What are the 39 Steps?
Watching 13 of these things now, I'm beginning to pick up the trademarks a lot more quickly, violence and chaos in public places and particularly theatres seems to be one of them. Perhaps a subtle nod to the audience that would have been sat in the cinema watching the film, all seated nicely for a little bit of riotous action! The other is cats…
… particularly black cats! Only 13 movies in and I am fairly certain if I went back and paid each one closer attention there may be a cat in all of them even. Reading up on the Wiki page about Hitchcock trademarks in response to these thoughts, I notice there is no mention of cats, although birds are mentioned, so I shall be updating that page for them very soon!
From what I can remember, so far there have been black cats in To Catch A Thief, Rear Window, Rich and Strange (2 different black cats), The Birds (possibly a ginger cat?) and Number Seventeen. The 39 Steps, although only a brief appearance on a busy street (which leads me to think there are more that I've not spotted in the other films) makes that a total of 6 of 13 films so far having cats in them… nearly half. Taking into account random nature in which I'm viewing the films, that's too many to be coincidence, surely?
Trains appear too, often, but perhaps as a necessity of the times more than a deliberate choice.
Watching The 39 Steps, it's difficult to conceive some of the things that made this film so groundbreaking and controversial for it's time of release. I think that is because so many of the taboo areas of this film are now considered so normal, even mundane, and have done for so long, that they become almost unnoticeable.
Whilst it's still fairly easy to comprehend why the idea of an unmarried couple (strangers even in this case) sharing a hotel room for the evening might be considered 'not the done thing' (especially when they're handcuffed to one another!) it's now very difficult to appreciate the inappropriateness of the scene where Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) takes off her wet stockings to dry them above the fire. It just simply wasn't done in front of a man in that way and at such close quarters. Yet nothing about the way the film is shot suggests that it should be wrong… it's not slow or seductive, there's no awkward pause, they just get on with it simply because it's what makes sense. That really puts the film way ahead of it's time in terms of the modernity of it's thinking.
Pamela and Richard (Robert Donat… try saying that with getting 'Dammit Janet' stuck in yer head… I work in theatre; I can't help myself… It's too late for me but you could still make a run for it!) are very much a young couple (not teenage young, just sort-of-just-about-to-hit-30 young), as is highlighted some what by the hotel owners, and perhaps this was really intended to show the older generations watching the film that 'look… you're kids aren't going to be as hung-up about this stuff as you are!'. They're adults now and these will be the foundations they lay the rest of their lives on.
That aside, this was a very entertaining film in general. It felt far older than I had first imagined it to be, perhaps because there have been a couple of remakes since. Another chase film but with some really witty moments of dark humour interspersed throughout it. Humour is always important in a thriller, cutting the audience a break from time to time and keeping them on their toes, never sure if that funny little remark means it's okay to permanently release the tension or if it's just a decoy to make the next intense moment more surprising!