The 39 Steps (1935) Review

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THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS!

Richard Hannay, a Canadian visitor to London gets caught in a web of espionage after he takes home Annabella Smith with  him after an incident in a Music Hall show featuring one Mr. Memory. When they arrive at his apartment she reveals that she’s an agent and that a foreign nation has gained information vital to the Britain’s air defense and she needs to get it before it is smuggled out of Britain. Later that night Annabella bursts into his room with a map of Scotland and dies with a knife on her back and that’s when all the action begins!

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Lucie Mannheim as Annabella Smith

The 39 Steps is based on a book of the same name by John Buchan, though many of the book’s fans have outed it as not resembling the book aside from the ‘man on the run’ plot and how Hannay is Scottish as opposed to Canadian. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, later known for Psycho, Rear Window, and Vertigo among others here we see him in his earliest form, honing his craft as a master of suspense and innovative camera techniques with the help of leading man Robert Donat and leading lady Madeleine Carroll both of whom he had specifically chosen for the lead roles since they had already achieved fame and success on the other side of the pond.

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Robert Donat as Richard Hannay

Robert Donat who plays Hannay is the dashing gentleman who gets thrown into a web of espionage, at this stage in his career Robert Donat was Britain’s answer to all the Hollywood leading men, his appeal to an audience was his rarity of being neither haughty nor common and I certainly agree. Madeleine Carroll who plays Pamela was also already a familiar face and at the peak of her career she was the highest paid actress in the world in 1938. Here she is immortalized as Hitchcock’s first icy blonde heroine she doesn’t have as much screen time as Donat but she equals him in this film. Hannay and Pamela have their differences and she certainly doesn’t buy into his story that he was framed for murder, for the amount of screen time Pamela had she was different from the damsel-in-distress type. Donat and Carroll may not be Bogie and Bacall, but boy were they a riot together!

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Madeleine Carroll as Pamela

During filming Hitchcock deliberately handcuffed his two stars on the set after the two met each other for the first time. Hitchcock said that he had ‘lost’ the key and Donat and Carroll were subjected to amusement for hours. Donat later wrote to family members that he and Carroll had nothing to do but talk of mutual friends, and films when Hitchcock saw this he took out the key from his pocket and said ‘Now that you two know each other, we can proceed.’ Many variations of this story exists but Hitchcock’s bizarre method certainly worked onscreen.

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“We’re a runaway couple.”

Supporting characters Hannay stumbles into are each given a personality while consistently keeping the thrills in the picture. They may not be relevant to the plot but it gives the movie a realistic atmosphere and the script by Charles Bennett is witty, filled with true human interaction despite the plot being a roller-coaster ride. An example of the quirky characters is the old lady who runs a Scottish inn with her husband, she being a romantic takes them in while they both masquerade as a runaway couple.

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Richard Hannay the prototype James Bond

Some viewers may be put-off by how Hannay is just some ordinary guy and we never get any background aside from him being a Canadian rancher visiting London for a few weeks, nor do we know why he was so adept at escaping the bad guys that he’s a prototype James Bond but much more concerned with saving his own skin first while King and Country comes second to that. I think this is why it appeals to people to this day, Hannay was just an ordinary person he could be me or you and get thrown into the type of situation he was in.

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Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat: The Hipster Hitchcock Couple

True that casual film fans or even classic film fans might not enjoy it as much as I did, even its two main stars are pretty much forgotten when they’re being pitted against the likes of other Hitchcock couples in James Stewart and Grace Kelly (Rear Window) and Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman (Notorious). Donat and Carroll both had short careers on film though she made more films than he did. She abandoned her career after her sister was killed in WWII and devoted herself to helping wounded servicemen and children displaced and maimed by the war, she lived until the age of 81 while his chronic asthma got in the way of him making more than 20 films, later he died of an undiagnosed brain tumor in 1958 when he was only 53 years old, today he is best remembered as the title role in Goodbye, Mr. Chips which won him the Oscar. Secret Agent was to be their next Hitchcock project together but studio boss Alexander Korda refused to loan Donat again and a young John Gielgud took over.

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Richard and Pamela at the London Palladium where everything goes down.

Overall, the film is a blast from the past Hitchcock and is a warm up of North by Northwest. It has a sassy Hitchcock couple that answers an earlier question; ‘out for adventure eh?’, it’s a spy story that doesn’t take itself seriously and the atmosphere is suspenseful and beautifully shot in glorious black and white. The supporting characters make this film memorable as well, the subtle humor inserted in is, shall I say…very British and how can we forget that this film was mentioned in The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger and is such a favorite of Phoebe Caulfield’s (Holden’s sister) that she’s seen it ten times and remembers it all by heart.

Highly recommended to those looking for adventure, romance, thrills and humor all in a Hitchcock film. You might not know what the man with the top joint of his little finger missing has to do with all this and you’ll miss Hitch’s little cameo!

5/5 Stars

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The Heiress (1949) Review

Helmed by director William Wyler, The Heiress was originally a play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz based on Henry James’ Washington Square.

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Set in 1850’s New York, It opens with our introduction to Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) and the people in the Sloper household.It is here we see her as the plain, shy woman who is undesirable to men. Her brilliant surgeon father Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) does a poor job of hiding his disappointment in his daughter, and constantly compares her to his late wife who had everything Catherine lacks, he enlists his recently widowed sister Lavinia to encourage Catherine to socialize with the young people in a party that night. That evening they go to a party where her cousin’s engagement is announced and there she meets a handsome young man named Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) a cousin of the groom who takes interest in her and who her father suspects is a fortune hunter.

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Stars: Montgomery Clift, Olivia de Havilland and Ralph Richardson

Olivia de Havilland (Gone With The Wind) as Catherine is brilliant, and heartbreaking as she is pitted against two men who take no interest in her well-being. She captures Catherine’s shyness, vulnerability and desperation to be loved by someone and she sees this in Morris Townsend. Montgomery Clift (From Here To Eternity, A Place In The Sun), who plays the young and handsome suitor, gives his most least interesting role a subtle ambiguity. Ralph Richardson (Q Planes, The Fallen Idol) as the emotionally abusive father brings poise, and authority as Dr. Sloper. And Miriam Hopkins (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) as Catherine’s aunt who just wants to see her get married gives much added support to an already brilliant cast, her character is entirely blinded by Townsend’s youth and beauty.

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‘We didn’t get along in the script, we sure as hell aren’t going to get along on the set!’

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‘This movie isn’t about you!’

It’s interesting to note that during filming its stars did not get along. Montgomery Clift had the script re-written, and had an acting coach on set. Olivia de Havilland said she felt Clift wasn’t working with her at all (he didn’t respect her acting abilities), instead he worked with his coach and it was problematic for William Wyler as well who was already a respected director. Other problems arose when de Havilland and Clift were both threatened by Ralph Richardson’s theatrical professionalism that in scenes with father and daughter Wyler had to frame them in a particular way because Richardson improvised in order to draw attention to himself, and his technique intimidated Clift. Olivia de Havilland later said that Miriam Hopkins acted like the film was all about her. Despite relations between the stars, the film is brilliant and haunting and a particular scene that culminates Catherine’s transformation earned de Havilland her second Oscar win in 1950 for Best Actress after her previous win in To Each His Own, Richardson was nominated for Best Supporting Actor as was William Wyler for Best Director but both lost it that year while Aaron Copland won Best Music Score (it certainly does have an amazing theme!)

Highly recommended for Classic Film fans especially those who love solid acting.

4.5/5 Stars

The Winslow Boy (1948) Review

The Winslow Boy is based on Terence Rattigan’s play inspired by real events concerning one George Archer-Shee who was expelled from the Naval Academy for stealing a postal order from a fellow cadet.

*This review may contain spoilers*

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In 1948 Rattigan’s play was adapted for the screen starring Robert Donat, Cedric Hardwicke, Margaret Leighton, Marie Lohr, Frank Lawton, and Neil North. The end result is a fine British film, slow-paced and accurate with it’s portrayal of pre-WWI (early feminism, and the Irish question), you find yourself rooting for the Winslows with Robert Donat as their champion in the form of Sir Robert Morton who is considered to be the best barrister in the country.

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Ronnie Winslow (Neil North) and older brother Dickie Winslow (Jack Watling) after Ronnie gets expelled from the Naval Academy.

It was a little matter that could only happened in England, all that fuss for a small boy who was expelled from the Naval Academy for stealing a five shilling postal order. It caused a nationwide arousal, the public begin to mock in whispers of the Winslow boy, his older brother Dickie is told he can no longer attend Oxford due to the family’s financial situation, Mr. Winslow’s health declines, they even plan on letting their maid Violet go and the final straw comes when the father of the man Catherine is engaged to threatens to use his influence to keep her and his son from getting married if they continue on with the case.

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Robert Donat, Margaret Leighton and Cedric Hardwicke in The Winslow Boy (1948)

Cedric Hardwicke as the father who will do anything to prove his son innocent dominates the first half of the film. He plays Mr. Winslow as a stern disciplinarian, yet he gives an understated performance with simply the use of his eyes. Margaret Leighton, who plays his daughter Catherine is a suffragette, but not the militant kind she gives balance in this male dominated film and an added charm to her performance as her father’s only ally as well as sacrificing her own desires.  Though he doesn’t appear until near the end of the film he gives a brilliant performance typical of the Donat in his films and here he plays a relentless, cold-hearted barrister who Catherine is prejudiced against. She thinks of him as ‘a supercilious sneering fish’.

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Court room scenes are added in this version of The Winslow Boy.

As great as Hardwicke and Leighton are, the film belongs to Donat himself as he plays a man who sacrifices his career for what is right, it is he who dominates the second half of the film. In addition to the fine acting from the ensemble cast, the music hall scenes are a joy to watch featuring Cyril Ritchard and Stanley Holloway.

This is the only version I’ve seen of The Winslow Boy, in other versions viewers have noted on the court room scenes being skipped but here we are able to see a few. My only complaint is that they didn’t show the postmistress being cross-examined which led to the final verdict.

This film was directed by A. A. Asquith, son of H.H. Asquith the prime minister of Britain at the time the film is set.