writer (Another Fine British Film: A Murder Novel Screened, Daily Mail, September 15, 1926)

Staff Writer (New British Film: Ivor Novello in ‘The Lodger,’ Nottingham Evening Post, September 15, 1926)

Staff Writer (The Times, January 18, 1927)

Iris Barry (Downhill: A Clever British Film, Daily Mail, May 25, 1927)

Staff Writer (The Cinema World: New German and British Pictures, Yorkshire Post, May 31, 1927)

C.A.L. (The Guardian, June 11, 1927)

Staff Writer (The Cinema World, Yorkshire Post, June 14, 1927)

Staff Writer (The Times, October 12, 1927)

Staff Writer (Downhill at the Elite Theatre, Hastings and St. Leonards Observer, October 22, 1927)

Staff Writer (Around Dundee Cinemas, Dundee Evening Telegraph, January 10, 1928)

Staff Writer (Sydney Morning Herald, February 20, 1928)

Staff Writer (Ivor Novello Superb, Australian River Record, August 17, 1928)

Staff Writer (Empire Theatre: Downhill, Queensland Morning Bulletin, October 23, 1928)

Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 1977)

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 1995)

Thomas Leitch (Hitchcock from Stage to Page, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Barton Palmer and David Boyd (Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Blu-ray Review: The 39 Steps – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 56

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: June 26, 2012

Region: Region A

Length: 01:26:45

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English LPCM Mono (48 kHz, 1152 kbps)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.34:1

Bitrate: 34.98 Mbps

Notes: Criterion also released a DVD edition of this title. There are probably a few public domain discs that are available, but these should be avoided (the quality is terrible).

Title

“What I liked about Thirty-Nine Steps were the sudden switches and the jumping from one situation to another with such rapidity… If I did The Thirty-Nine Steps again, I would stick to that formula, but it really takes a lot of work. You have to use one idea after another, and with such rapidity.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

The film moves so rapidly that it is actually rather difficult to discuss The 39 Steps in the same manner that one might discuss other Hitchcock films. The film seems void of any real substance after a mere casual viewing. However, the film has more going on than many critics believe. Even Hitchcock’s MacGuffin isn’t as empty as people often claim. Mark Glancy discusses this in “The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide” while providing a context for both the film, and its MacGuffin.

“One key of updating the story was to change the object of the spies’ pursuit. In the novel, The Black Stone seeks the plans for the disposition of the British fleet in the event of war, which was a matter of great strategic importance in 1914. In the interwar years, however, the significance of naval power steadily waned, particularly in the minds of the general public. The next war, it was predicted, would be fought in the air, and the country with the greatest air force would be capable of a quick and decisive victory. It was assumed that the war would begin with a surprise attack from the air, and that this would result in the mass slaughter of civilians. Thus, in the film the spies seek the plans for a silent airplane engine rather than naval plans. This was not only timely and topical in 1935, but also a pointed reference to Germany. When the screenplay was written in the autumn of 1934, Hitler had been Chancellor of Germany for nearly two years, and the Nazis already had achieved a significant degree of infamy… Winston Churchill warned from the backbenches that Germany was developing its own air force at a faster rate. At a time when radar did not yet exist, this seemed a catastrophic scenario. Indeed, the concept of the silent airplane engine lends further credence to an already often heard yet very disturbing phrase of the times, ‘the bomber will always get through.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

The pending war was an unspoken character of the film, and this plays into one of the underlying themes. Hitchcock has always challenged people’s tendency towards complacency, and in The 39 Steps, this actually takes on a political meaning that is an extension of the subject matter introduced by the film’s MacGuffin.

“…At nearly every stop on Hannay’s cross-country journey we find complacency and venality. It is a vision of a country without confidence, unity or purpose.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

While Hitchcock is never politically explicit, there does seem to be a lot going on under the surface of what is otherwise an extremely enjoyable chase film. Hitchcock was working for Gaumont-British Studios, which was the most prestigious studio in Britain at the time. Michael Balcon had brought Alfred Hitchcock to the studio at a low point in his career, but he gave the director freedom to choose and develop his projects in any manner that he saw fit. This freedom paid off for both the studio and Alfred Hitchcock.

The Man Who Knew Too Much was a modest hit, but the studio squandered most of its potential by putting it on the second half of a double bill. The film’s B-movie status was the result of C.M. Woolf, the film’s distributor (but this is another story). Fortunately, the production breathed life into Hitchcock’s creative mojo.

“…When The Man Who Knew Too Much was completed in October, 1934, they thought of adapting Buchan’s ‘Greenmantle’ (the second of the Richard Hannay Stories) next. ‘Greenmantle’ involved adventures that were spread across all of Europe and into the Middle East, though, and so it was probably considered too expensive to mount. Hitchcock later said that The Thirty-Nine Steps was chosen instead because it was a ‘smaller subject.’ It certainly proved to be a subject that could be quickly made. Work on the script began in November 1934, filming began two months later and the film was released in June 1935.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

Hitchcock often claimed Buchan had “a strong influence” on his work, but this didn’t mean that he had any undue reverence for the source material.

“I had been wanting to turn John Buchan’s novel into a film for over fifteen years. I first read the book round about 1919 or 1920, a long time before I started my directing career. I said that if I ever became a director I would make a picture of it. It was, therefore, on my suggestion that Gaumont-British decided to make the film so many years later. I hadn’t read the book in the meantime. When I did so, with an eye to turning it into a film, I received a shock. I had learned a lot about filmmaking in the fifteen odd years that had elapsed. Though I could still see the reason for my first enthusiasm—the book was full of action—I found that the story as it stood was not in the least suitable for screening.

So many of the scenes, which were convincing enough in print, would have looked unbelievable on the screen—as, for instance, when Hannay saw a motor car approaching; realized that he would be captured if it reached him and he were spotted; saw some stone-breakers, and in a minute or two had disguised himself as one of these workmen. Dressed up in Buchan’s powerful art of description you could believe that in the book; but you wouldn’t if you saw it in a picture. The novel had Hannay running away from spies. For screen purposes I deemed it better to have him escaping from the police and searching for the spies so that he could clear his own name.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock’s chief collaborator on the film was Charles Bennett (if one ignores Alma, which is usually the case), and he shared Hitchcock’s opinion of Buchan’s original novel.

“…So at Hitch’s request, I joined GB in 1933 and began dramatizing John Buchan’s book, “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” No easy task, as it wasn’t really a filmable story. The story contained just one good basic plot point—the double chase—an innocent man accused of murder, on the run with both the police and the ‘heavies’ out to get him. But the book lacked incident, it hadn’t a woman in it—neither the Madeline Carroll character nor Peggy Ashcroft’s character as the crofter’s wife. And practically every twist of events was based on an unlikely coincidence. By the end of my work on it, the entire construction was mine, with a lot of wonderful dialogue written by Ian Hay, a British playwright who later became the director of public relations at the British War Office.” – Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Hitchcock’s tendency to gloss over the input of his writers pales in comparison with Bennett’s attempts at hogging credit.

“…In those early days the allocation of credits was up to the producer, and things got awfully messed up when a ‘name’ writer who had done practically nothing got the main credit—whereas the guy who really had done the job but was less well known got practically nothing. Along this line, Alma Hitchcock received credits she did not deserve.” – Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

This is complete nonsense. The script was a collaborative effort, both Alfred and Alma Hitchcock deserve an equal amount of credit. We admit that the contributions of Charles Bennett have been overlooked, but to claim that Alma’s credit was undeserved is ridiculous. The truth is that she deserved more credit than she received. Ivor Montagu’s recollections were probably more accurate.

“The story conferences were a feast of fancy and dialectic, a mixture of composing crosswords and solving them, both laced with humour. We would sit around his flat. Sometimes Alma would be there, sometimes the scenario editor Angus MacPhail… The unfolding was elaborated with suggestions from all of us; everything was welcomed if not always agreed. In the end the scripts were by consensus; the only special privilege their credited authors had was to write them down. The scenes were of course finalized by Hitchcock and his verbal texts then duplicated from the writers’ notes. [Michael Balcon] never interfered. He simply created the conditions and confidence for us to work.” –Ivor Montagu (Sight and Sound, Working With Hitchcock, 1980)

During his infamous interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock elaborated on the process while giving an especially amusing account as to the origins of the Crofter sequence.

“…The method I used in those days was to make a treatment complete in every detail, except for the dialogue. I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes. As soon as we were through one episode, I remember saying, ‘Here we need another short story.’ I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself.

Anyway, despite my admiration for John Buchan, there are several things in the picture that are not in the book. For instance, the scene in the film in which Robert Donat spends the night with the farmer and his wife was inspired by an old story about a South African Boer, a black-bearded ma, very austere, with a very young, sex-starved wife. On his birthday she kills a chicken and bakes a chicken pie. It’s a very stormy night and she hopes that her husband will be pleased with her surprise. All she gets for her pains is an angry husband, who berates her for killing the chicken without his permission. Hence, a grim birthday celebration. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door, and there stands a handsome stranger who has lost his way and requests a night’s hospitality. The woman invites him to sit down and offers him some food, but the farmer, feeling he’s eating too much, stops him and says, ‘Hold on, there. This has got to last us the rest of the week.’

The woman is hungrily eyeing the stranger, wondering how she can get to bed with him. The husband suggests that they put him out in the barn, but the woman objects. Finally, the three of them go to sleep in the great big bed, with the farmer in the middle. The woman is trying to find some way to get rid of her husband, and finally, hearing a noise, she wakes him, saying, ‘I think the chickens are out of the coop.” The husband goes out to the yard, and the woman shakes the stranger awake, saying, ‘Come on. Now’s your chance.’ So the stranger gets out of bed and quickly gulps down the rest of the chicken pie.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Interestingly, the writing team borrowed inspiration from real life as well. One example was a throwback to the days when Hitchcock would attend London’s music halls:

“There was also another interesting character in the film, Mr. Memory. He’s based on a true-life music-hall personality called Datas. The audience would ask him questions about major events, like: ‘when did the Titanic sink?’ and he would give the correct answer…

…The whole idea is that the man is doomed by his sense of duty. Mr. Memory knows what the thirty-nine steps are, and when he is asked the question, he is compelled to give the answer. The schoolteacher in The Birds dies for the same reason.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Michael Balcon was impressed with the resulting script, and gave the film priority status at Gaumont-British. This would be evidenced by the film’s casting. Originally, the part of Pamela was given to Jane Baxter. She was offered £500 to perform in the film, but this never came to pass. Instead, it was decided that they should cast a much more popular actress in the role. Madeline Carroll suited the film’s needs perfectly, and her £5,000 salary was well worth the bite that it took out of the film’s final £58,449 budget.

It is strange how very well Madeleine fitted into the part. I had heard a lot about her as a tall, cold, blonde beauty, dignified and all that. Not exactly… The real type for a boisterous role or where intense activity would give little chance for draping herself round the furniture and what not. You see, I had seldom seen her on the screen, because I very rarely take a busman’s holiday. I knew only her photographs. Calm and serene barely describes them! They were certainly beautiful, but so very cold. My word, they would almost chill a refrigerator! …

…Why is it that actors and actresses are almost invariably cast exactly to type? In her case her obvious good looks had nearly been her downfall. It is very hard with merely the material of good looks to create a character, especially when they are completely devitalized by absence of action…

…After meeting her, I made up my mind to present her to the public as her natural self. You see what I mean? In The 39 Steps the public is seeing a Madeleine Carroll who has no time to be calm and serene. She is far too busy racing over moors, rushing up and down embankments, and scrambling over rocks.”–Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Norah Baring, Film Pictorial, November 23, 1935)

Madeline Carroll

Madeline Carroll is considered by many to be the prototypical “Hitchcock Blonde.” Others give this honor to Anny Ondra.

Carroll’s appearance along with Robert Donat made the international success of the film possible. These two stars gave the film an A-picture respectability that Hitchcock had never enjoyed on an international level prior to this production.

“I could not have wished for a better Hannay than Robert Donat. One of the chief reasons for his success—in addition, of course, to his natural looks, charm, and personality—is the good theatrical training he has behind him. He is blazingly ambitious but difficult to satisfy. He is a queer combination of determination and uncertainty. He is determined to do only pictures that satisfy him. He will be enthusiastic about an idea, then suddenly discard it completely. These are qualities of temperament that only a great actor like Donat can enjoy.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Certain members of the film’s supporting cast are also noteworthy. This is especially true of Peggy Ashcroft’s portrayal of the crofter’s wife. Ashcroft’s name would have carried a certain amount of weight in England at the time (especially to anyone that attended the theatre). Hitchcock often made it a point to mention her in his articles and interviews with the press while promoting the film.

“I should like to mention Peggy Ashcroft’s appearance as the crofter’s wife in The 39 Steps. It was brief but significant, especially when you consider that this was only her second film role. I am convinced that this delightful Juliet of John Gielgud’s Romeo and Juliet has a brilliant career in front of her. The greatest thing about her is her extreme simplicity.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock’s status as a practical joker has long been a favorite subject of anyone interested in his films, and his reported antics during the production of The 39 Steps are certainly noteworthy. Robert Donat recalled an infamous incident that has long been discussed and written about.

“On our first morning at the studio, immediately after being introduced, we were shackled in a pair of handcuffs, each have one hand imprisoned, and commenced to act a scene. Such a start was not exactly helpful in establishing relations, we thought, and these feelings were not lessened when, at the conclusion of the scene, ‘Hitch’ lost the key of the handcuffs! For nearly an hour Madeleine and I shared this enforced companionship, while the hunt for the key was sustained. There was nothing else to do, so we talked of our mutual friends, of our ambitions, and of film matters generally. Gradually our reserve thawed as we exchange experiences. When ‘Hitch’ saw that we were getting along famously, he extract the ‘missing’ key from his waistcoat pocket, released us, and said, with a satisfied grin, ‘Now that you two know each other we can go ahead.’ Had it not been for Hitchcock’s little ruse, Madeleine and I would probably have taken quite a time to ‘get together’ — to the detriment of our work in the interim.-Robert Donat (The Courier Mail, June 23, 1938)

There was method in this madness. Hitchcock’s behavior was his sly way of getting a particular kind of performance from his actors. Of course, this is less interesting than blaming a penchant for sadistic behavior 9or some sort of malicious chauvinism), but it makes much more sense. This is especially true when one considers that Donat was probably subjected to more pranks than Carol.

“It was in that picture, too, that I pulled [another] gag on Donat. He complained that the waterfall scene had ruined his clothes. The ruining of actors’ clothes and the demand that the company should replace them is a long standing bone which actors and directors pick amiably enough during production.

When Robert demanded a new suit, I gave him one out of my own pocket. I sent round for a 14s. Child’s suit from a neighborhood cheap store…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Of course, this particular prank seems to be an attempt at humbling what Hitchcock must have considered an overly haughty temperament. Whatever the case, these things are purposely often blown out of proportion for publicity purposes. It is a fact that Gaumont-British used exaggerated versions of these in their publicity materials for the film. It is difficult to know just which version of these stories to believe (if any).

Actually, it seems that the publicity machine worked overtime during the release of The 39 Steps.

“Gaumont-British was confident that The 39 Steps would be a great box-office success in Britain. Michael Balcon, eager to raise the profile of Gaumont-British as a production company, urged that the company’s name should be featured prominently in the advertising, on the grounds that ‘it may be a long time before we have another chance like this.’ In the week of the film’s release, four consecutive pages of advertisements were taken out in the British trade paper Kinematograph Weekly. One page was usual for a new film, two indicated an important release, but a four page spread signaled a cinematic event. Perhaps most telling, The 39 Steps was booked to run at the New Gallery Theatre for a full five weeks. The New Gallery had 1,400 seats, and films tended to spend no more than two or three weeks in such a large venue, but even the five-week engagement proved to be an underestimation of the film’s popularity. Fueled by enthusiastic reviews, The 39 Steps was still going strong at the end of its fifth week. The New Gallery had another booking and so The 39 Steps moved to the similarly capacious Marble Arch Pavillion, where it lasted no fewer than eight weeks… It had spent sixteen weeks in some of the West End’s largest venues, a record surpassed that year only by the Hollywood epic, Lives of a Bengal Lancer.

At the time, it was usual for important releases to be shown first in London’s West End, and have an exclusive run at advanced admission prices, before being released anywhere else. Hence, The 39 Steps didn’t play anywhere apart from the West End until the autumn of 1935 when it began to make its way around Britain. It then followed the standard release pattern of playing first in major cities and in regional capitols such as Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Cardiff, and then moving on to smaller cities, provincial towns and local theatres.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

The film was a sensation. It received the same enthusiasm everywhere that it was shown in Britain (and it was shown nearly everywhere). It was also a sensation in Canada, and brought respectable business in the United States and other territories. As a matter of fact, the film is responsible for building Hitchcock’s positive reputation in Hollywood.

Of course, the film’s critical reception was overwhelmingly positive. C. A. Lejeune’s review in The Observer is a prime example. She was especially enthusiastic about Robert Donat’s star potential.

“Mr. Donat, who has never been very well served in the cinema until now, suddenly blossoms out into a romantic comedian of no mean order … He strikes … an easy confident humour that has always been regarded as the perquisite of the American male star. For the first time on our screen we have the British equivalent of a Clark Gable or a Ronald Colman, playing in a purely national idiom. Mr. Donat, himself, I fancy, is hardly conscious of it, which is all to the good. Mr. Hitchcock is certainly conscious of it, and exploits his new star material with all the easy confidence of a local Van Dyke or Capra.” – C. A. Lejeune (The Observer as reprinted in The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

Sydney Carroll’s review in the Sunday Times preferred to focus his praise on Alfred Hitchcock.

“Every film of real quality bears the unforgettable stamp of its creator. Individuality is a rare and precious thing. In moving pictures it is exceptionally hard to discover. When it is there, however, it usually assumes a force and distinction unmistakably attributable to its director, and to its director alone. In The 39 Steps, the identity and mind of Alfred Hitchcock are continuously discernible, in fact supreme. Hitchcock is a genius.” –Sydney Carroll (Sunday Times as reprinted in The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

Variety published another positive review that spoke generally about the film.

“Gaumont has a zippy, punchy, romantic melodrama in The 39 Steps. Story is by John Buchan. It’s melodrama and at times far-fetched and improbable, but the story twists and spins artfully from one high-powered sequence to another while the entertainment holds like steel cable from start to finish…

…It’s a creamy role for Donat and his performance, ranging from humor to horror, reveals acting ability behind that good-looking facade. Teamed with Madeleine Carroll, who enters the footage importantly only toward the latter quarter section of the film, the romance is given a light touch which nicely colors an international spy chase.” -Variety (December 31, 1934)

The review published in The Times was written with the same pretentious pomposity that one might expect from the publication, but it remains overwhelmingly positive.

“Readers may not find it easy to relate the Richard Hannay they knew in the novel to the humorous happy-go-lucky adventurer who goes by the same name in this film, but they are bound to condone the freedom of an adaptation which has produced such excellent results.

Mr. Alfred Hitchcock’s treatment of the story gives us a first rate film of adventure edged with comedy; what in the theatre would be called a ‘comedy thriller.’ Its climax verges upon ingenuity of the kind that we resent, but by the time that it has been reached we have been much too, well entertained to think of resenting it. For the greater part of the film the ingenuity never fails to justify itself pictorially, and Mr. Robert Donat, who plays the amateur hunter of spies, and Miss Madeleine Carroll, as his unwilling companion in misfortune, know how to get the last ounce of excitement from an adventure approached humorously.

The sequence, in which Hannay shelters the woman spy in his London flat and falls under suspicion of having murdered her, is perhaps a little chilly in its conventionality, but once the double chase has begun, once the police get on Hannay’s track, and he gets on the track of the master spy, Mr. Hitchcock takes and keeps a firm and highly individual grip of the story. The camera makes extraordinarily effective play with the police search of the Scotch express and with Hannay’s escape among the girders of the Forth Bridge. In the Highlands it turns to account not only the rocks and waterfalls but the stillness of the hill recesses, and the episode of the avaricious crofter and his romantic wife, skilfully presented by Mr. John Laurie and Miss Peggy Ashcroft, is a genuine point of rest which enhances the excitement of the chase. Mr. Godfrey Tearle gives us the politeness and the ruthlessness of the chief spy; Mr. Frank Cellier the self-satisfaction of the sheriff who is too clever to perceive the truth when it is told to him; and Mr. Wylie Watson the comically mechanical make-up of the music hall memorizer through whom the Air Ministry’s secrets are passed to the head of the Thirty-Nine Steps.” -The Times (June 06, 1935)

This incredibly positive review published in Harrison’s Reports gave Hitchcock a compliment that he rarely received when it used the word “logically.”

“Very good entertainment. It is a combination murder mystery-spy melodrama, with fast melodramatic action, comedy and romance throughout; it holds the attention well, keeping the spectator in suspense. The plot is worked out logically with a particularly ingenious ending in which the villain is trapped. The thrills are engendered by the many attempts the hero makes to escape from the police, who were trying to arrest him for a murder he had not committed. Besides being exciting these situations provoke comedy because of the means the hero uses to gain his freedom. Equally exciting and amusing are the situations in which the heroine is handcuffed to the hero and is forced to do his bidding. The production and acting are goo…

…Because of the murder it is unsuitable for children or adolescents. It is very good adult entertainment.” -Harrison’s Reports (June 29, 1935)

Andre Sennwald’s review for the New York Times is a virtual love letter to Alfred Hitchcock.

“Alfred Hitchcock, the gifted English screen director, has made one of the fascinating pictures of the year in The Thirty-nine Steps, his new film at the Roxy Theatre. If the work has any single rival as the most original, literate and entertaining melodrama of 1935, then it must be The Man Who Knew Too Much, which is also out of Hitchcock’s workshop. A master of shock and suspense, of cold horror and slyly incongruous wit, he uses his camera the way a painter uses his brush, stylizing history and giving it values which the scenarists could hardly have suspected. By comparison with the sinister delicacy and urbane understatement of The Thirty-nine Steps, the best of our melodramas seem crude and brawling.

If you can imagine Anatole France writing a detective story you will have some notion of the artistry that Hitchcock brings to this screen version of John Buchan’s novel. Like The Man Who Knew Too Much, the photoplay immerses a quite normal human being in an incredible dilemma where his life is suddenly at stake and his enemies are mysterious, cruel and disparate… Hitchcock describes the remarkable chain of events in Hannay’s flight across England and Scotland with a blend of unexpected comedy and breathless terror that is strikingly effective.

Perhaps the identifying hallmark of his method is apparent absence of accent in the climaxes, which are upon the spectator like a slap in the face before he has set himself for the blow. In such episodes as the murder of the woman in Hannay’s apartment, the icy ferocity of the man with the missing finger when he casually shoots Hannay, or the brilliantly managed sequences on the train, the action progresses through seeming indifference to whip-like revelations. There is a subtle feeling of menace on the screen all the time in Hitchcock’s low-slung, angled use of the camera. But the participants, both Hannay and his pursuers, move with a repressed excitement that adds significance to every detail of their behavior.

Robert Donat as the suavely desperate hero of the adventure is excellent both in the comic and the tragic phases of his plight. The lovely Madeleine Carroll, who begins by betraying him and believes his story when it is almost too late, is charming and skillful. All the players preserve that sureness of mood and that understanding of the director’s intention which distinguished The Man Who Knew Too Much. There are especially fine performances by John Laurie as the treacherous Scot who harbors the fugitive, Peggy Ashcroft as his sympathetic wife, Godfrey Tearle as the man with the missing finger, and Wylie Watson as the memory expert of the music halls, who proves to be the hub of the mystery.” -Andre Sennwald (New York Times, September 14, 1935)

Time magazine’s review added its voice to the chorus of praise as well.

The Thirty-Nine Steps (Gaumont-British) neatly converts its essential implausibility into an asset by stressing the difficulties which confront its hero when he tries to tell outsiders about the predicament he is in. A young Canadian named Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), he finds himself one evening, as the result of nothing more daring than a visit to a London music hall, entertaining in his flat a girl who tells him that she is a counter-espionage agent protecting England from an international ring which is selling the secrets of the Air Ministry and that she has just committed a murder. Hannay considers this nonsense until the next morning, when he finds his guest dying with a knife in her back. Thus assured of her veracity, he constitutes himself heir to her quest and with the meagre information she has given him sets out to solve the riddle of the Thirty-Nine Steps.

Harried by the police, who suspect him of murdering the counterspy, by the members of the ring, who soon find out that he is on their trail, and by a charming young lady (Madeleine Carroll) whom he picks up in the course of a wild night on the Scottish moors, Hannay plunges through a series of hairbreadth escapes and escapades, some of them horrifying, some of them extraordinarily funny. The funniest, possibly, is the one in which, mistaken at a political meeting for the speaker of the evening, he makes himself the hero of the occasion by an address composed of foolish generalities. The most exciting is that which brings the story back to its starting point in the music hall, where a final pistol shot punctures the mystery permanently.

In the last two years, by making a specialty of melodrama, the English cinema industry sometimes appears to have taken its motto from the words of a song popular in the U.S. a year ago. ‘Here Come the British with a Bang, Bang.’ The Thirty-Nine Steps is the most effective demonstration to date of Director Alfred Hitchcock’s method of artful understatement and its success, which has already been sensational abroad, should be a lesson to his Hollywood imitators. The film is an adaptation of a novel written 20 years ago by John Buchan, now Lord Tweedsmuir, who next month will go to Canada as that Dominion’s Governor-General (TIME, Aug. 19). This high-placed connection made it possible for the British film industry to improve notably upon Hollywood methods of ballyhoo. The premiere of The Thirty-Nine Steps in London was preceded, not by a mere broadcast, but by a Gaumont-British banquet at which the guests of honour were Lord Tweedsmuir, Home Secretary Sir John Simon, Minister for Air Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister and their ladies.” –Time (Sept. 23, 1935)

It is easy for contemporary audiences to forget that The 39 Steps was the benchmark from which future Hitchcock films were judged for many years. (This lasted well into the director’s American career.) Today, it is too often ignored in favor of the director’s American work. This is unfortunate, because it is impossible to accurately examine Hitchcock’s creative evolution without examining his British thrillers.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. The film related artwork isn’t among Criterion’s best designs, but it is reasonably attractive.

Fans of the film will be especially pleased to find an illustrated booklet featuring an essay entitled “Thirty-Nine Steps to Happiness” by David Cairns and information about the film’s transfer.

The disc’s menus utilize the iconic image of Hannay silencing Pamela under a bridge, and the film’s score accompanies the image.

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It is an elegant menu that is quite easy to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion’s booklet details their high definition transfer in more depth than any review might hope to discuss it:

“This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35m fine-grain master positive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Image Systems’ DVNR was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.”

The result is an image that is less than perfect, but superior to other transfers of the film by quite some margin (at least to those available in North America). Criterion’s decision to place the film on a dual-layer disc has resulted into a film with less compression than one might expect with most Blu-ray releases. There is a nice layer of film grain lending an organic quality to the image that one expects from films made during this era. Detail is reasonably impressive and contrast is beautifully rendered as well. This may not be Criterion’s best image transfer, but it is much better than the film has received elsewhere.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion discusses their sound transfer in detail as well:

“The original monaural soundtrack was re-mastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical track print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.”

The result is a relatively clean sound transfer that features clear dialogue that isn’t buried beneath layers of noise and hiss. It is a rare moment when extremely light hiss makes itself heard, and these moments never become distracting. The dynamic range is rather limited, but this is to be expected with films of this era. There aren’t many (if any) distortions at the high end, nor are there any annoying dropouts to distract from one’s enjoyment of the film.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Marian Keane

This scholarly commentary by Marian Keane was featured on Criterion’s 1998 Criterion DVD of the film, so those who owned this edition of the film will know what to expect. Some of her theoretical insights sometimes seem a bit overreaching, and her delivery is certainly on the dry side. One wonder’s if her insights might have been more digestible in the video essay format. However, the track is quite informative and Keane’s discussion is rather articulate. Hitchcock fans should find the track well worth their time.

Hitchcock: The Early Years – (1080I) – (24:07)

This slightly dry British documentary covers Alfred Hitchcock’s pre-war career (or what is more often referred to as his British period). It features interviews with John Kennedy Melling (crime historian), Charles Barr (film historian/scholar), Hugh Stewart (film editor, The Man Who Knew Too Much), Teddy Joseph (third assistant director, Sabotage), Roy Ward Baker (second assistant director, The Lady Vanishes), and is narrated by David Bond. The bulk of this short retrospective is made up of clips from the director’s British filmography.

Those who have not yet discovered Alfred Hitchcock’s early British work should find this particular piece fascinating and informative, but those who have already familiarized themselves with these films might hope for something a bit more comprehensive.

Cinema: Alfred Hitchcock – (1080I) – (40:14)

Mike Scott’s excellent interview was produced in 1966 for British television. The original edited program has been lost, but the raw footage has been compiled and presented here. Many will consider this to be the highlight of the disc’s supplemental offerings. Any interview with Hitchcock is an amusing and educational experience, and this particular interview is no exception. The director discusses various areas of his career, but it is especially interesting to hear him talk about his early days in the British film industry.

The Borders of the Possible – (1080I) – (23:59)

Leonard Leff’s visual essay is an illustrated look at this adaptation of John Buchan’s famous novel and the development of Alfred Hitchcock’s style. The program is enhanced by extracts from the director’s interview with François Truffaut, film stills, artwork, and footage from The 39 Steps.

Excerpt from Truffaut/Hitchcock Interviews – (1080P) – (22:16)

Those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview will find this audio interview familiar. Helen G. Scott’s interpretation of both the questions and the answers might become tiresome for certain listeners, but the conversation itself is extremely interesting. This is a historical conversation between two cinematic giants, and most cinemaphiles will find it fascinating. A photo of the two great filmmakers (taken at the time of the interview) fills the screen throughout the length of this audio feature.

Original Production Design Drawings – (1080P)

Oscar Friedrich Werndorff’s production sketches for the film are presented here along with production photographs in slide show form. One can compare the original drawings with the finished sets.

Lux Radio Theatre Presents “The 39 Steps” – (59:52)

Lux Radio Theatre’s 1937 audio production of The 39 Steps starred Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino in the leading roles. This adaptation borrowed ore heavily from the film than from Buchan’s original novel. It is interesting to hear other actors in the roles made famous by Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll.

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Final Words:

Those who have read “The Catcher in the Rye” will remember that this film was Phoebe Caulfield’s favorite film:

“Her favorite is The 39 Steps, though, with Robert Donat. She knows the whole goddam movie by heart, because I’ve taken her to see it about ten times. When old Donat comes up to this Scotch farmhouse, for instance, when he’s running away from the cops and all, Phoebe’ll say right out loud in the movie–right when the Scotch guy in the picture says it–“Can you eat the herring?” She knows all the talk by heart. And when this professor in the picture, that’s really a German spy, sticks up his little finger with part of the middle joint missing, to show Robert Donat, old Phoebe beats him to it–she holds up her little finger at me in the dark, right in front of my face.” J.D Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951)

It must be said that this ten year old has fabulous taste. There is so much to love here, and if J.D Salinger recommends the film, why shouldn’t we? It is such a fun ride, and Criterion’s Blu-ray release gives us plenty of supplemental material to enhance our experience.

Review by: Devon Powell

The Criterion Collection’s The 39 Steps page:

https://www.criterion.com/films/234-the-39-steps

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Source Material:

John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1915)

Staff Writer (Variety, December 31, 1934)

Staff Writer (The Times, June 06, 1935)

Staff Writer (Harrison’s Reports, June 29, 1935)

Andre Sennwald (New York Times, September 14, 1935)

Staff Writer (Time, Sept. 23, 1935)

Norah Baring (Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Film Pictorial, November 23, 1935)

Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Robert Donat (The Courier Mail, June 23, 1938)

J.D Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951)

Peter Bogdanovich (Interview with Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Ivor Montagu (Working With Hitchcock, Sight and Sound, 1980)

Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide, January 01, 2002)

Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett, May 02, 2014)