Before we jump into the meat and potatoes of this thing, let me tell you that I am a complete junkie for Criterion Films. I love everything that Janus Films does with Criterion to make a Blu-Ray/DVD have the greatest features and packaging around. The price point is a bit steep, but if you are a cinephile at all, I highly recommend you at least add a few of the classics to your library. That being said, I plan to review quite a few of the Criterion films, giving you insight on what you get and if it’s really worth the money.
If you’re feeling frisky after this is over, you can click on the picture above and shoot straight over to Amazon to pick up the film.
Let’s talk about MacGuffins.
A MacGuffin is a plot device that is used when the characters in a story are after a certain, unreachable item, and that item is what pushes the story along, even though the item is never actually revealed on screen until the very end of the story, if at all. The most memorable MacGuffins are the papers in Casablanca, the (sigh) “unobtanium” in Avatar, the case in Ronin, and of course,
The 39 Steps.
Just a note, Lucas once tried to claim that R2-D2 was a MacGuffin, to which many people laughed and just shook their head.
This is a device mostly used in thrillers as a way to continually pull our protagonist from one adventure to another so that the action doesn’t ever have to take a break.
Enter The 39 Steps.
One of the last of the British Hitchcock films, and possibly the greatest, The 39 Steps is a story about your everyday simpleton turned national hero all in the course of about three days. This story is one of Hitchcock’s first ventures into the “wrong man” story, an element he would return to time and time again. Our hero is Richard Hanny, played rather splendidly by Robert Donat, a silent film actor who most notably was the hero in the silent version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Hannay is bored with life and needing a rousing adventure he travels to the theatre to see a show. There he sees the magnificent “Mr. Memory” who is able to recall a tremendous amount of pointless information when asked. Hannay, a french Canadian who somehow is British, is in the middle of asking Memory a question when, BANG, a gun goes off and almighty Hell breaks loose sending the film into over drive for the next 80 minutes.
I don’t want to delve anymore into the story of The 39 Steps as I don’t want to give it away, suffice to say if you’re a fan of Noir, Thrillers, or the Spy genre, you should really consider picking up this film. It’s an absolute blast to watch and is also one of the funnier films in Hitchcock’s repertoire.
Now let’s talk about what you get with the Criterion version of the film.
*Note, there are in fact two versions of the film and the disc I own is the full one, not the “Art House Essential” version.
First off the packaging tells you all you need to know. A lone man on the run, a flying machine overhead (which Hitchcock would use so very infamously in North by Northwest), and a pursuer – all sat against an amazingly huge black and white sky. The picture gives off so many feelings of fear and panic, and one man taking on the world. This is such a brilliant image that I hadn’t even seen the film, but bought it on pure principal because of how epic it was.
The insert of the disc is an 11 page booklet, 7 of those being an essay written on the film by film critic David Cairns.
On the disc you get some pretty amazing features,
*The film has been restored in High Defintion
*A pretty wonderful audio commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane
*A documentary that focuses primarily on the early prewar years of Hitchcock
*A full televised interview with Hitchcock done in 1966
*A 1937 radio play version of The 39 Steps
*And truly one of the coolest features on earth, audio excerpts from the conversation Hitchcock had with french director
Francois Truffant in 1962.
You also get some visual essays and some production design drawings.
The Criterion Collection disc is well worth the money.
All in all, I can’t recommend the film enough. It’s shot perfectly, the music and acting are top notch, it’s got a ton of laughs and thrills, and it really reminds you of how amazing film can be.
Even if you don’t pick up the Criterion release, I still would try to find this film and give it a quick view.
You won’t be sorry.