Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The 39 Steps

One of the presents I bought my fiancee for Christmas was a DVD of Hitchcock films, at what appeared to be the bargain price of a fistful of Hong Kong dollars for seven films. Because our recent schedule has involved at least one of us being in a different country almost every weekend since December, we hadn't a chance to play the DVD until now. Since between us the only one of the seven we'd heard of was The 39 Steps, that's where we started.

I didn't think I'd compare a black-and-white film from the 1930s with The Wire, but that was how it turned out. Not because it goes on for a long time without much actually happening, but because it was really difficult to understand what people are saying. I'm not sure if that is a consequence of buying a too-cheap DVD special from HMV, or because accents have changed so much in the last seventy-something years, or just that it was a faithful reproduction of not-very-good sound reproduction from the Thirties.

Anyway, once we had the sound up full blast to make out the dialogue (real men don't use subtitles, and cheap DVDs don't supply them) I noticed a second oddity, and again a parallel with the Wire: an unconvincing North American accent. Ok, this time it was a moustachioed Canadian speaking with a cut-glass British accent, rather than a Bawlmore detective failing to get transatlantic, but the effect was just as odd. Why was everyone voiced so genteely? Was everyone posher back then? Or had I inadvertently purchased a knock-off disc which had been overdubbed in Kowloon by the triads, using a kidnapped octagenarian toff for all the male voices? Or perhaps sound was so bad in the Thirties, everyone had to speak like that for the audience to stand a chance.

Apart from these handicaps, and the occasional unexplained splashes of green light on the screen (again, I think a function of my economy DVD), the film holds up well after all these years. I had no idea about the plot, and it's better that way, as it's just a means for Hitchcock to send the hero tearing around the country, getting into ever-increasing trouble in trains, country houses, political meetings and cars.

It's very funny, occasionally gives you a good jolt, and also has some gratuitous sheep sound effects, unless that was a distress call from the imprisoned voice-over artist, hoping to bleat a message from his prison in Tsim Sha Tsui.

And then - it ends far too soon. The first 90 minutes of the film are intricately plotted, with the occasional flailing loose end or abuse of credulity, but as it reaches the denouement and you expect a final showdown, something dramatic - wham. It comes to an abrupt halt, as though Alfred had decided to himself "right, this is exactly the length my audience's bladders will tolerate, now I shall cease."

Perhaps all old films did this. Certainly too many films these days go on for too many hours, so it shouldn't be seen as a flaw. Perhaps I'm struck by it having recently watched Dr No, where again the whole thing comes to an end without a big climax (ok, a whole nuclear-reactor-cum-bauxite-mine is destroyed, but depicted in such a way that you're more "huh?" than "Wow!"). The past is indeed a foreign country, and they make films differently there.

As ever, I believe in the dual Reithian tenets of education and entertainment, so without giving away the plot too much, here's what The 39 Steps teaches us:

Canadians sound like Mr Cholmondely-Warner, and never say "aboot" or "eh"
A woman's hands will shrink overnight
Singly, Scottish men are vile and driven only by the pursuit of money, but in large groups are susceptible to appeals for the good of humanity
Scottish sheep are incredibly loud
For goodness' sake, keep the windows locked if you live in Portland Place


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