The 39 Steps (Directors Suite) (1935)

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Released 16-Feb-2011

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Thriller Audio Commentary-Feature length by Dr Wendy Haslem.
Featurette-On Location with Robert Powell.
Audio-Only Track-1937 Lux Radio Theatre with R. Montgomery and Ida Lupino.
Biographies-Crew-400 words on Hitchcock.
Filmographies-Crew-On Hitchcock
Booklet-Hitchcock and Others
Theatrical Trailer-Russian Ark
Theatrical Trailer-M. Hulot's Holiday
Theatrical Trailer-Latcho Drom
Theatrical Trailer-The River
Rating Rated G
Year Of Production 1935
Running Time 82:52 (Case: 86)
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Alfred Hitchcock
Studio
Distributor
Gaumont British Pict
Madman Entertainment
Starring Robert Donat
Madeleine Carroll
Lucie Mannheim
Godfrey Tearle
Peggy Ashcroft
John Laurie
Helen Haye
Frank Cellier
Wylie Watson
Gus McNaughton
Jerry Verno
Peggy Simpson
Case Amaray-Opaque
RPI $34.95 Music Hubert Bath
Jack Beaver
Charles Williams


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (224Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.37:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures Yes
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

†††† Madman have released Alfred Hitchcockís 1935 classic thriller / comedy The 39 Steps in an attractive package. Containing "a new transfer from the recently restored print", the image and sound are satisfactory, though far from perfect. To offset this there are some excellent inclusions in the bonus material which add considerably to the merit of the release. There is even a 1937 Lux Radio Theatre version starring Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino. However, the centrepiece of the release is the marvellous old film itself, and despite the occasional disappointment in vision and sound, it remains a tremendously entertaining milestone in popular cinema.

†††† Using the germ of John Buchanís novel The Thirty-Nine Steps - Hitchcock abbreviated the words to the numerals - the screenplay was created by Charles Bennett and Mrs Hitchcock, Alma Reville. Opening with a wonderfully mounted and executed sequence set in a London music hall, we are introduced to Mr Memory (Wylie Watson), a performing artist who will return in the final scene of the film. In the audience is Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), who, after gunshots disrupt the performance, ends up taking another theatregoer home with him. This is the aloof brunette Annabella (Lucie Mannheim), who propels Hannay into an adventure which has him fleeing to Scotland, both to escape the police and solve the riddle set by the mysterious Annabella. Just what are "the thirty-nine steps"? On a train, The Flying Scotsman, Hannay throws himself into the arms of the blonde and beautiful Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) in order to elude his pursuers. Off the train and on the run again, Hannay seeks temporary refuge with a dour rustic, John Laurie, and his repressed, younger wife (Peggy Ashcroft). Off again, and a coincidental reunion with Pamela finds the pair handcuffed together and scrambling across the Scottish countryside to elude the police and mysterious enemy agents. Ultimately the pair finds themselves back in London, this time at The Palladium, with Mr Memory once again on the bill. At the speed of an express train, the film breathlessly races to its climax and the mystery of "the thirty-nine steps" is solved.

†††† Hitchcock famously referred to a contrived plot device around which all else revolves as "the McGuffin". This plot device is ultimately unimportant to the audience's enjoyment of the entertainment the director is creating, and here "the McGuffin" is the mystery of "the thirty-nine steps". The pleasures of this film lie not in the resolution of the plot and solving the riddle, but in the cinematic ride we are taken on by Hitchcock and his collaborators. In this instance we have an attractive couple involved in a cocktail - a Hitchcocktail? (Sorry!) - of romance, comedy and adventure set against picturesque landscapes populated by entertaining eccentrics encountered along the way. This is pure Hitchcock entertainment, with very obvious similarities to North by Northwest, with our pleasure coming from the telling rather than the tale itself. The wit, themes, images and sheer delight at watching the battle of wits between two genuine stars are what make this film a great entertainment. The performances are perfect, with Robert Donatís (Goodbye Mr Chips) whimsical and a trifle seedy Hannay wonderfully contrasted with the delicate femininity of Madeleine Carroll (My Favourite Blonde). Of the supporting players, Peggy Ashcroft (A Passage to India) is a standout as the repressed Margaret who bestows a disguising overcoat and a farewell kiss on Hannay.

†††† Hitchcock's earlier English output may have become overshadowed by the immense popularity of the later Hollywood creations, but The 39 Steps can be favourably compared with the very best of the great director's work. It has all of the trademark ingredients. With a heady mixture of intrigue, suspense, comedy, sex, and two charismatic stars, a brilliant filmmaker transports us into an exhilarating and exciting world.Hitchcock could really put on a show.

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Transfer Quality

Video

†††† Although the slick for this release claims that it is an "all-new transfer from the recently restored print", this is not a pristine transfer of the almost eighty year old film. It is however a print that is generally clean and in quite pleasing condition as far as the image is concerned.

†††† Considering the age of the film, the transfer is generally quite sharp and clean. The film is presented at the ratio of 1.33:1, the original being 1.37:1.

†††† The image is rock solid, without any shutter movement. There is a pleasing grey scale, with no flaring of whites. Blacks are generally solid and deep, although there are instances of murkiness in some of the night scenes. Shadow detail is surprisingly good in the frequent darker scenes. There is minimal low level noise, and all MPEG artefacts are nicely controlled. Cue marks have been removed, and film artefacts are generally limited to a rare vertical scratch and the occasional flecking. There is one instance of a hair in the bottom right-hand corner of the frame (52:35), appearing just after the brilliant edit from the interior of the car to the exterior shot of the vehicle racing down the country road. Generally this is a fine looking transfer of the film with a consistently pleasing image.

†††† The English for the Hearing Impaired captions were sampled and found to be excellent for the dialogue, but providing little additional information.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

†††† There are two audio streams, the default English soundtrack and the commentary, both Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono encoded at 224 Kbps.

†††† The mono soundtrack is not in as good condition as the image. It sounds as though a lot of the treble has been removed, no doubt in an attempt to eliminate hiss and crackle. This has been achieved, but as a consequence there has been a loss in the quality of the dialogue. The first half hour sounds particularly flat, although the dialogue is all intelligible. At times the sound field is empty but for the isolated voice, with a couple of sequences which do not have dialogue seeming to belong to a silent film. After about thirty minutes things do improve, with sharpened dialogue and more ambience in the recording. Generally hiss, crackle, pop and dropouts are not a problem. The dialogue is all perfectly comprehensible and there were no sync problems. The eighty-year old mono music is thin by modern standards, but quite clean, clear and without distortion.

†††† In summary, the soundtrack conveys the basics of the film quite satisfactorily, but it would be nice to see a genuine audio restoration of this famous film.

†††† The commentary track is perfectly clear and comprehensible, with the film's soundtrack muted throughout.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

Main Menu

†††† The menu uses the original artwork as on the cover of the DVD with music from the film playing throughout.

Feature Length Commentary

†††† Prepared and delivered by Dr Wendy Haslem, Lecturer in Film at the University of Melbourne, this information crammed commentary does not let up for a second, the film itself muted throughout. My only adverse criticism is that Dr Haslem sounds so detached from what she is talking about. Only after about a full hour of non-stop commentary does she seem to warm to the subject. It is a pity that she could not have conveyed more enthusiasm along with the information. That aside, the commentary covers everything from the history of German cinema, Hitchcock's early years under that influence, particularly that of Murneau, his cameo appearances, underwear fetish and obsession with his leading ladies. There are brief insights into the stars and comments on Hitchcock's innovations and technical skill. This is a wonderfully informed and informative commentary, only faltering near the end with a rather odd digression on the impact of watching the film on a tram on her iPod or Ipad or whatever. She lost me there.

Featurette : On Location with Robert Powell (13:03)

†††† Presented at 1.33:1 this coloured vintage featurette purports to examine the locations for the three, to that date, versions of The 39 Steps, Hitchcock's, Kenneth Mooreís in 1959 and Robert Powellís in 1978. It is all very superficial and rushed but with some mild interest. The image and sound are passable but show their age.

Radio Adaptation : Lux Radio Theatre (57:25)

†††† Only audio, of course, coming from the golden age of radio. This was a 1937 entry in the immensely popular Lux Radio Theatre - the very origins of the term "soap opera" - Lux soap, you see. With excellent quality sound throughout, the host and narrator is none other than Cecil B. De Mille, reminding one of his God-like introduction to 1956's The Ten Commandments. After a very nice nod to the night's star Robert Montgomery (Night Must Fall) in which the actor's then current chore at MGM is given a plug - Cecil was Paramount, of course - a lengthy introduction is given to the young leading lady who, in 1937 according to IMDB, was merely nineteen years old film. I knew that Ida Lupino (High Sierra) came from an English theatrical family, mainly because her cousin Lupino Lane was the original star of Me and My Girl, West End and film, but De Mille gives an impressive summary of the young actress's ancestry, talents and accomplishments. The radio adaptation itself gives an entertaining account of the story, with emphasis, as you would expect, on the witty dialogue between the two leads. Supporting roles are played by Gene Lockhart (The Inspector General) and Isabel Jewell, immortalised as Emmy Slattery in GWTW.

Biography and Filmography

†††† An excellent four hundred word biography of Hitchcock is found on the cover reverse of the slick, along with a filmography listing sixty feature titles, beginning with the Hitchcock-uncredited Number Thirteen in 1921 and ending with Family Plot in 1976. Also worth mentioning is a beautiful black and white still of the two stars, which is on the back reverse of the slick.

Booklet : The 39 Steps : Hitchcock and Others by Brian McFarlane

†††† The author of this handsome little booklet is Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University. We are given a sixteen page booklet which contains a first-rate study of Hitchcock's film. McFarlane begins by assessing just how much of the final product is John Buchanís novel and how much is Hitchcock and his collaborators, Charles Bennett and Alma Reville, Mrs Hitchcock. The film is analysed under the headings :

†††† The essay continues with a brief coverage of the two other film versions, the TV adaptation and the recent stage production, in both London and New York, which had four actors playing all roles.

†††† This is a well-produced booklet, on quality paper, and includes a beautiful full-page black and white publicity shot of Robert Donat and the exquisite Madeleine Carroll.

Directors Suite Trailers

†††† Russian Ark (2:19) : The one-shot wonder, presented matted widescreen in a 4x3 transfer, Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1:40) : Jacques Tati's much loved gentle 1952 gem, presented matted widescreen in a 4x3 transfer. This is not actually a trailer, but an assemblage of a few isolated scenes, Latcho Drom (2:19) : Presented matted widescreen in a 4x3 transfer, The River (2:19) : Presented at the original ratio of 1.33:1 in a 4x3 transfer, Jean Renoir's acclaimed 1951 Indian colour romance looks pretty good.

Censorship

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R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

††† There have been numerous editions of The 39 Steps. Region 1 has the Criterion release, while there has been an adversely criticised Blu-ray made available in Region 2. To date there has been no release of a completely restored version.

Summary

†††† This is a genuine classic from Hitchcock's English years, a film that still wonderfully entertains after eighty years. It would be nice to see a complete restoration, but here we have a pretty good print and transfer, although the sound is at times flat and empty. Hitchcock's technique, his wit and his two stars still dazzle. There are excellent audio and literary extras.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Garry Armstrong (BioGarry)
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Review Equipment
DVDSONY BLU RAY BDP-S350, using HDMI output
DisplaySamsung LA55A950D1F : 55 inch LCD HD. Calibrated with THX Optimizer. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to DVD player. Calibrated with THX Optimizer.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-DS777
SpeakersVAF DC-X fronts; VAF DC-6 center; VAF DC-2 rears; LFE-07subwoofer (80W X 2)

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