Misc. Reviews

THE 39 STEPS (Theater)

By • Sep 24th, 2009 •

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On August 1, 1935 Alfred Hitchcock’s masterwork, THE 39 STEPS, hit the movie screens. An enormous international success, this fast-paced thriller with chases, murders, laughs, mysterious spies and romance placed Hitchcock as England’s top film director, and as the worldwide master of cinema suspense.

Most film thrillers up until THE 39 STEPS were stage-bound, usually set in only one or two rooms, and highly dependent on dialog. That’s because most of these films were based on stage plays. Hitchcock used the film medium and the soundtrack to full tilt here. THE 39 STEPS is rich in quick cutting, carefully crafted point of view shots, location photography and effects work that often make the film’s hero, Richard Hannay, played by the great Robert Donat, seem so real.

The plot, very quickly, finds Hannay, an ordinary traveler, falsely accused of murdering a stranger, a beautiful woman he invited to his London apartment. Before she died, she told Hannay she was a spy, pursuing foreign agents bent on endangering England. Now both the spies and the police are pursuing Hannay!

In future films like SABOTEUR and NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Hitchcock would return to this theme of the double chase, and set his ‘wrong man’ theme in elaborate places like The Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore. Twice, other directors remade this still popular film, first in 1959 with Kenneth More, and again in 1979 with Robert Powell. Screenwriter (CHINATOWN) Director (PERSONAL BEST) Robert Towne is set to direct a third remake, due out in 2011. So, how can this story of speed and action work as a stage play? Well, it works amazingly well, and it keeps audiences gasping and laughing non-stop.

The play is an almost word-for-word, chase-for-chase recreation of the 1935 film. You’ll love how four stage-bound actors pull off, with minimal props, a mad pursuit inside, and on top of a speeding train, or how Hannay, and his unwilling accomplice, Pamela, duck under a waterfall and cross a stream. Hitchcock always seasoned his films with eccentric supporting characters, harmless oddballs on the brink of total madness, such as the two cricket fanatics in THE LADY VANISHES, or the bird expert in THE BIRDS. In all of Hitchcock’s films, from his first suspense thriller, THE LODGER in 1926, to his last film, 1976’s FAMILY PLOT, supporting characters who are paired together usually move in exact unison. You see this with both detectives and bad guys. It’s part of Hitchcock’s design. The cast of THE 39 STEPS picked up on this and has a field day.

Sean Mahon does a great Richard Hanney, never trying to channel Robert Donat, but making it his own creation. Jill Paice is the three female leads, including the love interest Pamela, originally played by Madeleine Carroll, whom Paice resembles very closely. Arnie Burton and Jeffrey Kuhn take on every other role in the film, and all the eccentric qualities of these roles (such as Mr. Memory, or the nervous ticks of the crofter who helps and double crosses Hannay, and even the folksy Scottish couple who run the inn where Hannay hides.) Just watch the glorious field day they have. I wish I could have been in the room when these four talented people (with their gifted director, Maria Aitken) watched the film and picked up the quirks Hitchcock placed there 70 years ago.

The stage version of The 39 Steps first opened in England’s West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2005 and made its Broadway debut in January 2008. As of September 2009, this two-time Tony Award play is the only non-musical Broadway play enjoying an open-ended run.

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