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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 October 14, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 2.0 out of 5.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Charles Bennett, John Buchan (I), Ian Hay
Starring: Madeleine Carroll, Robert Donat, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie (I)
» See full cast & crew
The 39 Steps Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Dr. Svet Atanasov, October 14, 2009
Based on John Buchan's book of the same name, Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of British distributors ITV-Granada. Amongst the supplemental features on the disc are an audio commentary with film scholar Marian Keene, the famous Lux Radio Theater adaption, the Art of Film Video Feature and more. With optional English subtitles. Region-B "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 scenes, in particular, that are incredibly well done. The first one is rather early into The 39 Steps and it 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 scene 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 entire 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 looking 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 flavored scenes, 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 39 Steps was adapted 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 its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and granted a 1080p transfer, Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of British distributors ITV-Granada.
I do not quite know what to make of this Blu-ray release. I did some extensive comparisons during the last 48 hours with the Criterion R1 SDVD and at this point must conclude that a) either I received a defective screener of some sort or b) something went terribly wrong at ITV-Granada. As a result, what ended up on this disc is very much comparable to an upconverted standard-definition transfer.
I am a firm believer that screenshots don't ever accurately reveal how good, or bad, a high-definition transfer is, but this time around, I think that even the most inexperienced amongst you would be able to tell that something is off with the Blu-ray release of The 39 Steps.
Contrast is very problematic. Obviously, a lot of the issues can probably be traced back to the original film elements, but I also believe that the producers of this disc could have addressed at least some of them. Clarity and detail are also problematic. In fact, so much that I feel very comfortable stating that during a number of scenes the Criterion SDVD release actually looks a lot stronger.
Damage – large debris, scratches and stains – is everywhere. At least a partial clean-up of the transfer should have been performed, but, regrettably, I don't think that such procedure was even considered. The color-scheme is also fairly weak; the blacks, in particular, look pale and very unhealthy.
To sum it all up, I certainly expected The 39 Steps to have a completely different look. Every single ITV-Granada Blu-ray release that has come my way has been a strong upgrade over the existing SDVD release of the same film (probably with the exception of The Thunderbirds, due to the aspect ratio fiasco) and I most definitely had a lot of faith that the first Hitchcock film to get a high-definition treatment in the United Kingdom would look beautiful. I am heartbroken!
The 39 Steps Blu-ray, Audio Quality
There is only one audio track on this Blu-ray disc: English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. For the record, ITV-Granada have provided optional English subtitles for the main feature.
The audio treatment is also underwhelming. I am unsure why an uncompressed track isn't offered with this release, but if I had to speculate, I would say that it is precisely because what we have here is an upconverted standard-definition transfer.
Generally speaking, the dialog is fairly easy to follow. There is some background noise and hiss, but, overall you should not have trouble understanding what is being said. Still, anyone expecting the type of depth and clarity heard on Criterion's Blu-ray release of The Third Man, for example, would be gravely disappointed.
The 39 Steps Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Feature Commentary - this is the same audio commentary with film scholar Marian Keene that is available on the Criterion SDVD release of The 39 Steps. It is very informative and well done.
Art of Film Video Feature - another supplemental feature from the Criterion disc, courtesy of Janus Films. (29 min),
The Lux Radio Theater Adaptation - a 1937 broadcast performed by Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino. The Lux Radio Theater was first broadcast in 1934 and was a prestigious U.S. radio series sponsored bu Lever Brothers - the masker of Lux soap. It ran until 1955 and became one of the most popular dramatic radio programs in America. In 1936, the show moved from New York to Los Angeles and began to favor adaptations of films rather than plays. The Lux Radio Theater feature many of the biggest names in Hollywood in its extravagant productions. Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart, Shirley Temple, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra would all appear. Legendary film director and showman Cecil B. DeMille hosted the show from 1936 until 1945.
On Location - an informative program focusing on the exact locations used for the different versions of The 38 Steps that have appeared during the years. (14 min).
Photo Galleries - On Set Photography and Posters and Publicity.
The 39 Steps Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Plain and simple, I am very disappointed with this Blu-ray release. I am unsure what else to say. Up until now, every single ITV-Granada release that reached my desk was worthy of a strong recommendation. I am heartbroken.
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