The 39 Steps, revived this week in a new print at the BAMCinématek, was the most successful and remains the most celebrated of Alfred Hitchcock’s British movies—twice remade and currently staged on Broadway. It is also the movie with which Hitchcock became Hitchcock.
The tale of a suavely diffident fellow, dragged by a sultry dame of mystery into inexplicable intrigue and, wrongly accused of murder, pursued both by the police and a spy ring from London to the Scottish moors, wasn’t exactly fresh material even in 1935. Hitchcock drew on a 20-year-old novel by the future governor-general of Canada, John Buchan. In Hitchcock’s hands, however, this well-known espionage adventure provided the basis for a new sort of thriller and a new sort of comedy.
Buchan’s hero, played in the movie by Robert Donat, was an ordinary chap abruptly plunged, as if through a trapdoor, into a world of frightening irrationality. The precursor to the James Bond movies as well as Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, et al., Hitchcock’s 39 Steps is simultaneously suspenseful, insouciant, and absurd—a work of heightened theatricality and bravura, breakneck filmmaking. The movie is playful in both senses of the word. Indeed, showmanship is in good measure the subject of the film.
Hitchcock and his screenwriters invented nearly everything in The 39 Steps beyond the basic situation—adding the murdered mystery woman, the love interest, and the variety star Mr. Memory, whose crowd-pleasing performances, twice punctuated by gun shots, serve to frame the movie. Attending the first of these, the Donat character gets picked up by an attractive secret agent with a vaguely Middle European accent (Lucie Mannheim), who suggests that he take her home, confesses she’s being chased by rival agents, and then, prompted by a jangling telephone, is murdered in his apartment.
Eluding her killers with the help of a dirty-minded milkman, Donat shortly finds himself on a Scotland-bound train, sharing a compartment with a pair of boisterous foundation-garment salesmen. (The innuendos are endless.) The hero’s picture is in all the papers, and cops troll the corridors in search of this Carving Knife Murderer. What else is there to do than impose upon a strange woman (the original Hitchcock blonde, Madeleine Carroll), take her in his arms, and pretend that they’re lovers?
Carroll vanishes, only to reappear for the final act. Hitchcock stages more than a few other outrageous coincidences—most famously the providential placement of a pocket hymnal, and most amusingly when Donat seeks refuge in a political rally and becomes the candidate—handling improbabilities with deft montage and frequent close-ups. However humorous the dialogue and hyper-theatrical the scene may be, Hitchcock is never stagy. His narrative is rigorously (and innovatively) founded on the primacy of the visual.
The 39 Steps does occasionally verge on vaudeville—reveling in caricature Scotsmen and feasting on the details of Mr. Memory’s act. And, in the prolonged sequence where Donat and Carroll, having been handcuffed together, cope with the enforced intimacy of a night at a rustic inn, Hitchcock contributes an unsurpassed, highly choreographed set piece to the canon of screwball comedy. But, as made clear by the current Broadway hit, itself a tour de force of intricate, breakneck minimalism, the movie is essentially farce.
Years later, in an interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock would affectionately recall his breathless transitions: “It takes a lot of work to get that kind of effect, but it’s well worth the effort. You use one idea after another and eliminate anything that interferes with the swift pace.” Truffaut responded by praising The 39 Steps for the liberties it took with narrative credibility. The style, he thought, disposes “with anything that is merely utilitarian, so as to retain only those scenes that are fun to shoot and to watch.”
The same could be said of Truffaut’s second feature, Shoot the Piano Player (1960), a movie that shifted registers and combined genres with such blithe aplomb that few contemporary critics seemed to remember it had ever been done before.
An appropriate flourish with which to conclude Film Forum’s season of French crime films, Shoot the Piano Player is the most purely enjoyable movie Truffaut ever made. It’s also the quintessential nouvelle vague film, a blatantly cinephilic combination of vivacious vogueing and soulful sentimentality. “Nuttiness, pure and simple,” in New York Times critic Bosley Crowther’s pithy formulation.
Shoot the Piano Player was greeted in France as something of a frivolous, disappointing follow-up to the 28-year-old filmmaker’s quasi-autobiographical, Cannes-winning debut, The 400 Blows. Here, where it opened a few years later in the wake of Truffaut’s ultra-romantic third feature, Jules and Jim, Shoot the Piano Player was an instant art-house classic— in heavy rotation at the old Bleecker Street Cinema throughout the mid-’60s and approvingly cited by Bob Dylan (for its presumed music über alles message!) in the Times They Are A-Changin’ liner notes.
Shoot the Piano Player has a nominal, tragic gangster plot (adapted from David Goodis’s 1956 pulp novel Down There) but, hardly a hardboiled noir, it’s pure atmosphere. Powered by Georges Delerue’s haunting score—mainly the sad, jaunty tune that the eponymous pianist Charlie (singer—but not here—Charles Aznavour) pounds out in a neighborhood saloon at the movie’s beginning and end, Shoot the Piano Player is the essence of a drizzly autumn afternoon in some shabby arrondissement.
Wreathed in Gitane smoke and heroic self-pity, the short, heartbroken hero is something like Woody Allen’s ego ideal—a genius performer who shares his endearingly self-questioning thoughts with the audience, wears a trench coat with aplomb, and, when necessary, can escalate from morose catatonia to murderous rage. Ambience rules. Charlie works in the most cheerful of dives, sleeps with the friendliest (and dishiest) of whores, is loved by the sweetest of waitresses (Marie Dubois, totally cool in her matching trench coat), lives with the cutest of kid brothers, and suffers the stupidest of older ones. Even the bad guys are droll.
Forty-eight years later, Shoot the Piano Player retains an abundance of exciting (and excited) filmmaking—the clever use of contrapuntal sound, the hilarious cutaway showing the drastic result of someone’s solemn oath, the still-fresh poetry of an extended, mortally wounded death slide down a snowy hill. The mood is in constant flux, and the garrulous characters surrounding taciturn Charlie provide plenty of unexpected digressions.
Shoot the Piano Player not only reconfigured the Hitchcock slapstick romantic thriller but also popularized a number of the innovations—arcane references, shock editing, narrative asides—tossed off by Jean-Luc Godard in the original nouvelle vague neo-realist noir fairy tale, Breathless (a movie for which Truffaut supplied the premise). Unlike that of his onetime pal, however, Truffaut’s form of self-reflection is ultimately a way of playing the audience. The difference between his movie and Breathless is the difference between talent and genius.