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The 39 Steps(1935)
Richard Hanney has a rude awakening when a glamorous female spy falls into his bed -- with a knife in her back. Having a bit of trouble explaining it all to Scotland Yard, he heads for the hills of Scotland to try to clear his name by locating the spy ring known as "The 39 Steps."
For more about The 39 Steps and the The 39 Steps Blu-ray release, see the The 39 Steps Blu-ray Review published by Dr. Svet Atanasov on May 27, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Madeleine Carroll, Robert Donat, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
» See full cast & crew
The 39 Steps Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Dr. Svet Atanasov, May 27, 2012
Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" (1935) arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion. The supplemental features on the disc include excerpts from Francois Truffaut's legendary interview with the British director; compilation of original footage from a program made for British television in which producer and broadcaster Mike Scott interviewed Alfred Hitchcock; visual essay in which scholar Leonard Leff discusses the adaptation of John Buchan's novel; the famous Lux Radio Theater adaption; and an audio commentary by film scholar Marian Keane. The disc also arrives with an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Cairns. In English, with optional English SDH subtitles for the main feature. Region-A "locked".
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps tells an intriguing story about a Canadian man, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat, Perfect Strangers), who gets in the middle of a complicated espionage affair. It takes him awhile to figure out what is really happening – he goes through a number of situations where he encounters fascinating characters whose personal stories are as incredible as his – before the whole thing comes to an end. There are multiple twists throughout the film as well - some plausible, some not so much – that create a truly unique atmosphere, one that Hitchcock would later on effectively recreate in his North by Northwest.
Comedy and thriller are the two genres struggling for dominance in The 39 Steps. Large portions of the film are infused with that marquee humor many Hitchcock films possess. There are two sequences, in particular, that are incredibly well done. The first comes early into the film and shows the famous Mr. Memory, a man who supposedly has the answer to every question one could come up with, while he is being tested by a group of Londoners. A young man asks Mr. Memory: "How old is Mae West?" and he immediately replies, "Sir, I never tell a lady's age".
The second sequence is towards the end of the film. Richard enters a town hall meeting where he pretends to be an important political leader in order to save himself from a group of secret agents who have been chasing him. He takes the stage and delivers a passionate speech that everyone applauds. The manner in which he plays with the emotions of his listeners is incredibly entertaining.
Of course, The 39 Steps is also entertaining as a conventional thriller. Hitchcock introduces a number of characters whose true personalities intentionally remain veiled in secrecy. As a result, one is forced to continuously guess what their exact roles in the espionage affair is – a stylish move transforming The 39 Steps into a lot more than the sum of its parts.
There are some rather effective romantic overtones in the film as well. After Richard 'accidentally' encounters the attractive Pamela (Madeleine Carroll, My Favorite Blonde), and the two question their integrity, they actually end up liking each other. This is where the tone of the film changes dramatically, enhanced by the surprising sexual tension occupying the space between the two characters (pay attention how Pamela looks at Richard when he hangs her wet stockings over the fireplace).
While not as elegant as many of Hitchcock's later films, The 39 Steps is still an impressive achievement. Richard's adventures in the Scottish moors are beautifully photographed by Bernard Knowles (The Young and Innocent) and, arguably, one of the film's most striking assets. There is also a variety of notable noir-ish sequences, particularly during the first half of the film.
The 39 Steps is based on John Buchan's book of the same name. It was the first of five books he wrote chronicling Richard Hannay's colorful adventures. The adaptation is by Charles Bennett, who apparently took the liberty of changing a great deal of what was in the book. The film was first screened in London during the summer of 1935.
The 39 Steps Blu-ray, Video Quality
Presented in aspect ratio of 1.34:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and granted a 1080p transfer, Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion.
I have to admit that I expected to see a much more convincing upgrade in quality over ITV's Blu-ray release of The 39 Steps. However, it appears that Criterion's high-definition transfer uses as a foundation the same ITV restoration, which I personally am not overly impressed with. The good news is that Criterion have placed the film on a dual-layer disc and compression is notably better. This is important because the image is now a lot tighter and the blurriness that routinely pops up on the ITV release is no longer a serious issue of concern. Furthermore, now there is also light grain that is clearly visible (there is still plenty of inherited softness, but compare screenshot #18 with screenshot #9 from our review of the ITV release to see the benefits of the improved compression, and in particular the reappearance of the grain). The color scheme has been corrected as well – there are still various fluctuations but the blacks are now better saturated; there is also a wider range of nuanced grays and whites. It appears that more scratches, debris and flecks have been removed as well. This being said, there are still various small warps, damage marks and edge flicker. During the nighttime sequences clarity is still problematic and some color balance issues remains as well. All in all, there are clearly different inherited limitations, but now the film at least has the type of organic look we expect to see when older films transition to Blu-ray. (Note: This is a Region-A "locked" Blu-ray disc. Therefore, you must have a native Region-A or Region-Free PS3 or SA in order to access its content).
The 39 Steps Blu-ray, Audio Quality
There is only one audio track on this Blu-ray disc: English: LPCM 1.0. For the record, Criterion have provided optional English SDH subtitles for the main feature.
Generally speaking, the dialog is stable and easy to follow. There is relatively good depth and clarity is pleasing. Only occasionally there is extremely light hiss that creeps in. The range of nuanced dynamics, however, is fairly limited. There are no high-frequency distortions or problematic audio dropouts to report in this review.
The 39 Steps Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The 39 Steps Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
I have to speculate that this release of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps will likely be the definitive release of the film, at least on Blu-ray. I have to admit that I was expecting a much more convincing upgrade in quality, but apparently the ITV restoration is indeed the best one around at the moment. Criterion's Blu-ray release is undoubtedly better than ITV's release, as the film clearly has the type of organic look we expect to see when older films transition to Blu-ray, but it is far from flawless. Perhaps this is all that could be accomplished with current digital tools. RECOMMENDED.
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