Hitchcock’s Young & Innocent (1937) + The 39 Steps (1935)
Hitchcock reworked The 39 Steps (1935) for the first time in Young and Innocent (1937) adding more light-hearted humour than in many of his British films and restricting the action to a smaller geographical region than his UK-trotting seminal 1935 thriller. The grippingly gloomy Sabotage (1936) had immediately preceded Young and Innocent (1937) in Hitchcock’s filmography, so it’s no surprise that he returned to a more playful film.
Young and Innocent is bookended by two grandiose shots, of which the latter is particularly famous. It’s an impressive crane shot meandering over a hotel ballroom to reveal the jazz drummer as our twitching murderer (see previous blog post https://hotdogcinema.wordpress.com/2014/07/13/hitchcocks-best-shot/). The first is the same twitching killer set against a rough sea in a thunderstorm.
Nova Pilbeam excels as the daughter of a chief contestable, falling haplessly for man on the run (and of course, the wrongly accused) Derrick De Marney. Watch out for Basil Redford is an amusing bit-part.
Whilst it was made relatively early in the director’s career, this film could be none other a ‘Hitchcock movie’. The theme of an innocent man on the run, romantically involved with a “good standing woman”, is almost his own and there’s many similarities here for those looking to consistency in his cannon. Early on the film, De Marney’s position is that of Henry Fonda’s in the unloved The Wrong Man (1956) and there’s a scene which would be replicated 20 years later with Fonda, where detectives attempt to put words in De Marney’s exasperated mouth. The crane shot is a clear precursor to the rousing “key in the hand” sequence in Notorious. More deviously, throughout Hitchcock’s films, he loved to include scenes of dinner table discussions of murder (Shadow of a Doubt, The Paradine Case, I Confess, Frenzy to name but a few) and we have one here, with Pilbeam’s family chirpily discussing “the murderer” De Marney’s probability of escape. Pilbeam’s reactions are the same as those of Wright’s in Shadow of A doubt when a dinner conversation about her killer of an Uncle begins in his presence. Also note the use of clothing apparel as a murder weapon, which would be vividly revisited over 30 years later in Hitchcock’s penultimate and most savage film, Frenzy (1972).
At its heart, whilst both begin with a murder, the big difference between The 39 Steps and this film is that Young and Innocent is more of a romance thriller – there’s even a scene where de Marney enters Pilbeam’s bedroom via a window in something out of Romeo and Juliet – whereas the 39 Steps is what I frequently call one of Hitchcock’s “athletic” mystery thrillers which would culminate in the never-bettered North by Northwest. These films are defined by their dynamism, pace, romantic leads, use of landmark locations and churning plot twists. Whilst N by NW is the pristine example, there are many in Hitchcock’s filmography (Saboteur (1942)being one of the sadly neglected; and note the handcuffs sequence with the blind man).
On its own merits, the 39 Steps has ground to be Hitchcock’s most enjoyable movie of the British period (although with stiff competition from the original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)). In some sense, the 39 Steps is the first “bond movie” but is glossed with all the director’s hallmarks. The visual style starts in scene 1 as the words” music hall” are lit up before our eyes as the camera scrolls the screen. The film opens and closes in a music hall, and the finale echoes aspects of The Man Who Knew Too Much conclusion with a balcony-situated killer waiting in the wings. Whilst Young and Innocent is more about the growing love between two mavericks, The 39 Steps is devoted to the theme of deception – nearly every character is deceiving someone else, and with Donat’s hero going from being the one who is deceived to the one doing the deceiving.
There are other cinematic nuggets including the iconic close-ups of the handcuffs that chain Donat and his love-interest together, and the zoom in shot of the identifiable missing knuckle of the villain of the piece. Much of the action takes place in the Scottish Moorland, and there’s some neat atmospherics, rolling fogs and wandering sheep. Thematically, one could argue that the MacGuffin was conceived in this very film (what exactly are the 39 Steps?) and it’s perhaps more than a coincidence that often Hitchcock gave the train-to-Scotland example of what he meant by the MacGuffin.
Both movies showcase the talent of a director who not only managed to make the films which defined his time but also which still today endear themselves to audiences 80+ years later. Their longevity is a testament to the ability of the best filmmaker our little island has produced.