Monday, June 7, 2010

Richard Hannay & Everybody: The 39 Steps

‘Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of John Buchan’s novel The 39 Steps has a structure that seems odder in execution than it sounds in description: Essentially, protagonist Robert Donat [playing Richard Hannay] winds up on the run from people who want to kill him, but he keeps running into beautiful women who fall for him. Sounds like a pretty standard actioner, but it’s so episodic in execution, and so focused on characterizing minor characters until they seem more significant than they are, that it feels more like he’s working his way through a series of abortive love stories than fleeing for his life. The action starts when he meets spy Lucie Mannheim at a stage show when someone seemingly tries to kill her; the two of them chat, hit it off, and seem destined for romance. Then she fails to live up to the “death-defying” part of the death-defying meet-cute: The assassins get to her, and she only barely manages to pass some key intel to Donat before dying. Now on the run, he has a similarly colorful encounter with Madeleine Carroll; fleeing assassins who catch up with him on a train, he bursts into her car and kisses her, pretending to be her lover in order to throw his pursuers off-track. Unlike most women faced with this hoary old cinematic excuse for instant passion, she rebels and rats him out, forcing him to jump off the train. Later still, he encounters weatherbeaten farmer and his younger, prettier wife Peggy Ashcroft, who prevails upon her husband to help Donat; so much electricity sparks between Ashcroft and Donat that it briefly seems like Mannheim was just an inciting incident and Carroll was a one-shot gag, and the romance will actually be between this rakish would-be spy and the woman he sweeps away from her life of drudgery. But no, it’s all another Hitchcockian fake-out, and before long, Donat is back with Carroll, handcuffed to her by people who want to kill them both. Three women, and four cute, gimmicky meet-ups, all in one movie: What could top that?’

from the A.V. Club,  “Love saves the day: 18 death-defying meet-cutes” 

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